Ballet should not by rights have survived revolution and Communism. It was a foreign-import court entertainment, patronised by Czars and attended by the wealthy elite. But art had a valid place in the soviet version of Communism after the revolution of 1917 – so long as it was a classless one that sought to sing the praises of Communism. Lenin – and his successor Stalin – understood the necessity of the theatre as entertainment after a hard days work, but also appreciated its propaganda capabilities. The early days of Soviet Russia were marked by exuberance and enthusiasm; free from the class restrictions of the past, artists wanted to create a new modern brand of art. The era was one of experimentation in art all over the Western world . One pioneer Russian ballet had was Fyodor Lopukhov.

His 1935 ballet The Bright Stream has recently been revived, after remaining unperformed and forgotten since 1936. I watched it last year as part of the Bolshoi’s international satellite broadcasts. The original choreography was never notated but I think choreographer Alexei Ratmansky did a great job in reimagining it. Ratmansky first discovered Shostakovich’s score, then dug deeper to learn about the choreographer. He realised that it was a remarkable ballet, striking the balance between easy to understand and high quality, with choreography encompassing a range of styles. He saw a true soviet ballet, something unique in the world. He felt it was worthy of revival and, on becoming director of the Bolshoi, made it happen. I grew curious, however, on reading the programme notes – why revive a ballet no-one has heard of and that on the surface it seems no-one liked in the first place? To understand why you need to look at the whole picture of Russia in the time.  

After being appointed Artistic director of  the Kirov ballet in 1922, Lopukhov progressed quickly from updating Petipa ballets to creating his own. he had big ideas. Dance Symphony: The Majesty of the Universe (1923) was to display his pioneering vision for the future of ballet. It had no plot, no corps de ballet, no ballerinas. It was abstract. Musically driven movement attempted to harness cosmic forces, as if dance could express or reveal truths about human experience. It was a bold experiment that failed. It was not well received and he did not attempt something so grandiose again. Though he still aimed to bring out the internal meaning of movements in his future work, he stuck to more traditional ballet formats. (However, Balanchine, a dancer in the plotless work, took careful note of these new ideas and used them in his later career in the USA.)

The enthusiasm and artistic experimentation that accompanied the early days of Communism gradually gave way to crushing repression. The Communist regime required total control for success, and it sought to control art as it did every other aspect of life. Socialist realism – that it reflect Marxist theory – was now demanded of art. Anyone who offended the regime, however inadvertently, could be severely punished.

Lopukhov created much more conventional ballets after his failed experiment, such as The Ice Maiden (1927), a successful reworking of the fairy tale, and The Bolt (1931), set in a factory with a pro-Communist plot, but so reviled it lasted only one performance. However, he still used new elements in his choreography. Consistently drawn to the new, he widened the scope of ballet choreography by experimenting with and including jazz movement, acrobatics, and folk dance. By using these he wanted to make classical dance more dynamic and relevant.

By 1935, his vision for The Bright Stream is a restrained one. It follows a traditional 3-act plot structure, and has ballerinas, soloists and a corps. Though it invokes his love of folk dance and acrobatics too. And, looking at it as a modern observer, it seems perfectly acceptable Communist fare. The simple, comic plot revolves around friends on a collective farm dancing together and playing light-hearted tricks on each other. Everything is very jolly and all have a happy ending. So far, so Communist utopia. It was in fact a hit among the masses. But it was greatly condemned when it was seen in Moscow by those in the Kremlin. One of its problems was that Socialist Realism, while a requirement, had not yet been formalised. There were no guidelines for artists to follow so no way of knowing until performance if a work was suitable or not. The Bright Stream was criticised for not being realistic, for glossing over the realities of farm life and thus insulting farmers, portraying them as “sugary paysans from a pre-revolutionary chocolate box” (Pravda). The reality of collective farming of the time would quite frankly have made for depressing story, which I can’t help feeling would not have been approved of either. The choreography ranges from classical variations, to silly vaudevillle style comedy. It certainly no longer resembled the old Imperial style. Neither did it please the new regime. The composer, Shostakovich, never composed for ballet again, and most of his music was banned. The librettist was sent to a gulag. Lopukhov was effectively fired. He taught at the ballet school for the remainder of his career.

