Moscow Ballet at the Time of
Mikhail Shchepkin


     During the 1830's and 1840's the relationships among drama, opera and ballet artists, university professors, students and writers in Moscow resembled those of old and tightly woven family links. While it lasted, this family-like mentality held sway in the old Russia capital.
     This artistic way of life had a similar effect on foreigner arriving and settling in Moscow. The way actor Mikhail Shchepkin's students lived and were taught in his house is similar to how French dance teacher Felicite Hullin-Sor likewise welcomed her young charges. In fact, she took the first of her pupils, Karpakova-Bogdanova, abroad, paying for her trip herself. When her great hope, Yekaterina Sankovskaya, grew up, Hullin-Sor went with her to Paris and London. In order to complete Sankovskaya's education, she showed the girl all the great dances of the time... Marie Taglioni, Fanny Elssler, and even Carlotta Grisi ( when Grisi was still quite young).
     At that time, Moscow ballet was greatly influenced by the drama theatre. In fact, the reforms of both drama and ballet occurred simultaneously essentially moving in the same direction. However, specific aesthetic links existed earlier between ballet and drama. The traditions of an idealized world, which marked the entire Russian theatre at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, were held even closer by the ballet. Indeed, choreography gravitated toward idealization. At the beginning of the 19th century, the drama theatre' lyricism was added to this tradition of idealism, which was imbued with sentimentalism. An essential requirement of the musical theatre, the «lyricalization» of the action (as musicologist Boris Asafiev affirms) prepared the Moscow stage for the assimilation of the romantic aesthetic in ballet. This allowed ballet to feel the possibility of renewal, since it existed only on the memories of a glorious past, on the triumphs of Charles Didelot's ballets restaged in Moscow, and on original works by Adam Glushkovsky. To renew itself, the ballet theatre needed new performing techniques and new aesthetics of production.
     As a rule, at various times, different components of scenic-action are the source of innovation. In Moscow in the 1830's and 1840's, the actor became the «Trojan horse» that brought innovation to the theatre. The charm of the theatre became, in fact, the «charm of the actor». This was due not only to the new understanding of scenic art, but also to a search for new acting techniques. Both drama and ballet were at that time littered with cliches, coarseness, and absurdities. Archetypes, which had outlived their usefulness had become parodies of themselves. These held sway on the stage and resulted in a primitive type of acting requiring a particular style. This demanded a schematized type of acting both in ballet and drama. Shchepkin began his theatre reforms from within the old everyday repertoire, breaking through the archetypes' poetical conventions.
     The most important aim of theatrical art became simplicity and naturalness as a basis for the actor's behavior, not necessarily the features of the portrayed character (as it was during the periods of Enlightenment and Sentimentalism). Shchepkin «took upon himself to make...lows of scenic art necessary, and not by chance». A new school of acting and a new technique were emerging. At first glance, Shchepkin's reforms had few links with ballet. He brought a way of life to the stage that was known and familiar to him, presenting what he and his contemporaries valued within his characters.
     Because of its unique, traditional vocabulary, ballet could not and should not have directly followed the reforms of the drama theatre. Ballet, as is well known, rejects common or everyday reality simply because of its specific peculiarities. Ballet gravitates towards abstract ideas and certain conventions. The ballet theatre had to follow its own path towards simplicity and naturalness. First, it had to change dancing styles. Whatever was deformed, coarse, and bombastic had to be pushed away from the ballet stage, but this could happen only if the ballet characters acquired a different, more rigorous lexicon, and if the artists themselves had an agile style of dancing. Shchepkin had created a new style for drama-theatre acting.
     Hullin-Sor, the French teacher, did this for Moscow ballet. She banished «ugly jumps and various affectations» from ballet, and imbued the performers with «noble grace» and softness. Further, she was responsible for «the absence of sharpness in passing from one movement to the next», gave a «strong coordination of each pas to the whole, and «a sense of proportion to each artistic pose». Later, this allowed her pupils to keep their naturalness and ease when they were confronted with new technical challenges.
