Pushkin's Muse

     Istomina, born in 1799, was sent to the Ballet Academy at the age of six. In reality, she was given over to its care. The identity of her parents and family are unknown; no names are mentioned in official documents or memoirs of the time. The child was brought to the ballet school by an outsider, a flutist in an Army orchestra. Understandably, her first teacher, Yekaterina Sazonova, and later Charles Didelot, became not only tutors and instructors but also her dearest and closest guardians.
     Istomina and Didelot... these names are inseparable. She was not only the pupil of this famous balletmaster , but also his favorite dancer and his pride. Their collaboration occurred at the time Didelot was reforming Russian ballet with his innovative works. He was growing attached to the Russian theatre, almost considering Russia his second homeland. Didelot taught Istomina the most progressive techniques and artistic methods. Her rare gifts, artistic talent, and brilliant technique helped her to express herself perfectly in works of greatly varied themes and styles.
     Istomina's name is encountered not only in memoirs of the time, but also in the diaries of Lyceum students and boarding school pupils. In addition, she is mentioned in the writing of the Decembrists. She is always depicted as charming, enchanting, incomparable. Pushkin described her dancing in Acis and Galathee, an anacreontic (mythology-based) story that Didelot then used as the plot for a ballet.
     What did she look like? The Chronicle of the Russian Theatre provides an answer, as translated by Mary Grace Swift in her book about Didelot, A Loftier Flight:
     «She was of medium build, brunette, with beautiful appearance and was very well-shaped. She had black, fiery eyes veiled by long eye-lashes which gave a very special character to her physiognomy. She had great strength in her feet, aplomb on the stage, and together with that, grace, lightness and speed in movements; her pirouettes and her elevation were astounding... For a long time, Istomina had no equal in ballet».
     So was Russia's first «pantomimic» dancer described when she finished her schooling in 1816.
     The best years of Istomina's career coincided with the period in which the ballet theatre adopted its romantic themes and images. In those years, a new dance technique was created along with new stage methods. The outward appearance of dancers was totally changed. Avdotia Istomina was one of the dancers who enabled the emergence of the new, accomplished, romantic style in dance. When Didelot fully staged the Paris version of the ballet Zephire et Flore in St. Petersburg, Istomina danced the lead role. Repeating the airy and light dance of Flora, she also, at some point, stood still, «freezing» on the tip of her toe. Without doubt, this vision inspired Pushkin's verse «one foot barely touches the ground, the other slowly circles...»
     Later, the great 19th century critic Vissarion Belinsky confirmed the scope of her romantic gift: «Istomina was, in her time, a dancer whose beauty, grace and art put her on a par with Taglioni, Fanny Elssler and Carlotta Grisi...»
     Istomina began to appear on stage while still in school. She made her debut in the ballet Acis and Galathee. She also performed several roles in Zephire et Flore. Istomina loved anacreontic ballets, keeping them in her repertoire for a long time. Her last performance as Galathee was in 1828, for which she received an eloquent review:
     «Madame Istomina, dancing the role of Galathee, was lovely... Alias, she has lost her lightness, but has retained her grace. Madame Istomina can serve as example to other dancers who consider that dancing is done only with the legs... The talent of Madam Istomina has survived the losses that time inexorably bring about...»