That dance could be capable of expressing eternal themes, of working independently of other art forms – for example, without relying on music for cues of meaning or plot – was revolutionary. That one could create ballet that could truly affect the viewer beyond merely telling a story or looking pretty, was ground-breaking. Lopukhov raised dance to the level of the other arts, free from subjective interpretation. Doing so destroyed his career. But Balanchine, when he moved to the less restricted West would take these ideas and bring them to a more receptive audience. And with Ratmansky’s new staging of The Bright Stream Lopukhov’s legacy has come full circle, and returned to the stage it was once banished from.

100 years ago in 1913 The Rite of Spring premiered in Paris, choreographed by Nijinsky and composed by Stravinsky. The link above leads to an interesting article by Tom Service looks into the story behind the scandal.


Dance has been used ritually for millennia. Stone-age rock paintings have been found depicting dance. The ancient Egyptians had dancers for festivals and ceremonies. Dance to tell stories, to express emotion, and to accompany ritual has figured in every culture, and every era.

The rituals that took place at the great temple complex of Angkor in Cambodia were no exception. I was lucky enough to visit this World Heritage Site in 2010, where I spent day after day traipsing through big temples dramatically overgrown with trees, trailing after tour guides to catch snippets of info, and climbing to the temple tops to take in views of the flat landscape.

You could visit for just a day – after all one temple can look much like another – but I was captivated by the scale and the beauty. Angkor Thom, only one of the main groups of buildings, covers 9 km². Almost every building is a temple, but my favourite is not – it’s the dancing school. Walking through the ruined building you can make out the floor plan. I imagined students running to practice rooms on time, trying on costumes, listening (or not listening) to their teachers – the same experience for students hundreds of years ago as today. During the era of Angkor, dance was ritually performed at temples. The young dancing girls depicted Apsara, female spirits, as well as portraying stories from the Ramayana (an epic poem) and traditional stories, both during ceremonies and to entertain royalty. Apsara can be seen depicted on temples throughout Asia from India to Indonesia, but they are nowhere more prevalent than in Angkor.

Around 800 AD the Khmer kings ruled over a wealthy empire across South-East Asia. They began work on big temple projects in the capital of Angkor that were added to by successive rulers. The complex spread further and further outwards as each tried to leave his mark. Each artist, too, filled up every bit of wall and pillar with carvings of elephants, battles, stories and apsara and devata. Over time Buddhism was adopted as the main religion, and the existing temples were repurposed instead of destroyed. In the 15th century Angkor was abandoned, after the fall of the empire. Cambodia fell under the control of Siam (modern day Thailand) and, later, France.

The classical dance of Cambodia was sheltered and developed in the royal court during these years, and, post-independence, was formalised into a Royal Ballet by Queen Kossamak. They performed for public occasions and ceremonies, and were seen as iconic of Cambodian culture. Then came Pol Pot’s Communist regime, from 1975 to 1979. The damage committed by the Khmer Rouge decimated Cambodian life and culture. Many dancers were killed or starved to death. Those who survived were determined to resurrect Khmer classical dance and over time it regained lost ground. Today you can watch performances by both the Royal Ballet and by local groups dancing in Angkor again after so many years.

At Angkor tourists stop and pose for the obligatory Apsara photo – arms out, elbows and wrists bent. These female spirits of the clouds and waters figure in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, often dancing in the palaces of the gods. The full-hipped, beautiful figures are depicted both standing and in dance poses. Standing still, they are considered devatas – guardian spirits – and posed they are considered Apsara. Thousands upon thousands of both adorn the walls and pillars of the temples. Most if not all of them are entirely unique. I took picture after picture on my visit, one of which is the profile picture for this blog. Five line a wall here, three encircle a pillar there, two pose together over there, their hands touching. They are all face-on, all barefoot and all wear elaborate adornments. Their arms, breasts, stomachs and often legs are uncovered. Their stance, headdresses, jewellery, and garments are all intricately and individually carved. This one arcs in a deep knee bend with one foot off the floor and one hand arced above her headdress, which is shaped like three coronets. That one has one hand in front of her, thumb and finger touching, and the other arm to the side, bent at the elbow. Two solid anklets encircle each ankle. On the next wall one wears heavy earrings that have stretched the lobes of her ears. Jewellery also adorns her waistband. Her headdress has a large studded sphere with a leaf shape emerging from it. And beside her are four grouped together, caught in action. Their skirts billow with movement. Despite their heavy adornments they look light and graceful. Half-smiles of enjoyment are on their faces.