     By the end of the 1820's the critics had noticed the first signs of a new performing style. The Moscow Telegraph commenting on the performances of Alexandra Voronina-Ivanova, praised the ballerina grandly comparing her with «the famous Gosselin», a renowned Western European dancer of the pre-romantic era. The Russian ballerina combined a new technical mastery with expressive acting. Not without reason was the famous critic Vissarion Belinsky, so delighted when he wrote that, the artist «luxuriated the stage with her liveliness and passion».
     Tatyana Karpakova continued the transformation of the dance style in Moscow. It is interesting to note, that like Shchepkin, she accomplished this by appearing in comic roles. Here, the dancers brought «fluency and neatness in finishing the most difficult pas...» However, this was only a mastering of new forms. The artist was unable to bring new content to the stage. The critique of the time demanded impassioned acting - not the old pantomime for which the former favorites of the public were famous, but a new type, dictated by the different aesthetic demands of the Moscow theatre. Sergei Aksakov wrote «admirable» in relation to the correlation of her gestures and emotions on stage, but complained that the actress still retained an aesthetic link to archetypes. Aksakov reproached Karpakova with «a constant coldness in her pantomime».
     During the 1830's, following the path of dramatic criticism, Moscow ballet criticism was beginning to demand from a ballet performance what it observed in the drama theatre of Mikhail Shchepkin - that is, a blending of a new dance technique with a new acting technique. Yekaterina Sankovskaya, Hullin-Sor's wonderful pupil, fulfilled these demands. Unexpectedly but logically, she embodied these principles in the new lyrical-romantic ballet repertoire which, at first glance, was not akin to Shchepkin's realism.
     Both Shchepkin's reform and the radical changes brought about by Sankovskaya in her debut in the ballet La Sylphide were given impulse basically by one and the same «yeast». Shchepkin's formulation proclaimed that «art is elevated in so far as it is close to nature», and had grown out of the aesthetics of the Age of Enlightenment. In the 1830's and 1840's, an understanding of the nature as the basis for life developed among Moscow's theatre activists. Filippo Taglioni's ballet La Sylphide became the first lyrical-romantic work in the dance world. Without any doubt, its structure, its dance technique and style were totally romantic. However, through its concepts La Sylphide was still linked to the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment - that is, to the understanding of nature as mysterious and unreachable and, at the same time, as something alive and natural. In La Sylphide nature was yet to be imbued with a soul; or overburdened with the mystical romantic echoes which appeared later with Giselle. The Sylphide was wonderful in its simplicity.
     The naturalness of Shchepkin's heroes on the drama stage were refracted in the unaffected heroines of Sankovskaya. She created her fame as both a dancer and actress. The essence of Moscow theatre reforms in the 1830's and 1840's was characterized because of this breaking through of theatrical clishes.
     Having begun to dispense with theatrical archetypes, Shchepkin changed the relationship to the spoken word within the play's scenic action. Like Shchepkin, Sankovskaya also gave a new accent she mastered in Paris. The idea that it was necessary to imbue a role with one preponderant thought or meaning was taking hold in drama and in ballet. This is close to Konstantin Stanislavsky's teachings about finding the key to a role, which appeared many years later. From adherence to an idea, Shchepkin came to an understanding of a «defining lyricism», implying the necessity of the actor's independent treatment of a role. When one carefully reads critical commentaries about Sankovskaya's appearances in the role of Sylphide, one is struck by how colored they are by the general aesthetic taste and morals of the time.
     Tradition is not transmitted directly in art. As a rule, direct imitation leads only to a second rate copy. Sankovskaya could not and should not have copied Shchepkin. However, she was his pupil- it is very important to remember that the first Moscow Sylphide studied with the great actor. On her report card, Shchepkin wrote «talented but capricious.» No less important, is that critics writing about Sankovskaya during her St. Petersburg tour in 1848, referred to Shchepkin in their articles. What was «Shchepkin - like» in the art of Sankovskaya grew from within her, and appeared from common aesthetics and common social motives.