     Looking again at the beginning of Istomina's career, numerous roles are discovered. Between the airy Flora and Galathee, there appeared shy, mischievous Lisa in La Fille mal Gardee, in whom soft human lyricism and joie de vivre were combined. Next was Susanne (in the ballet Don Carlos and Rosalba), a frisky, clever girl-the personification of mischief and unending gaiety.
     Istomina also danced heroic roles like Aricie in Phaedra and Ariadne in Theseus and Ariadna. In these, she astonished the audience with the rare elegance of her dancing, and with the truth and depth of her feelings.
     In addition to her enormous repertoire, Istomina invariably took part in ballet divertissements, performing different national dances and demonstrating an unusual dramatic gift. Appearing successfully in comic plays created especially for her, she amazed audiences with her inventive, quick-witted dialogue and her talent for impersonation. The press gave highly complimentary reports about those appearances in which she had to speak.
     However, Avdotia Istomina reached her peak in the ballets based on Pushkin's works. The ballet entitled The Prisoner of the Caucasus or the Shade of the Bride, presented in St. Petersburg's Bolshoi Theatre, will forever be linked with the names of Pushkin, Istomina and Didelot. As always, Istomina was wonderful. The light, powder-blue Chercassian costume accentuated her slender figure and gave the movements an oriental flair. Istomina performed the role of the Chercassian girl impeccably with the Pushkin character in the scene in which she gave freedom to her beloved and to her rival.
     Istomina was the perfect interpreter of the role of Liudmila in the ballet Ruslan and Liudmila, or the Evil Genius Chernomor. To the public, she represented a genuine Russian beauty. Royally ravishing in the wedding feast, she reminded the audience of a fairy-tale princess. She was completely convincing in the scenes where the princess expresses courage, pride, unselfish loyalty, love and intrepidness before the dwarf Chernomor, and other sorcerers. Istomina's interpretation was imbued with all of the characteristics of Pushkin's Liudmila.
     None of Didelot s other female dancers appeared on stage as often as Istomina, nor danced as many roles as she did. However, in 1829 Didelot was forced to retire due to a conflict with the theatre administration. His departure coincided with the period in which Istomina was expected to appear in character roles rather than in leads because of her age. Earlier, this same transition was painless for the famous dancer Yevgenia Kolosova, who had the wise Didelot to help her. Unfortunately, Istomina was left alone during this difficult period of her life. The untalented choreographers Blache and Titus could not assist her. Her roles were slowly taken away from her, though she performed them as well as before; her decline came prematurely at the hands of the all-powerful Directorate. These Directors engaged and promoted foreign dancers , always less and less gifted. Russian dancers began to be considered unnecessary in their own theatres.
     With the passage of years, Istomina's young heroine characters were changed for those of widowed queens, pale, silent and sacrificing mothers, and wise rulers. Her beloved white and powder-blue costumes made of diaphanous materials were substituted with crimson and the simple dark dresses of deposed empresses. However, even in these new roles, Istomina remained a great actress. She was able to the audience the underlying psychological inspiration of her characters.
During her twentieth year of service in the theatre, Istomina's salary was twice lowered by order of the Directorate. Despite this indignity on top of a diminished repertoire, she continued to dance. One remaining role was Sumbeka, in the ballet Sumbeka or the Subjugation of the Kingdom of Kazan, which Didelot had not finished but Blache based it on a Didelot story line. During her last three seasons, she was able to perform once each season in the ballets: Zoraida, Telemaque sur I'Isle de Calipso, and Le Deserteur. Also during these years she often performed Russian and Polish dances in ballet divertissements.
     Istomina was not given a farewell performance. Her last appearance took place on January 30, 1836, but it was not even in ballet. She performed a Russian dance with Sosnitsky and Ekunin. In planning her retirement, Istomina asked the Directorate to allow her to rest from a sprain that was causing her «unendurable pain». The doctor had confirmed the condition, caused by an on-stage accident. Nikolai I himself signed the resolution «releasing her from all of her duties and all her work from then on...»
     Eliminated from the roster of dancers employed by the Imperial Theatres, Istomina - sung by Pushkin - remained forever linked to the history of the Russian theatre. Her romantic figure continues to personify the Russian Terpsichore. The special qualities of her talent - naturalness, truth, frankness, emotional honesty, irresistible human sincerity, her inspiring lines and style - became distinctive characteristics of the Russian dance.

by Nikolai Elyash, Ph.D
This article first appeared in «Sovietsky Balet», issue No.2, 1984

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