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Dance - The Russian Academy And Its Working

( Originally Published 1924 )



A student in the Russian Academy does not risk discovering, after some years of study, that he cannot stand the physical training, nor does he learn, when it is too late to turn back, that his road to high places is blocked by defect of health, structure, or proportion. As a candidate for admission he under-goes an examination by a board of physicians, painters and sculptors. If he enters, it is after their approval, the examiners measuring the candidate by the standards of their respective arts. He knows, and his parents know, that he is starting, free from handicap, on the road to an at least respectable position in a respectable profession, with which he will be associated and by which he will be supported through life. His studies will be guided by the best instruction that can be secured; if he has genius it will receive the most favourable of cultivation. At all times his life will be surrounded by conditions as favourable to physical health as they can be made by science and free expenditure.

His payment for these advantages is complete renunciation of every interest apart from those of the Academy's curriculum. To one not passionately fond of his art, the enforced devotion to work would spell loss of liberty. As a matter of fact, however, this does not often seem. to be felt as a privation. The interests of the school are so varied, and the dance is possessed of such endless allurement, that life within the academic walls is generally felt to be complete in itself. In other words, the contract binding the pupil is not usually felt as a tether, notwithstanding that its operation covers the most restless years in a boy's or girl's life.

Seven or eight is the age for entrance, and the contract binds the pupil for nine years of training—which may be reduced to eight if proficiency warrants. At the expiration of this time the government has all rights to the dancer's services, at a moderate salary, varying according to the rank for which he qualifies in the ballet organisation. From the graduates of the Academy are recruited the ballets of the two Imperial Opera Houses: the Marianski Theatre in St. Petersburg, and the Opera House in Moscow. In both houses, ballet pantomimes are presented twice a week, approximately.

Graduates with an aptitude for teaching are so employed. All of which must cost the government a great deal less than would the alternative of hiring corps de ballet, premiers and premieres, and ballet-masters from Paris and Milan. In fact, until half a century ago, foreign talent was depended on for the important work. From its continued use, it may be inferred that the present system is the more satisfactory.

Naturally, a member of the Imperial ballet must have government consent to leave his country; departing with-out such consent, he automatically forfeits his pension. A few individuals have chosen the high salaries to which their work entitles them in other parts of the world, and deliberately stayed away at the expiration of a leave of absence. To the great majority, however, the pension 'and artistic conditions attaching to their home organisation have been the greater inducement.

Between performances and their preparation, and teaching, it will be seen that the members of the ballet never need pass an unoccupied hour. They are insured against such deterioration as might result from lack of constant work. On the other hand, they are protected against the danger of overwork. Think of the difference between such conditions and those created by competition! Between engagements, the generality of ballet people under the latter conditions study and train, if at all, at their own expense; and competent coaching costs money. During engagements, the number of supreme efforts of which they are capable each week is considered only by those in whom are combined good fortune and conscience; others arrange their work to economise strength, or else break down.

Of the curriculum of the school we have been told in some detail by Miss Lydia Lopoukowa. During the first year, which is a period of probation, pupils are al-lowed to visit their parents on Sundays. After that they remain in the direct charge of instructors, in the school, in the opera-houses, and in carriages going and coming; visiting with parents or others is confined to stated times, and is done in the school. If this arrangement seems severe, the answers are to be found in results : if any students of any art attain to full artistic development and perfection of artistry in an equal length of time without similar concentration, enforced either by self or by regulation, then the detachment effected by the Russian Academy is carried to an unnecessary degree.

The curriculum may, for convenience, be divided into two departments, pertaining respectively to technical and general education. The latter is the equivalent of the Continental European gymnasium, which carries the student to a point somewhat more advanced than that which he reaches in the American public high school.

On the technical side, the training begins with the breadth of a general conservatory's course in the arts. As the pupil's aptitude and tastes begin to crystallise, his instruction becomes increasingly specialised. The first year's work covers, besides dancing, a beginning in music, acting, and a certain amount of drawing. The music includes theory and piano. Acting embraces the beginnings of pantomime, along with enunciation, expression and the rest of it.

