May 3, 2015

"I would like to talk about ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Swan Lake,’ about my battements and my handsome partners..."

"But whichever way I look at my childhood, it all revolves around politics and Stalin’s terror," wrote the great ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who has died at the age of 89.
Her father was shot to death in 1938 in Stalin’s purges. (Ms. Plisetskaya learned the date of his death only in 1989.) Her mother was arrested and sent to a labor camp with her infant son, then exiled to Kazakhstan....

Ms. Plisetskaya was... restricted by the Bolshoi’s rigid Soviet guidelines on choreography, which viewed the very movement of dance through the prism of ideology, yet she was able to infuse stultified, literal movements with much deeper meaning....

“I danced all of classical ballet and dreamed of something new,” she said. “In my time, it was impossible.”
I'd like to hear more specifically how ballet movements could be thought to contain political ideology. I once met a woman in Madison who had learned a difficult craft that produced a type of ordinary object — a lovely version of something quite utilitarian. She expressed anguish in not yet having found a way to make these objects political. I said I thought that loading politics into art tended to make bad art. I dreamed of interesting conversations in Madison. Many years later, I started this blog.

ADDED: I don't like tag proliferation, so I'm using my "merging politics and showbiz" for this. It seems wrong to call ballet "showbiz," but think about it. Why is it wrong? It isn't!

Ah, but I remember I also have an "art and politics" tag. I remember that tag as I think of the conversation with the Madison artisan. Why did those crafted objects prompt me to think "art" when ballet did not? Because I thought of art school.


Big Mike said...

I dreamed of interesting conversations in Madison. Many years later, I started this blog.

Well, Laslo's always interesting. And I try to inject a little humor of my own.

Quaestor said...

I'd like to hear more specifically how ballet movements could be thought to contain political ideology.

Ballet, as we understand it, is pretty much a 19th century invention, Romantic era specifically, and not too far distant in time from Marxism itself, which also has roots in romanticism. Choreography, i.e. the documentation of dance, is also a recent invention and not nearly so ancient as theatrical dance. Nevertheless art historians are agreed that ballet, which was a component of opera long before it was a theatrical art unto itself, was much more constrained in terms of emotional context prior to, say 1800, in the Classical or Baroque periods, where ballet was more like formalized social dance, than in the Romantic period that followed.

I'm reminded of Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, a very early opera that undoubtedly contained ballets. In Act I there's the ritornello "Lasciate i monte, lasciate i fonti" which is clearly a celebratory dance by the nymphs and shepherds. Later there are galliards and pavans. All of these are social dances reflecting the mood of the moment more than anything else. As the Age of Reason matured the idea ballet as theatrical version of social dance firmed up even more -- the aristocracy dance their complex galliards and stately pavans; the lower orders dance their boisterous peasant rounds. Right there in distinctions of social dance we see ideas Marxists might wish to suppress -- how the dancer dances indicates his rank in society.

The Romantic movement introduced what I think are new emotions to the musical stage, at least I've seen no evidence of them in history of early music, chief among these are longing for the unobtainable -- wanting things or fulfillments that are beyond what language, or pure reason as Kant puts it, can convey. And so choreographers invented gestures and postures to augment the expression in music of what strictly in language is inexpressible -- a very dangerous sentiment in a society that seeks to draw a thick red line between wants and desires.

Clyde said...

To someone who is obsessed with politics, all things are freighted with political meaning, all the way down to which hand wields the toilet tissue.

lemondog said...

I believe I saw her once in Chicago with a touring company. As I recall she was in her 60’s
THE DYING SWAN (Plisetskaya, 1975)

I've saw snatches of Red Detachment of Women a long time ago. While one may not be sympathic to the message, it is a combination of art and politics.

One could interpret Porgy and Bess as having an underlining but subtle political message.

Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun had a political message.

Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.

Is not this year's Selma a combination of art and politics?

Quaestor said...

I'd like to hear more specifically how ballet movements could be thought to contain political ideology.

I would say contain is not the right word. Of the arts only literature is sufficiently transposable to the concrete to contain ideology. Music, dance, and the plastic arts generally are too abstract. As Steven Martin, who besides being wild and crazy is also a pretty smart guy, says, talking about music (which includes dance, I suppose) is like dancing about architecture.

Dance can evoke feelings and perceptions which in totalitarian society might be proscribed.

Ann Althouse said...

Theater and film can definitely be political. I see how that is done, of course. Agitprop and all that. Brecht. Blecch.