Cambodian classical dance can be called dance-drama as it is dance that is intended to convey a story or message. The movements share similarities with other Asian dance styles as they have all, over the centuries, influenced each other. The movements are slow, deliberate, close to the body. Posture is kept taut, back and feet arched, and the fingers flexed. The dancing is grounded, subtle, but with flowing quality. Certain hand and face gestures convey specific meanings, for example to represent flying. The Apsara Dance in particular aims to evoke the tension between earthly groundedness and heavenly lightness. The costume is a key element of the performance. Much like the apsara in Angkor the dancers wear exquisite headdresses, wrist, ankle and arm jewellery, and thick chains of rank, known as kse-sangvar. Less like the carvings, they are covered up, wearing bright costumes often crafted from silk.

Previous attempts to foster dance in Cambodia, such as the Queen’s efforts in the 1940’s and the post-Khmer Rouge dancers, have focused on reviving and preserving classical dance. Contemporary dance is now being tentatively explored, with companies like Amrita forging new pathways for classical and contemporary dance in Cambodia that both reflects its centuries-long heritage and looks out into the future.

Some of the earliest footage captured on film was dance. Human movement to a rhythm or beat was the perfect display of this new motion picture technology. Both social dance and performances popular at the time were recorded. With the development the feature length movie, much more common has been films that include popular styles of dance, reaching its zenith in the musical and latterly, the dance movie.



Thomas Edison filmed social dances in his early experiments and in 1894 Annabel Moore performed a skirt dance depicting swirling twirling skirts. (You can find it on YouTube by searching Annabelle Serpentine Dance). At first film was prodigiously expensive, so early recordings were short. However, they became popular as entertainment and soon picture-houses were springing up, often called Nickelodeons. With increased popularity and lowering costs films became longer, coming to, in 1903, The Great Train Robbery, at a whole 12 minutes long. You can guess the story from the title but it also includes depictions of dance: the robbers are enjoying a square dance before being called to a shoot-out. Then in 1915 The Whirl of Life was released, about the lives of ballroom dancers, and at 60 minutes was an early feature length film.

1920’s – 1930’s

In this period musicals, revues and vaudeville were popular theatre entertainment, and Broadway productions and touring companies entertained America. Revues and Vaudeville were similar in that they were variety shows of music comedy dance and skits. The Zeigfield Follies is a famous revue, characterised by its chorus girls in lavish costumes parading around various sets.
With the development of sound in 1927 it was a natural progression to bring musicals to the screen. 1929’s The Broadway Melody is widely considered the first successful Hollywood musical. Early movie musical stars got their start on the stage, and successful Broadway shows were remade in Hollywood, including the Zeigfield Follies.  Other films like 42nd Street were new and sprang from Hollywood itself. Many if not most were so-called ‘backstage’ musicals, which were usually about young hopefuls trying to make it on Broadway.  Busby Berkley was a prolific choreographer and director from this era, who produced elaborate numbers featuring large numbers of showgirls arranged in complex patterns. He was the first to employ camera angles and movement to show off the choreography. He choreographed through to the 1950’s, and maintained his distinctive style throughout.

Then came Fred Astaire. His legendary partnership with Ginger Rogers lasted 7 years and 9 films. Though innovative camera work had arrived Astaire insisted that at all times when he was dancing that the camera be kept at eye level and show all of him throughout. He believed close ups, reaction shots and the like interrupted the flow of dancing.