The dancing tuition is based absolutely on the French-Italian ballet. The undisputed success of the romantic movement, and the prevailing sympathy with its motive, have not shaken faith in the classic as a necessary framework for the; support of expression and adornment. An orthodox and unreconstructed Italian ballet-master remains in charge of this department; his influence is not modified until after the pupil has acquired the equilibrium, in short the discipline that is a tradition of the classic school alone. Parallel with this training, how-ever, is instruction and drill in plastic gymnastics, which concerns itself with training the body in grace and expression. The separation of the two courses naturally enables the pupil to keep classic precision clear in his mind; while, having at the same time mastered the more fluid treatment of the plastic gymnastics, he is ready to unite the two understandingly when the proper time arrives, and to combine with their graces the eloquence of pantomime.

Music has sometimes been found to be the natural metier of students whose original intention was dancing.

In other instances the embryonic dancer has revealed a genius for acting. In such cases the pupil is encouraged to follow the line of natural aptitude. The ranks of both opera and drama in Russia include women whose ultimate vocations were discovered after they had become proficient dancers. While such cases are not common, neither are they rare; which is rather illuminating as to the quality of the musical instruction.

An acquaintance with musical theory is insisted upon as a part of the dancer's equipment, though there be no probability of his ever applying his knowledge in any of the usual ways. Music and dancing are so interwoven that the latter's full meaning can hardly be expressed, or understood, without musical knowledge as an aid. Moreover, of every class of youngsters a certain number are destined to be choreographic composers; to these a knowledge of orchestral possibilities and limitations is indispensable. Indeed it is an asset of the utmost practical utility to any dancer; any rehearsal demonstrates its value. In respect to this department and its lifelong value to those who have had its training, graduates of other academies unite in approval of the Russian.

The course in drawing and painting seems to aim at critical appreciation of beauty, as expressed in the abstract qualities of grace in line and harmony in colour; this in distinction to the regulation art school discipline in proportion and anatomy of the figure. The practical value of such training, in sharpening the power of constructive criticism of dancing, is obvious.

To the accomplishment of all this work—and more that need not be detailed—the pupils are not driven ; they are led. Everything is fun. Play is made contributory to the general purpose of training artists. As an escape from realities into that world of make-believe that children crave, pantomimes are practiced evenings after dinner; self-expression is encouraged on these occasions, criticism no more than hinted. As a play-ground for the girls, a large garden is provided. But the boys, to relax from the restraint of a daily two-hour lesson in French ballet, delight in class fencing lessons. The health of all is under unobtrusive but constant supervision. In each of the girls' dormitories a nurse is on watch every night, alert for the first unfavourable symptom—and ready, too, we may be sure, with sympathy for any little attack of loneliness. Miss Lopoukowa's remembrances are not of any rigours of work, but rather of a protecting gentleness.

Diet is studied; the children are trained into hygienic positions in sleep! Hair, teeth, skin, heart, lungs, digestion and nerves are cared for by the most capable of specialists. By no means last in importance to a dancer are his feet; the Academy has its chiropodist always in attendance not only to rectify trouble, but to prevent it.

As the academic years draw toward their close, the pupil receives instruction in supplementary branches necessary to the finished artist. Character dances are not only performed; they are studied in relation to the temperaments of their respective nations. Make-up receives its due attention; with paint and false hair young Russians practice transforming themselves into Japanese, Egyptians, Italians. When they leave the Academy, they know their trade.

Somehow such an institution seems too good to last; yet its excellence is far from being the product of any momentary enthusiasm. Its beginning was made in the first half of the eighteenth century. Ballets had been presented before the Imperial Court as early as 1675. Peter the Great had insisted on Western dancing as one of the means to his end of bringing Russia abreast of the times. Indeed he is supposed to have learned it and taught it himself, as he did shipbuilding. In 1735 the Empress Anne engaged a Neapolitan composer and musical director and a French ballet-master, and bade them present a ballet every week. Cadets from the military academy were at first impressed into service; which may be contributory to the military exactness of the organisation of the Ballet Academy.

As ballet material, the cadets were gradually (according to Flitch) replaced by boys and girls of the poorer classes, whom the ballet-master trained free of charge. The assignment of quarters to them in the palace, the appointment of a coachman's widow to take care of them, an appropriation of extra pay to the ballet-master for teaching, may be said to mark the beginnings of the Academy. Its existence has been uninterrupted, and, under the almost idolatrous Russian love of ballet representations, its growth has been steady. A composite French-Italian technique was adopted, as before stated, and kept unmodified until the recent romantic movement had proven its worth. Italian principal dancers were employed until, a generation ago, the need of them was ended by the Imperial Academy's arrival at a condition of adequacy.