     The paths of actors of the 1830's and 1840's intersected in different theatrical genres. This united them, if differently than previously, with an understanding of the tasks and aims of the theatre, and the direction of their aesthetic reforms. The school performances of actor Pavel Mochalov prompted comments about the spontaneity of his talent and the bright, expressive and local coloring of his scenic movements. On stage Mochalov was deliberately simple, and purposely lowered the generic traits of the employ of his heroes. In practice, this «plebian actor» - enhancing melodrama to the level of tragedy - brought the same new style based on naturalness and simplicity to the stage.
     However, they were embodied in tones different from those of Shchepkin. Shchepkin enhanced and diffused the comic actor's employ. Mochalov reduced the employ of the tragic hero. In his acting the ideal was asserted «from its opposite» beginning with the genre of melodrama, which was fashionable and popular at that time. «Audiences attending melodramas and romantic dramas were attracted and overwhelmed by the special theatrical world, in which their heroes suffered, loved and died».
     In addition to naturalness, simplicity and «democratization» of his heroes, Mochalov brought to the stage a bright descriptive quality, vivid scenic illustration, naked pathos and strong contrasting colors. When one reads description of Mochalov's acting, one almost sees the actor. In reference to the actor's interpretation of the role of Hamlet, one reads phrases such as, «a lightening-like» gaze, and «arms impetuously lifted up»,which like a «blade, flashed in the air...» and «lion-like jumps» appear. Then, in references to Othello, one reads, «moments of sudden insanity follow moments of rest». References to contrasting sounds are also made: from growls to silence, to tender tones, and then, a simple speech in normal speaking voice.
     Romantic ballet was nourished by the traditions of melodrama and romantic drama. Filippo Taglioni was interested in innovations in female dance which he then incarnated in his daughter's art. A more democratized «demoted» hero (in comparison with the aristocratic classical danseur noble) was introduced into his lyrical-romantic productions from melodramas and romantic drama. James in La Sylphide, and many others roles of Filippo Taglioni's ballets, were not aristocrats by origin. James, for example, is a village boy; the hero of La Fille du Danube is a stable boy.
     If Sankovskaya was close to Shchepkin through her own world view, one can not find a male romantic dancer similar to Mochalov in a Moscow ballet company from 1831 to 1835. The ballerina's first partner, Joseph Richard, belonged to a vanishing era. At the Moscow Dance Academy, he was not able to train a male dancer equal to Hullin-Sor's pupil. Nor could Hullin-Sor herself accomplish this. The absence of strong male dancers led Moscow to search for a hero elsewhere. One year after premiere of La Sylphide, three new male names appeared simultaneously on the posters of the Bolshoi Petrovsky Theatre: Alphonse Carre, Gustavo Carey and Theodore Guerinot.
     Alphonse Carre was a character dancer. He appeared in solo pieces or in profoundly commonplace walk-on parts. Gustavo Carey had a good jump and could turn superbly. But, he was no longer young. After dancing the airy role of Zephire and appearing with Sankovskaya in the famous scene of the monks from the opera Robert le Diable, he left the Bolshoi Petrovsky Theatre.
     Theodore Guerinot brought innovations in male dancing to the Moscow stage. His debut took place in 1838, when he danced a saltarella with Alexandra Voronina-Ivanova. Guerinot thus presented a new performing style in male dancing with his emotional flights and falls, instilled with deeply-felt improvisations.
     It is very tempting to draw a direct parallel between the dance and the drama theatres; that is, looking at Guerinot as a «dancing Mochalov». But, as is obvious from the eye-witness accounts of his contemporaries, on the stage Guerinot could not reach the heights achieved by the talented drama actor. Evidently Guerinot incarnated the new type of «democratized» hero that had been derived from drama and melodrama.
     After the premiere of La Fille du Danube, Guerinot was confirmed as choreographer at Petrovsky Theatre. During his seven-year stay in Moscow, he staged twelve ballets, not counting dances for operas and divertissements. These were Taglioni-like ballets, old productions with good male roles in them. Soon, however, the names of Jules Perrot and Fanny Elssler appeared on the Moscow ballet horizon. A new era was about to begin.
by Natalia Chernova, Ph.D.
This article first appeared in «Sovietsky Balet», issue No.4, 1989

home | balet magazin | top |