The style of dancing for films of this era was tap and ballroom. Ballroom was the accepted style of dance for the wealthy, whose extravagance, sharp tuxedos and elaborate ballgowns movies could portray well. The 30’s was a time of great economic depression. Many were jobless and people often had little to spare. Watching the high-flying wealthy waltz and foxtrot across lavish sets was part of the appeal of cinema. Tap was also a popular dance form on the stage and screen. The flashy moves of tap might not seem a natural fit with ballroom, but it was Fred Astaire, with choreographer Hermes Pan, who fused them with elegance. Despite it’s new refinement the energy of tap is infectious, a key factor in the feel-good films of the era.


Moving from the 40’s to the 50’s America was no longer in depression, and the refined elegance epitomised by Astaire and Rogers was replaced with Gene Kelly’s more exuberant athletic style. Storylines now more often featured ordinary men and women. In at least four films Kelly played military men. He was quickly given free rein to choreograph and is credited with fusing tap with a more balletic style.

The next big development was colour. Before the advent of Technicolour film could be coloured by hand, as seen in The Great Train Robbery, but this was laborious and time-consuming. Technicolour at first required 3 different strips of film to go in a large and expensive camera, a process which, in the Great Depression, didn’t take off. The Wizard Of Oz starring Judy Garland did use this in 1939, but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that the 3 strips could be condensed onto one and production became much less complicated and costly. Some of the most enduringly popular musicals came out of this period, likely due in part to the new life colour breathed into them.  For example, Singin’ In The Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and The King and I (1956). Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is particularly noted for its unique choreography that makes dance out of mundane tasks such as chopping wood.

1960’s – 1970’s

From the 60’s we can trace a steady decline in the number of musicals and those that were made had darker themes and content. This was kicked off by West Side Story, released in 1961,  a retelling of Romeo and Juliet in New York’s deprived Hell’s Kitchen district. Its dark theme and focus on social problems marked it out as different from the light-hearted musicals that came before it. It won 10 Oscars including Best Picture. Even if you’ve never seen it, you’ll likely recognise songs like Tonight, America and I Feel Pretty. You’ll also likely recognise the distinctive choreography by Jerome Robbins, who worked on many stage and screen productions including The King and I and Fiddler on the Roof. The juvenile gangs and turf wars featured in West Side Story were recent phenomena, partly due to post-war immigration. This was a very different musical for a very different America. The top hat and ball gown-wearing escapism of Fred and Ginger’s world of not 30 years before was no longer in demand. More than ever films reflected the often stark realities of real life, albeit with a Hollywood ‘gloss’. In addition popular culture was shifting. Ballroom was out, rock and pop were in. Saturday Night Fever (1978), for example, is about a young Brooklyn man dancing to forget the realities of his dead-end job and deprived background. Hair (1979) has themes of conscription, racism, drugs, sexual freedom – all issues in society at the time. In a not-too-common meeting of popular entertainment and contemporary dance, Twyla Tharp was the choreographer. Grease (1978) was lighter in tone, though it did deal with adolescent sex, gang violence and the burgeoning teenage culture of the 1950’s.

Some musicals were released at this time with singing but not necessarily much dancing. This separation of music and dancing has become a standard feature, and marks the beginning of the evolution of the dance movie as distinct from the musical. My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), and more recently,The Blues Brothers (1980), and Evita (1996), feature memorable songs but limited dancing.

1980’s – 1990’s

Jazz was THE dance of the 1980’s. High kicks, big leaps and shoulder rolls are some of its distinctive features.  Dance in Hollywood received a bit of a resurgence, as seen in films like Fame (1980), Flashdance (1983) and A Chorus Line (1985). Worth noting, however, is that of the few dance movies being made, most were about dancers or stage productions. This had been done before, for example in the backstage musicals of the 30’s, but not quite so exclusively. Now it appears as if movie-goers demanded a justification for dance. As such, Fame is about students at a performing arts school, Flashdance is about a welder/exotic dancer who wishes to join a ‘real’ dance company, and A Chorus Line is about an audition day on Broadway. As the popularity of jazz has waned, many of the dance movies of the 80’s have fallen from memory. Girls Just Want To Have Fun (1985) is just one example (but thoroughly worth looking up on YouTube!).

In the 1990’s dance waned in popularity again in Hollywood. Dance films were made in other regions, but Hollywood seemed no longer interested. Strictly Ballroom (1992), an Australian film, did well, highlighting the largely unknown world of competitive ballroom dancing. Tango (1998), an Argentinian film, told a similar story for Tango.