The difference between the romantic ballet and the classic could not be described in an infinity of words, but it can be summarised in a few, and its character suggested in a few sketches. Briefly, the difference consists in liberty to depart from classic restriction of pose and movement, wherever such emancipation will contribute to expression. This freedom inevitably clashes with ballet tenets that have been unquestioned for a hundred and fifty years. The classic keeps the shoulders down; the romantic does not hesitate to raise them, one or both, to portray fear, disdain, or what-not. In the eyes of the classicists, straightness of body (its detractors call it rigidity) is of absolute importance; romanticists, in their Oriental representations, for instance, do not hesitate to exploit the body's sinuosity to the utmost. Yet, in their apparent disregard of choreographic law, they have preserved rigourously the underlying truth of choreographic structure. Than their brilliant steps those of no dancer are cleaner or more perfect; in equilibrium, in exactness, in all that makes for style and finish, they have no superiors. Nevertheless some of the classic ballet people, especially the Milan element, still protest that the romantic idea, with all its appurtenances, is a heresy. M. Legatt, of the St. Petersburg Academy, is said to group all the new elements into one category : Duncanism!

As the painter Bakst (and with him may be mentioned Boris Anisfeldt and others of the same artistic creed), while preserving recognisable national character in his scenes and costumes, does not scruple to subordinate historical facts to his motives, so does the romantic ballet-master disregard the natural limitations of folk-dances that he may choose to employ in his composition. If it suited the dramatic intention of M. Fokine to bring an Arabian dancer on to the point, or to introduce into her work a pure pirouette, it is fairly safe to assume that he would do so, despite the fact that Arabic dancing itself knows no such devices. It is to be added that although he should make such amendment to an Arabic dance as. known to its own people, his product would express as forcibly the quality of Orientalism as would any dance to be found in Bagdad. The essential difference would be that the composition of M. Fokine would serve the immediate intention of grief, rage, or whatever might be the desired emotion, as well as emphasising Oriental quality.

It will be seen that the means of expression above indicated relieves the ballet pantomime of any limits of scope. The classic, generally speaking, is by its nature confined to fairy fantasies, the play of elves and spirits, Pierrot and Columbine. All that is dainty it renders to perfection. The new school, on the contrary, can treat with complete dramatic impressiveness all the mystic, epic and sometimes terrible imaginings of the Tartar mind. To its advantage it has among its disciples a full supply of dancing men; lack of them has crippled the classic expressions for many years. The woman doing a boy's part becomes ridiculous as soon as dramatic action departs from the lyrical mood. For this reason, perhaps, both opera ballets and academies of Europe outside of Russia have long lost the custom of staging pantomimes of greater consequence than operatic divertissement. Whereas the Marianski Theatre and the Moscow Opera dedicate two nights a week to ballet pantomimes exclusively, and have done so for many years.

The mimetic dramas that have sprung into life with and as part of the new school draw material from leg-ends dark and savage, lyrical and dreamlike. Cleopâtre is a story ,of love and a cruel caprice of an idle queen of fabled Egypt. Prince Igor presents a back-ground of the ever-threatening Mongol, a myriad savage horde encamped outside the eastern gate of Europe.

Scheherazade is tropic passion marching undeviatingly into tragedy. In contrast to these are such ethereal creations as Le Spectre de la Rose, Le Carnaval, Les Sylphides, Le Lac des Cygnes, and Le Pavillon d'Arnzide. Le Spectre de la Rose, composed to the melting music of Weber's Invitation a la False, is a fantasy of a girl who falls asleep in her chair after returning from a ball. In her hand she holds a rose which, in her dreams, turns into a spirit that dances with her, kisses her, and departs.; Le Carnaval brings to life and unites in a slight plot a group of such fabled personages as Pierrot, Harlequin, Columbine, Pantalone and Papillon, animated by Schumann music with Russian orchestration. Armide is a figure on a tapestry, who, by magic spell, comes forth in courtly dance with her companion figures and enchants a traveller sleeping in the apartment. Le Lac des Cygnes and Les Sylphides are practically plotless reveries in the field of pure beauty; of tissue as unsubstantial as the rainbow.

Still a third division is exemplified in L'Oiseau de Feu and Le Dieu, Bleu. As though to test to the utmost the romantic ballet's range of expression, these last deal with occult Eastern religion, calling for a treatment purely mystic.



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