Talent and the Ballet

Russia’s foremost critic of the dance, YURI SLONIMSKY here describes the search for young ballerinas which is being conducted throughout the sixteen Soviet republics, and the education and training of the new talent in ballet schools, whose scope has been noticeably enlarged since the end of World War II.


To BE endowed with talent is not in itself sufficient, for talent must always be provided with the proper guidance. This is an elementary truth, yet how difficult to put into practice! And what is meant by proper guidance? In the art of dancing we are faced with two diametrically different views on the intrinsic nature of ballet.

Some consider the ballet as primarily a manifestation of physical training, a display of virtuosity in gymnastic technique. Others view ballet as a branch of human culture. To them the ballet is primarily concerned with the problems and destiny of mankind and with the most pressing and perplexing questions of existence.

These two opposing concepts today condition the whole education of the dancer. In the first, the stress is laid upon athletic training, and in the second, upon the ability to personify the human spirit and soul — in other words, to express in a warm and enthusiastic manner, through the means of dancing, the feelings of love and hate, of happiness and grief, the ideals of man and of mankind.

The classic ballets were unanimous in their definition of the nature of the ballet. Art must exceed even the most perfect craftsmanship, because it pursues high and noble ends. The classics appealed to dancers, asking them, in the words of Saltykov-Shchedrin, to become “heralds of truth, beauty, and goodness.” Inspired dancing is always a song of the soul, and Pushkin’s expression, “the soaring of the soul,” became the keynote of the Russian school of dancing. I prefer to speak of a single and unique Russian school instead of trying to differentiate between the Moscow and Saint Petersburg schools. No longer is there any fundamental difference, although there may be a difference in the pedagogical approach, depending on the teacher.

The classical traditions of the Russian school became revitalized with the artistic creations of the Soviet artists.

Consider Galina Ulanova and Vakhtang Chabukyani. When one recalls Ulanova on the stage, it is not her pas — though they are technically perfect — but the beauty and the greatness of the heroines she personifies that come first to the mind. When evoking images created by Ulanova, one conjures up human conscience and honor. When taking leave of her after the performance, one thanks her for the lesson of life she gave through her dancing. The highest achievement of the art of ballet is precisely this blending of ethics and aesthetics.

Chabukyani, by his temperament, by the nature of his talent, by his appearance, is the antithesis of Ulanova. While she is a painter of lyrical pastel portraits, he is a sculptor of heroic scenes, like Michelangelo or Rodin. Nevertheless, the two dancers have something very important in common: the dancing of Ulanova, like that of Chabukyani, is a depiction of human dignity and happiness, the very essence of life itself. Their art is by no means the victory of those who seek to disparage the classic dance as being unable to express human feelings in a natural way. The classic ballet was unrivaled in its capacity to establish a close communion with audiences in all parts of the world and became the basis for the expressiveness of the ballet performer.

The miming in ballet is, first of all, dancing. It combines, at the same time, story, drama, psychology, and character. A Russian critic wrote about Taglioni and Elssler: “Being clever dancers, they understood that dance is mime. And therein lies their merit.” Today this is almost law for our ballet.

To produce and to develop talent are actually to teach one how to create images of type and character.

ULANOVA has written of her own experience in her book The Making of a Ballerina. She reminds us of the words of Maxim Gorky, “Talent is work,” and she calls upon the artists of the ballet to devote their thinking and strivings to creative work. The artist must be in continuous search for improvement and perfection.

The daily exercises of the classical dances have many purposes, the first of which might be formulated like this: The height of art is to conceal artifice. Creative dancers, in the words of Stanislavsky, “do not dance, do not perform, but act, and can not do it otherwise than through piastic means.” Of course, it is not given to everybody to embody this ideal as perfectly as a Pavlova, a Spesivtseva, or an Ulanova, but the Russian school of dance holds up this objective as the most important and most decisive. To attain it, it is necessary to insist upon uninterrupted movement in dancing. When the dance acquires the character of a cantilena, it can be likened to human speech or to song; jerky, abrupt movements, jerky tones, no matter how strong and how much virtuosity they have, will never lead either to vocal melody or fluidity of motion.

Dancing should not be confined to the feet and to the hands alone; it should apply to the whole body. The harmony of movements of all parts of the body is essential to the dance. Finally, it is not only in the classic dance that one can achieve eloquence. Sooner or later the performer will have to learn character dances, ethnic dances, eccentric and rhythmic dancing, social dances, and pantomime.

