Ballet in the Russian Provinces
at the Beginning of the 19th Century

 

     The history of development of ballet in provincial Russia has not been researched until now; it is almost empty page in the theatre history books. We lack even the most elementary information. We don't know where and when the existence of the Russian provincial ballet theatre began, who its first pioneers were, or the extent of its achievements. While facts about the history of the serf ballet theatre have been adequately compiled, much pertaining to the open, public ballet of the provinces is yet to be discovered.
     Our aim here is to be contented with a first and still rather incomplete attempt at uncovering the efforts of the most important ballet groups working in the Russian provinces at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries.
     The Russian land-owning aristocracy finally emerged as a class at the start of the 19th century. The beginning of this new century was celebrated with a series of governmental reforms. These reforms did not prompt definitive or radical changes but, nevertheless, greatly transformed the way of life in provincial towns. The increase in the chain of provincial institutions, the reforms in the system of public education, and the establishment of universities in Kazan and Kharkov contributed to the emergence of an educated class in the cities. The growth of internal external trade elevated the importance of the Russian merchants, who had the right to buy land and build factories. The aristocracy, on the other hand, became the principal supplier of agricultural products abroad.
     These trends resulted in the need for interaction between the two groups. In the 18th century, the landed aristocracy appeared in towns only for special occasions: for election of the marshal of nobility, for traditional fairs, for the parties given by an incoming governor, or for the fortuitous passing-by of a monarch. After a short period of festivities, the city once again sat empty as the aristocracy returned to their estates. However, new developments at the turn-of-the-century convinced the aristocracy of the need to be permanently stationed in town. This was especially true during the winter, when it was necessary to sell all that had been gathered in the summer harvest by peasant serfs. Residence in town resulted in a demand for amusements, as city-living eventually became a fact o life for the landowners. It was not long before modest family evenings, with dancing to the accompaniment of a piano, ceased to satisfy. The group began to demand more elaborate gatherings, congenial halls, and other sorts of public entertainment.
     Along with the aristocrats and middle class intellectuals, merchants were also drawn to these events. In 1804, the journal Uraniya from Kaluga informed its readers that the local citizens «engaged in the instruction of the youth, trying to cultivate them in science and deportment, and taking them to aristocratic gatherings. It is extraordinary to see the young merchants at the balls, at the theatre, at the horse races and other events.» Soon, one of the indispensable requirements for amusement in the provinces became the theatre. Each large provincial capital considered the establishment of one a necessity.
     Naturally, considering the lack of theatrical schools (with the exception of the Imperial Academies), the demand for artists brought forth many untrained and even untalented amateurs. Because it was undemanding, the provincial public stimulated the appearance of dilettantes. The spectators urgently needed to train their entertainers and refine their tastes.