My statement "loading politics into art tend[s] to make bad art" still applies.

It's harder to see how dance moves are political... and especially why classical ballet is more communist. Isn't it bourgeois?

Lewis Wetzel said...

One of the crueler things the Soviets did was not inform relatives of the death of family members in the camps. They did this because often the relatives were charged money for the prisoner's upkeep, or would send them money that could be confiscated. The amounts of money collected this way were pitiably small.
They kept hope alive for the relatives when they knew the prisoners were long dead.

Ann Althouse said...

"Music, dance, and the plastic arts generally are too abstract" to contain politics?

That's what I would think too, but we're told that "the Bolshoi’s rigid Soviet guidelines on choreography... viewed the very movement of dance through the prism of ideology."

I'm interested in knowing the details. I'm interested in BAD reasoning. Part of the search for truth is analyzing bad ideas. Why do people think such things? I like to try to figure that out. (Much of my job is devoted to that. I'm a law professor.)

lemondog said...

Sergei Eisenstein made powerful films both artistic and political

Pablo Picasso Guernica

chickelit said...

There's no business like "know business."

Even teachers sell something.

Sam L. said...

You don't have an alphabetical list of topics tags?

mtrobertsattorney said...

I think it was Schopenhauer who said something like this: If you want to do politics, write an essay; don't do art.

lemondog said...

In White Nights was not one reason the Mikhail Baryshnikov character defected to the west because of his need to experience freedom in new dance? Here in White Nights he says I won’t whisper what I feel

He defected from the Kirov Ballet and in Chicago I saw him in with either the New York City Ballet or American Ballet in a Twyla Tharp choreographed dance. I don’t recall the dance but Twarp is was totally unlike any rigid classical ballet.

Regarding the Soviet era traditional ballet, I suspect it was a rigid conformity to Kremlin approve dance movement and rather than being approved for political ideology, was viewed as absent of any political provocation, which in turn becomes a political ideology.

Sebastian said...

"I dreamed of interesting conversations in Madison. Many years later, I started this blog."

Both funny and touching.

Laslo Spatula said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laslo Spatula said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laslo Spatula said...

@ Althouse:

In regard to Soviet effect on ballet you would probably like ballet and communism

Very good stuff there related to your question.

I am Laslo.

Sydney said...

After reading Laslo's link, it appears the main problem with Soviet ballet was it restricted the dancer's interpretation. That would be a drudge, wouldn't it? Dance this piece exactly this way, because the state says so.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Music is definitely not immune to ideology; just think of the works (especially the operas) of John Adams. Or (to take a far more complicated case) Shostakovich.

YoungHegelian said...

@Prof. Althouse,

I'd like to hear more specifically how ballet movements could be thought to contain political ideology.

Ha! Spoken like the true bourgeois wrecker you are, Comrade Althouse!

If you cannot see these things after all these years in the Peoples Republic of Madison, perhaps it is time that we send you to Beloit to help with the harvest of the turnip crop. Perhaps, after your re-education through manual labor, your mind will be clearer.

YoungHegelian said...


And Adams is far from being the worst!

Composers like Hans-Werner Heinze & Luigi Nono were more commie than the commies!

The Soviets used ideology often after the fact to justify their extremely conservative tastes in the arts. How they managed to turn the 19th C. high bourgeois arts into the standards for the new 20th C. Soviet man is still a mystery. It must have taken quite a feat of ideological legerdemain.

William said...

The Bolshies thought that ballet was a reactionary art and wanted to close it down. Sergei Kirov, one of the early Bolsheviks, thought otherwise. He kept the Marinsky Ballet up and running. He wasn't so much a fan of ballet as of ballerinas, and that ballet company (now better known as the Kirov Ballet) kept him supplied. Win win for ballet and Kirov. I suppose the same thing happened with the early ballet companies in Paris, but the hypocrisy seems ranker in a Bolshevik setting.

The Cracker Emcee Refulgent said...

What was your Madison acquaintance making?

William said...

I read the obituary and of the struggles of Maya's aunt to keep her niece out of a state run orphanage. A darker version of this story played out in Khrushchev's life. His son married a woman who had a child from a previous marriage. Khrushchev's son had a child with that woman. Khrushchev's son was killed in the war. His widow and her two sons went to live in Khrushchev's comfortable Kremlin apartment. The widow flirted with a French attaché during a concert. For that she was accused of treason and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Khrushchev's wife liked her natural grandson but didn't get along with the step grandson. She had him sent to a state run orphanage. Khrushchev offered no objections........Khrushchev is generally regarded as the most humane and decent of the Soviet leaders. Maybe not.