It is absolutely necessary to love music, to know its capricious laws, to feel the throbs of its heart, to obey its imperious rhythm, which governs the entire behavior of the dancer on the stage. “Obeying the enchanted bow” was, according to Pushkin, the secret of the captivating charm of the ballerina Istomina. Obedient — not as a servant or a slave or a pupil, but as a true friend and a real mistress. No matter how many good dances might be demonstrated without music, they will be but artificial and witty curios: dance and music are inseparable forever.

Nor will intuition, however vivid and ardent, be sufficient to create complex imagery; only in combination with developed intellect — developed as far as comprehension and imagination are concerned — can it ensure success to a dancer.

To enrich the mind, to arouse the still unawakened feelings, to learn to control and express them eloquently in dancing — these are the aims of the ballet performer’s education. The dancer learns not only from his teachers, his books, and performances; much learning comes from his relationships with other people. In our time, an artist cannot ignore what is going on in literature, poetry, painting, and sculpture. It would be an understatement to say that these arts are needed for spiritual nurture only; they are the sources from which proceed the formation of creative consciousness.

It is well known that only the truly contemporaneous is eternal. The ballet dancer can attain the highest degree of art only when his eyes are open wide to the surrounding world, when his heart beats in unison with the hearts of millions of his contemporaries and compatriots, when he is deeply affected by the vital concerns of his time. Only then can he identify himself with his hero, commune with him, making him a close and familiar contemporary.

True, there are many who believe that all this does not apply to the ballet. But remember the great ballets we inherited from the remote past: Vain Precautions, Giselle, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. When you think about them you realize that they are brought to life because of the acute feelings of the dancers, their eagerness to understand the age in which the ballets were composed and to respond to the thoughts and emotions of that age. Clearly, the realities of life are not reflected directly and literally in the ballet art, but one cannot exist without the other.

“To be endowed with talent is not enough. Talent can flourish only if it is nurtured under favorable conditions.” These words of the famous ballet master Didelot come to our mind each time we acclaim young Soviet dancers and ballerinas. We cannot help comparing the circumstances under which they were brought up with those prevalent in czarist Russia.

IT is hard to believe that in such a vast country as Russia under the czars there were only two state ballet schools, to which no more than twenty children were admitted each year. Children living outside Moscow and Saint Petersburg were not admitted at all, and children of certain faiths and certain racial minorities were also barred, even though they were nationals of Russia. Unless one had a favorable recommendation from some notable person, from some high official or some eminent artist, it was practically impossible to be accepted in an imperial school.

Although in some towns there were private dancing studios, they were very expensive. Children and adults attended the same classes, which were often of low artistic standing. The students had no hope of earning a name or a living in ballet, the imperial theaters being inaccessible, and there was nothing left for a ballet dancer in Russia but to lead a nomadic life traveling all over the country, working with small opera groups, on a daily fee basis, a discouraging prospect for a gifted dancer.

Today our ballet organizations comprise thirty theaters and sixteen state schools. Everywhere — in Siberia and Caucasia, in Middle Asia and Byelorussia, in the autonomous district of Karelia and in remote Buryat - Mongolia — children become familiar with the fundamentals of ballet, which were once accessible only to the few in the imperial schools in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

Now more than five thousand ballet artists are on the staffs of state theaters and about two thousand children and adolescents study in choreographic schools.

It was customary for dancing schools to accept only very young children. This cruel practice of the past could result in the loss of the finest talents. Now’ it is no longer the rule. Thus Vakhtang Chabukyani, Azef Meserer, Igor Moisieyev, Konstantin Sergeev, Mikhail Gabovich, and Sergei Koregne entered the ballet classes when they were in their teens, and after three or four years they held leading positions in Leningrad and Moscow theaters.

But it is not enough to give adolescents access to schools. They need special classes where they can catch up with those who started before them and where they can be taught individually, according to their particular gifts. Such training can be given only in a state school, which does not operate on a profit basis and which gives free education to everyone.

The ballet schools usually admit children at the age of nine, when they have had three years of elementary schooling. After a year the children start appearing on the stage and are gradually given more and more responsible parts. Thus, long before the pupils are through school, talents might be revealed, tested on the stage, and the future career of the beginner predicted.

Every few years the best students of ballet schools from all over the country come to Moscow to display their achievements. Once the performances are over the work of each school is discussed, and many critical observations and requests can be heard — all of which, of course, is most helpful.

