The Bolshoi Theater's Influence on American Ballet

The Bolshoi Theater's Influence on American Ballet

Ballet in the Unites States is really an outgrowth of the St Petersburg's Imperial Ballet, and The Bolshoi Ballet. (Bolshoi means Grand). Many members of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes were trained at the St. Petersburg's Imperial Russia Ballet, during World War II, many of the Diaghilev's dancers made there home in the United States, and began teaching in the 1940's and the 1950's.

The Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg started around 1738, under the guidance of Jean Baptiste Land (A Frenchman). The Ballet has had many names since its inception. They include The Maryinsky, The State Academy Theatre of Opera and Ballet (GATOB is the Russian abbreviation), and the Kirov Ballet, named for the head of the Communist Party after his assassination. Since perestroika the ballet company is called The Maryinsky again.

In 1773, the council of the Moscow orphanage believed their charges should have ballet training. Filippo Beccari, former dancer of St. Petersburg's Court Theatre, offered his services as an instructor. Convinced of his teaching ability, he agreed to wait for his salary until he had made full-fledged dancers of his pupils. By arrangement with the council, they would pay him 250 rubles for each solo dancer and 150 rubles for a corps de ballet dancer. At the end of three years the results were even beyond Beccari's expectations. Out of 62 pupils, he produced 24 soloists and the rest for the corps de ballet. Thus the orphanage became the cradle for ballet training in Moscow and later the Bolshoi Ballet.

Leopold Paradise succeeded Beccari and by the turn of the century, Moscow's ballet was developing its own technique. English Critic Iris Morley said of the Bolshoi ballerina, "The ballet of the Bolshoi has harvested [Moscow] vitality. Classicism is not chaste here but colored and vitalized with rich hues of national folk dancing with a comic genius of the people. The typical Moscow ballerina has sparkling eyes, rather plump short legs, and with her amazing tours de force doesn't give a fig for that pale superior ghost of the St. Petersburg-Leningrad."

Elena Andreianova, a graduate of the Imperial School, became a ballerina with the Maryinsky. She was the lover of Alexander Guedenov, the Directorate of the Imperial Theatre. However, friction developed between Guedenov and Andreianova when guest ballerinas from France, such as Marie Taglione* and Fanny Elssler*, usurped many of her roles and proceeded to captivate Russian audiences. Despondent, Andreianova had to stand in the wings and watch them perform. To placate his mistress, Guedenov sent her to star in the Moscow Bolshoi Ballet. Fans of the other ballerinas in the company were upset over the invasion of this dancer from St. Petersburg. During a performance, instead of throwing flowers they threw a dead cat on the stage. Shocked and appalled, Andreianova fainted. The audience repented and gave her a standing ovation.

Fifteen years later when she went on tour, she returned home to discover Guedenov had found a new lover. Disheartened, Andreianova left Russia to live in Paris where she died three years later.

In 1917, after the Revolution, the Communist Government groomed the Bolshoi Ballet to be the major company of Russia. Galina Ulanova, St. Petersburg's brilliant ballerina came to Moscow. She was trained by the world renowned Agrippina Vaganova*, who had been a student of Enrico Cecchetti.

The school in St. Petersburg and Moscow had different approaches to their techniques. The repertories were also diverse. After the Revolution, St. Petersburg school relied on the technique created by Vaganova. Asaf Messerer ruled the company in Moscow.

In the beginning the Bolshoi's ballet was far more political than their northern cousins. Ballets such as The Fountain of Bakhchisaray, The Stone Flower, Spartacus, and The Red Poppy espoused the communist doctrine and forwarded the communist agenda.

Before perestroika, the Bolshoi numbered 250 dancers and a reserve of more than 300 pupils. It also mounted works at the new Kremlin Theatre. The Bolshoi Theatre seats more than 2000 and was the dream of dancers and directors. Throughout the former Soviet Union, more than one million adults studied dancing in amateur theatrical groups, while several million children had the opportunity to study dance.

A graduate of the Bolshoi School and Company who had an influence on American ballet was Michael Mordkin. Soon after graduation from the Bolshoi school he became a soloist and ballet master. In 1909 he joined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes but left to tour with Anna Pavlova. He separated himself from Pavlova to start his own company, The All Star Imperial Russian Ballet that toured America. While with Pavlova and Diaghilev's Ballet he studied with Cecchetti. So much of his training came from the Italian school. In 1912, when he returned to the Bolshoi, he became the director, but left Russia after the October Revolution.

He settled in America in 1924 and again organized his own company using many of Diaghilev's dancers. They toured Europe and then disbanded. Mordkin then started a ballet studio in New York City. Some of his students were: Patricia Bowman, Leon Danielian, and Lucia Chase. He also taught legendary film stars, Katherine Hepburn and Judy Garland.

From his pupils of his New York City School, he formed another company in 1939. A year later, with financial help of Lucia Chase and Richard Pleasant, he founded Ballet Theatre (later called American Ballet Theatre). Among the original principal dancers were Adolph Bolm, Patricia Bowman, Edward Caton, Lucia Chase, Karen Conrad, Leon Danielian, Vladimir Dukoudovsky, Anton Dolin, William Dollar, Viola Essen, Nora Kaye, Eugene Loring, Hugh Laing, Annabelle Lyon, Dimitri Romanoff, Nina Stroganova, Antony Tudor, and Leon Varkas.

A year after the formation of Ballet Theatre, Chase and Pleasant pushed Mordkin out and took over the company. He died in 1944 in Millbrook, New Jersey, Ironically, in 1980 the board of directors of ABT pushed out Lucia Chase.

Without many of these pioneers from Russia, ballet in America would not exist, as we know it today. Whether the Russian Ballet brings to mind Moscow or St. Petersburg, American ballet is its baby.

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