Jason said...

Heh. Among my useless academic accomplishments is a minor in Russian literature, with substantial emphasis on the Soviet era.

The people who imposed Socialist Realism on dancing and subordinated dance, art and literature to the glory of the New Soviet Man and the dream of socialism and who enforced it by threatening artists who didn't play ball to bankruptcy, exile or worse, are the very same people who want to force bakers, florists, artisans and other vendors to subvert their crafts to the glory of same-sex marriage.

But no wonder Althouse doesn't grasp how this occurred with dance. Ces't normal!

Althouse trying to understand how seemingly abstract arts can be subordinated to politics is like a fish trying to understand water.

Birkel said...

I am ever-impressed with the breadth of knowledge of the Althouse commenters.

Take a bow, each of you.

Aussie Pundit said...

I agree that political art is bad art, but that's not what's going on here. She was actually undermining the political message.

Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake premiered in 1895, but, as Ross explains, it later mobilized a decidedly Soviet message: "Within that feminized exterior, is the disciplined body of the military corps, of the army corps. And it's about order and cohesion and obedience. It's this sort of imagined community. It's where nationalism gets performed, again and again."

Aussie Pundit said...

To clarify that quote wasn't about her, but it showed how ballet was political in Russia.

It was about showing discipline and order and militarism. To show emotion and weakness was going against the grain.

Her art was simply expressing things that aren't allowed to expressed.

That's "political" in a sense, but not in the sense of containing an explicit political or ideological message.

lemondog said...

I saw Rudolph Nureyev only once and near the end of his career but he was still great.

Here is his Swine Lake

rcocean said...

Like the American Left today the Soviets viewed everything thru the prism of politics. Even Chess was considered a front in the struggle against Capitalism. Certain ways of playing the game were considered "Reactionary" - for example, trying to be "Brilliant" as opposed to grinding out a victory for the USSR.

FissionChips said...

Ballet history has not commonly been considered a serious academic pursuit but that's changing.

For the time being, probably the most readily accessible resource, in English, on the Soviet ballet mentality is in the International Dictionary of Ballet published by St. James Press. This reference was in preparation towards the end of the Soviet era in the 80's and the contributors on Soviet ballet were pretty much all apparatchiks.

In the biographies of the Soviet dancers and choreographers they meticulously list awards like the

People's Artist of the USSR
Lenin Prize
Hero of Socialist Labor

The description of the Soviet productions in this Dictionary clearly have the Soviet flavor. At the Bolshoi, every production had a Party official who had complete control over the content of any particular production, especially to make sure no "formalist" choreography slid in. This was a case even when the choreographer was a current Party favorite who was always ranting against Western decadence

While Socialist Realism was at its peak there is even a particular aesthetic category which was referred to as the "Drama Ballet"

Tim Scholl, Professor of Russian Literature and Dance History at Oberlin College is currently working on what will likely be the definitive history of Soviet Ballet.

Tim's previous dance histories were on Balanchine. Right after the fall of communism he had access to the Soviet Dance Archives. He has quite an astonishing collection of Soviet era ballet film clips and he is been out to San Francisco and Berkeley with his work in progress.

Laslo Spatula said...

@ FissionChips

Thank you for the sources!

I am Laslo.

Ann Althouse said...


I don't want to say. I don't want the person to be identified. It doesn't matter.

Richard Dolan said...

The Soviet state was remarkably conservative despite its nominally radical ideology. It was also extremely nationalistic, in the great Russia sense, despite all the window dressing about a union of differing republics. Not a major leap from those premises to a strictly classical, no innovations, approach to the Russian ballet repertoire, imposed as a political imperative.

You see the same thing today in China, focused on the art forms that matter there (films especially).

Zach said...

In Stalin's era, it was dangerous not to be political (as well as very, very dangerous to be political). Not just ballet, but all the arts had councils explaining how they were advancing the cause, which naturally meant that there had to be one true style that advanced the cause in the correct way.

Staling himself had very conservative artistic tastes, if I recall.

Zach said...

Stalin liked to run things on a patronage system. His path to power was to fill every spot on the important committees with his own men. Later on, he liked to replace his old men with new ones, to make sure that no protegees got too powerful.

In a system like that, everything is going to get politicized, because every discussion is subtextually about positioning yourself as the most loyal Stalinist. So even if there is no one true Bolshevik style of ballet, you'd better invent one quick!