Special care is given to ballet theaters and schools of the national republics. They are of recent creation; twenty to twenty-five years ago, the word “ballet” was unknown in most of these republics.

In the beginning, teachers from the oldest Russian schools went to the republics and selected the most gifted children and adolescents, who were brought to Moscow and Leningrad, and there, for eight years, were given the best training. Board and education were provided by the government. In this way the ballet companies of Kazakhstan and Kirgiz, of the Tatar Republic and Bashkir Republic, of Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan came into existence. So a tradition was established.

The working conditions of the young artists underwent a fundamental change. In the imperial theaters the beginner progressed slowly, climbing step by step; it was a long way from the corps de ballet to the ballerina. Now it is all different.

When the Bolshoi Ballet was on tour in America, spectators rated very highly the talent of young Kathy Maximova, who played the role of Katherine in the ballet The Stone Flower. Her experience on stage was a matter of months, not of years. But a talent such as hers had been awaited several years at the Bolshoi Theater. Maximova’s teacher, Elizabeth Gerdt, was aware of Kathy’s gifts and gradually developed them. Maximova promises to be a great ballerina. Her outstanding quality is something which is very dear to our art — the ability to assert in the beauty of dance, as in the beauty of the human soul, human thoughts and feelings.

On December 14, 1959, the inhabitants of Leningrad literally besieged the Kirov Theater trying to attend the performance of the wellknown ballet Giselle, though the performers were only beginners. The part of Albert was danced by the Bashkir, Rudolf Nureev. During his first year on the stage he managed to dance in two ballets, performed many solos, and went to the International Youth Festival in Vienna, where he was presented with a gold medal awardd. And on December 27 the same ballet was seen by inhabitants of Leningrad, performed by Natasha Makarova and Nikita Dolgushin — both out of school in the spring of 1959.

Nureev has an extraoi’dinary natural talent. The height, the length, and the timing of his jumps are phenomenal. The vigorous whirlingmovements are thrilling. Nureev’s nervous, somewhat exalted artistic constitution lends to everything he does an unprecedented, original character. His Albert is unlike anyone’s we have ever seen. Having made Giselle fall in love with him as a whim, he then loses control over himself. The second act, in his version, unfolds like the effects of the torments of love, and we witness the gradual purification of the hero’s feeling and the elevation of his soul. The main theme of the ballet comes clear to us in Nureev’s meaningful dancing. In a word, new people are interpreting even the deepest past in a new way. They are viewing this past in the light of modern techniques.

Sometime in the spring, every theater, evei’y town, every republic proceeds with a survey of young artists who acted in leading roles or performed solos during the season. The most gifted are entitled to appear in Moscow. Their success is rewarded with a prize, and they are assigned to different theaters.

In 1960, seven million young citizens of our country are on their way to being acquainted professionally with music, dancing, singing, dramatics, and the fine arts. It is impossible to estimate the number of children who take up dancing.

In big towns and in small towns, in workers’ settlements and in larger villages, everywhere there are dance studios, courses, schools, and circles of artistic activities, which are supported mainly by professional unions and which are vast reservoirs of talent.

The successful results of these amateur artistic circles will be best illustrated by the following example. In the oldest Palace of Culture of the Leningrad professional unions (and there are six of these for aduits and children and eight for children only), more than a hundred and fifty adults, and as many children, take dancing lessons. During the quarter century of its existence, thirty-five soloists and dancers of the corps de ballet came from this school and entered professional ballet careers. More than fifty children and adolescents were transferred to the oldest ballet school in the country. The children’s choreographic circle gives four full ballet performances yearly, and the adult amateur circle two performances on the palace stage. They attract an enormous audience. All those activities take place in the time that performers can spare from their jobs or from school.

Some people might say, “No wonder such artistic activities go on in Leningrad!” But it so happens that in the club of the Dniepropetrovsk mill, with a capacity of eight hundred spectators, ballets such as The Fountain of Bakhchisary and Swan Lake are given regularly, and they are performed by the workers themselves. In Voronezh, even before the war, workers and employees from different enterprises danced Vain Precautions. A long time before the opera and ballet house was opened, young people who worked in plants and mills in Novosibirsk gave popular choreographic performances. The listing of national and amateur theaters where performances are given by amateurs in their spare time would take too much space.

In every ballet company we find soloists who came from amateur choreographic circles. And again we recall Didelot’s words: “Talent can flourish only if it is nurtured under favorable conditions.” Such conditions exist in our country, and they are improving from year to year.

Translated by Martin Kamin.