Monday, February 15, 2021

On Russian Ballet

Anna Pavlova

 From Orthodox Christianity:

Ballet is a complex and ambiguous phenomenon. Meanwhile, dance in and of itself, is more neutral than sinful. It all depends on what one or another production carries, what the choreographer conceives, what the dancer puts into it, even down to the costumes, music and scenery he or she dances in.

His Holiness Patriarch Kirill spoke about this at one of his meetings with the public:

“All that does not provoke lust, that does not destroy the human personality, but, on the contrary, elevates it and works to harmonize the world and man—all of this is included in God’s plan for the salvation of sinful and fallen man… And in this sense, both opera and ballet—I mean classical ballet—deserve attention.”

It is known that the holy Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna loved to go to the theater. The Emperor liked opera more than ballet, but there is quite a lot of information in his diaries about him visiting ballet performances. The Emperor appreciated Tchaikovsky’s music, spoke highly of the ballets, Sleeping Beauty and the Little Humpbacked Horse. In 1913, St. Nicholas II and his daughters watched the ballet, Pharaoh’s Daughter, in which Anna Pavlova (1881–1931) “danced wonderfully.”

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh wrote in his works:

“Dance is perfect, complete, contemplative silence, and this experience of communion with God in the depths of stillness is expressed in movement, in full harmony, in perfect beauty.”

Dance as an experience of communion with God… It sounds rather bold. Is it really possible in any way?

The history of Russian ballet began in the mid-eighteenth century. In as early as 1806, the house church dedicated to the Holy Trinity at the Imperial Drama School (now the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet) opened. While he approved of the idea, Emperor Alexander I said: “Dancing is dancing; but one’s faith in God should not be shaken by it.”

“The religious foundation laid in the school remained with all the ballet dancers forever,” Victor d’Andre, Anna Pavlova’s husband, wrote in his book. “Many years after leaving school, the dancers—and many even after their service—continued to attend the theater church.”

Anna Pavlova, who often went to the theater church, together with the dancers of her company made a carpet for the church services as a gift. “Ballet is not about technique—it is about the soul,” the great Russian ballerina used to say. Having no children of her own, Pavlova opened an orphanage for Russian orphans in Paris.

The choreographer Michel Fokine (1880–1942), who was also good at painting, presented the school with an icon, “Christ the Savior, Not-Made-by-Hands”, he had painted himself. It was blessed and hung in the holy corner of the students’ dormitory.

The Russian-born American choreographer of Georgian origin, George Balanchine (1904–1983), as a child helped in the altar of the Drama School church. His relative wrote that “he was a very religious person. During his stays in Georgia he would always visit our churches.” This is what he would say about his faith:

“The words of the Gospel are rooted in all of us… Faith is not verified. …You cannot jump into the faith as you jump into a swimming pool. You need to enter it little by little as you would enter an ocean.”

The Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtseva (1895–1991) was a very religious person as well. Lonely in emigration, living out her days in a mental institution, she would often attend church services—only in the Orthodox Church did her melancholy abate. She loved Pascha very much. Spessivtseva miraculously overcame her illness and passed away at the age of ninety-six, reconciled with God and in her right mind.

This continuity was not interrupted even in the Soviet era. Igor Moiseyev (1906–2007), the founder of the State Academic Folk Dance Ensemble, recalled that he had been pressured to join the communist party as many as eighteen times. But he always refused for reasons of principle.

“Why don’t you want to join the Party?”

“Because I believe in God and don’t want to be tongue-lashed by you at your meetings.”

“We learned ballet… in church,” the soviet ballerina Alla Osipenko (b. 1932) recalls her studies during the Second World War. Baptized in 1937, she does not conceal her faith and says:

“God gave me talent, God gave me a family, and God gave me my wonderful [dance] partners.”

Aggripina Vaganova (1879–1951), who devised classical ballet technique and training system, spoke about modesty and did not recommend having an attitude higher than ninety degrees (in simple terms: “Do not raise your legs above your head”).

“Posture leads to a manner—very strict, without excess. The purity of a naked body requires this. A person turns into a living sculpture,” Nadezhda Bazarova (1904–1993), a pupil of Vaganova, wrote in her Alphabet of Classical Dance.

She was echoed by a critic who noted “a special, captivating modesty of gesture” in the legendary Galina Ulanova (1910–1998). Her whole image was “imbued with spiritual nobility and high moral purity.”

An elderly bishop who had seen Ulanova on stage as a young man told me that her entire dance was… spiritual. When I asked him, “Vladyka, do you think she believed in God?” he replied, “I think she did.”

“Do you believe in God?” Galina Sergeevna was once asked after perestroika. She answered: “God lives in me.” When she was a girl, her mother, also a ballerina, would take little Galina to the house church at the ballet school. Her nanny was also religious.

Ulanova’s last dance, after which the fifty-year-old ballerina left the stage, provoked feelings close to awe in Alexander Vertinsky1:

“I have never seen anything of this kind in my life! O Lord, what peaks and heights creativity can attain! It must be the Spirit of God!… How can one retain, preserve this miracle on earth? How can one pass on this gospel to posterity for future centuries, so that others can learn this supreme, divine art from her?” (Read more.)

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