     What were they like, these provincial troupes comprised of theatrical pioneers, out in the wilderness? The same actors took part in all of the drama, opera and ballets. The scarcity of trained performers required that the actors demonstrate complete versatility, gradually serving to enhance their qualifications and render them multi-talented. The insufficient number of actors was further compounded by the small number of spectators. At that time, the largest provincial capitals hardly had more then 10,000 inhabitants. A very insignificant percentage of them attended the theatre. Thus, the theatrical entrepreneur constantly needed to renew the repertoire of his theatre. Otherwise, his ruin was inevitable. To keep separate theatrical troupes for opera, ballet and drama was beyond his means.
     These condition explain the necessity of utilizing versatile actors. Often, the entrepreneurs themselves were performers. Their preferences and tastes were certainly reflected in the composition of the company. Some troupes were famous because of their dramatic productions, while others excelled in opera. Still others acquired renown with their ballet performances. As a component of theatrical presentations, ballet appeared in the provinces very early - still in the 18th century.
     The serf-theatre, developed during the reign of Catherine II, interfered with the initiative of the creation of commercial theatrical enterprise. It must be remembered that even in Moscow, the private entrepreneur Maddox suffered losses at that time, caused by the competition from Sheremetyev's serf theatre. If that was so, the problems were multiplied in the provinces, where the material prosperity of the public was considerably lower then in Moscow. Under these circumstances, the development of the public theatres was difficult. Only at the beginning of the 19th century - when the serf theatre began to disappear and simultaneously the resources of the city dwellers began to increase - was a climate favorable to the establishment of commercial theatres cultivated in the provincial capitals.
     One such theatre, in particular, appeared gradually during the reign of Alexander I (1801 - 1824). The Nizhny-Novgorod landowner N.G. Shakhovskoy ultimately became the pioneer of public theatres. (His enterprises alone demanded a separate investigation). Following the establishment of the Nizhny-Novgorod theatre, another appeared on the other side of Russia, in Odessa. There, the entrepreneur Fortunatov sponsored a theatrical season in 1810.
     The next year, the dramatic-opera company of Prince Alexander Shakhovskoy and the ballet directed by Fiyalkovsky performed in place of Fortunatov's company. Their first performance was given on January 1, 1811. In addition to the Prince's company, a separate number of tantzorki (dancing actresses) worked in the theatre evidently, they were not particularly skilled in their art, for Richelieu ordered ballet teacher Emboulet to be sent to them. These dancers were serf girls who had been entrusted into the care of the director of the theatre by their owners.
     In 1812 the Odessa Theatre was put under the leadership of the foreigners Montoveni and Zamboni. Subsequently, the company's repertoire included Italian Opera in addition to plays in the Russian language and ballets. Ballet performances were clearly popular in Odessa: when the Grand Duke (and future Emperor) Nikolai I visited Odessa in June 1816, he was entertained not only with dramatic work, but also with ballet. Apparently, a theatrical school existed here, attached to the theatre. The magazine Ukrainsky Vestnik (Ukranian Messenger) reveals this in its report the following year: «There is a theatre in Odessa... There is also a dance group. In place of Vestris and Duport, Odessa must be contented with Monsieur Volange...» At the end of that year, when the Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich attended the Theatre, the ballet Orpheus was presented - further proof that dance performances were gaining importance among Russian audiences.

     This information about the Odessa enterprise is interesting because here, for the first time, we discover a ballet ensemble in the provinces capable of presenting independent performances and capable of training its own dancers. Of course, the Odessa Theatre was, for this period, an exception in this respect.
     The War of 1812 provided a significant impetus to the development of ballet in provinces. Moscow artists, hoping to escape the enemy invasion, scattered throughout the provinces. Involuntarily, they began to propagate their art. In search of earnings, the actors assumed vital roles in the theatrical projects of the provincial aristocracy. Excelling above non-professionals because of their more advanced skills, they raised the standards of the performances and gradually refined the taste of the public. The inhabitants of Moscow and St. Petersburg, being evacuated at the same time as the artists, strongly encouraged and supported variety of theatrical events in the towns to which they fled.
     After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the number of provincial theatrical companies began to multiply quickly. The landowners, owners of serf theatres, largely contributed to this growth. Searching for solutions to a worsening economic situation, they began selling their companies to entrepreneurs. They rented out their serf actors to city theatres. Many also converted their properties into semi-commercial enterprises.
     I.F. Stein began his enterprises in the province in 1814. Count Sergei M. Kamensky followed within one year. At the same time, an interest in theatre and particularly in dance grew in the provinces. By the 1820's, the provincial public had become so knowledgeable that it could not only understand dramatic art, but also could formulate its own opinions. The audience was especially interesting in dancing because it was familiar with this art through ballroom dancing.
     With each passing year, dance penetrated deeper and deeper into Russian provinces. Soon it became essential for the audiences. In 1833 Moskovskiye Vedomosti (The Moscow Bulletin) reported:
     «During the present winter a company of actors arrived at the city of Vladimir. This one had been organized in its own provincial capital, thanks to the care and diligent work of the Melenki landowner Mr. Nazarov...This troupe presents drama, comedy, opera, vaudeville and ballet...to the complete satisfaction of the public...»
     Nazarov's undertaking is worthy of recounting if only because the gradual transition from a serf-theatre to a commercial venture is here clearly demonstrated.
     Rear-guard staff captain Nikolai Nikitovich Nazvanov was born in 1784 At the age of 16 he entered the Vladimir garrison regiment. In 1804 he transferred to the Izmailovsky Life-guards, with whom he participated in the battles of Austerlitz and Friedland. At the beginning of 1812 he was decommissioned. The same year, at the start of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, he entered the Vladimir City Militia. He left the service, once and for all, on June 1,1814. He then installed himself in his ancestral estate Priklon, two «versty» (one versta is 1.6 km.) from the district town of Melenki in the province of Vladimir.
     Soon, Nazvanov acquired a serf theatre and presented his production to the aristocracy in surrounding areas. From 1817 to 1834 he occupied the post of District Marshal of the Nobility, and later became «Honorable Judge». Both of these positions demanded wide representation. However, at the beginning of the 1820's, the maintenance of the theatre grew beyond his means and all of his property was pawned. In October 1832, the head of Nazarov's theatrical office, his house serf Alexei Labutin, appealed to the Vladimir Governor with the request to present theatrical production in Vladimir. No theatre existed there at the time and, in fact, theatrical amusements were rare. The Governor not only granted Labutin request willingly, but even ordered his people «to give the company all possible help, in order that, with the assistance of the local leadership, it could come, in the near future, to Vladimir».Thus, the commercial venture was supported.
     In 1835, the Horvat Ballet Company began to give public performances in Kharkov, Poltava, Kursk and Romny. By 1840, public dramatic performances began to predominate where semi-commercial serf theatres had appeared before. None of this productions omitted dance. Dance divertissements, even at a very modest level, were perforce included in the repertoire.
     The most important provincial centers (Kazan, for example) counted by this time not only a full roster of dancers, but also choreographers. In 1840, Levashov occupied that post in Kazan. Previously Levashov had worked as choreographer in the theatre at Nizhni-Novgorod. The prima ballerina of the Kazan ballet was Polyakova - the Kazan's Taglioni, as she was called. In addition, four other dancers worked with the company: Tzibulina, Abalyaeva, Kulikova and Solovieva. The Kazan Ballet continued to exist in 1847, but its composition changed considerably, becoming larger and better. However, it is unknown if by 1850 Levashov still directed the troupe.
     Levashov is the first graduate of the Moscow Ballet Academy who worked in the provinces. Soon, however, the rosters of the provincial companies listed many names of Moscovites. Demand was followed by supply. Moscow artists left for the provinces, often staying there permanently.
     By the end of the 1830's a series of important theatrical enterprises functioned in the provinces. Many of these included dancing ensembles which presented entire ballet productions. Moreover, at this time was not a single public provincial theatre which did not encourage dance, either through separate national dances or in ballet pieces. By the end of the first quarter of the 19th century, the Russian provincial public had already become acquainted with ballet and had begun to love this art form.
     The dancers from the Imperial Theatres of Moscow and St. Petersburg played no small role in this development. However, principal credit belongs to the few ballet enterprises which steadfastly cultivated ballet in the provinces, almost always at the cost of material gain for their owners. Among the self-sacrificing popularizes of the ballet in the first half of the 19th century, a few deserve special recognition: Prince N.G. Shakhovskoy, I.F. Stein, Count Sergei Kamensky, Maurice Pion and I.O. Horvat. The last ballet entrepreneurs in the provinces were Maurice Pion and I. Schwan. All of these individuals, serving with a love for their art, can be called true pioneers in disseminating ballet into Russian provinces. They merit a special place in the history of the Russian ballet.
 
By Yuri A. Bakhrushin
This article first appeared in «Sovietsky Balet», issue No.1, 1982

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