2000’s +

The dance movie returned in 2001 with Save The Last Dance and Moulin Rouge. Moulin Rouge has a mish-mash of dancing styles, including Can Can and Bollywood. Director Baz Lurhman was in fact inspired by Bollywood films to create a new Western musical. It was a huge popular and critical success, being the first dance film in 10 years to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. The film’s technique of re-purposing old pop songs to fit an original story has been utilised by stage musicals such as Mama Mia and Viva Forever. Its dance style was, however, not as influential on later movies as Save The Last Dance and it’s 2003 successor Honey.

Save The Last Dance, the story of a ballet dancer learning hip hop, is the first in the current trend of street dance films. Street dance began as part of the underground hip hop movement in the 80’s and is characterised by movements like break-dance, popping and locking, and roboting. By the early 2000’s hip hop culture had become mainstream and commercial and it is perhaps inevitable that Hollywood would capitalise on this. Plots typically follow a similar thread: a young outsider uses dance to escape the confines of his or her life; winning a street dance competition is generally the main goal and is the platform for the final dance showcase. Ballet and ballroom are portrayed as stuffy and resistant to both hip hop and any change. As with the glut of 30’s and 40’s musicals, the dancing, rather than the story, is certainly the main draw for the new generation of urban dance films.

Slick, pop-video style editing of the modern dance film gives the dancing a gloss it does not have in it’s live format. Street dance developed in great part in competitions where individuals and crews battle to show off their best moves. This competitive nature is perhaps what has influenced Holllywood’s drive to one-up itself. Each successive film has led to bigger tricks and stunts at the expense, it could be argued, of artistry or indeed plot. For example, the dance showcase of Step Up (2006) is a 3 minute dance in a school auditorium with a place in a dance company at stake. In Step Up 3 (2010) the final showcase takes place at the inaugural World Jam Finals, hosted by Hip Hop MC Grandmaster Caz and with a potential $100,000 at stake. Two crews spend more than 10 minutes doing battle, cheered on by thousands of spectators. It makes Save The Last Dance look positively quaint

Looking back at dance on the big screen, we can see the rise and fall in popularity of ballroom, tap, jazz and street. Whatever the next big thing is, we can rest assured Hollywood will bring it to us.

At a time when ballet was reduced to pretty spectacle, and modern dancers were striking out on their own to create a new dance language, a few talented innovators knew ballet had the potential to rejuvenate. Premiering in 1909, the Ballets Russes gave ballet a bigger shake-up than anyone could have anticipated.

Nijinsky as the Faun

Where ballet had waned in popularity in Europe, Russia had incubated it, nurturing talented dancers and choreographers who by the 1900’s wanted to convey real emotion and meaning within the framework of classical ballet. Diaghilev, for whom the term ‘impressario’ was invented, gave them the forum they needed by combining some of the finest Russian dancers of the day like Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky with innovative choreographers like Mikhail Fokine, and transplanting them to Europe, free of the strict Imperial atmosphere. Working with and modern composers like Stravinsky, and modern artists like Leon Bakst for set and costume design, every aspect of the Ballets Russes challenged the preconceived ideals of classical dance.

These ballets were expressive, and rejected both the standard 3-act structure and use of the corps-de-ballet. Petroushka, for example, is divided into 4 parts, The Firebird into two, and both ballets are about fifty minutes long. For all their innovation, however, it was the dancers who brought life to the ballets, dancing with superb technical ability but also expressive power. Anna Pavlova danced with passion and fire. Vaslav Nijinsky seemed to hover in the air as he leaped, and portrayed characters with true emotional depth. European audiences had seen nothing like them before.

Before long, Nijinsky would turn his talents to choreography. For his two more famous ballets, L’Apres Midi d’une Faune (Afternoon of a Faun) and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) he found inspiration in ancient Greek art. The simplicity and rigidity of the figures influenced his movements which today still look unusual – side-on with weighted postures and asymmetrical gestures. The classically-trained dancers found it difficult. The lightness of ballet was replaced with a barefoot heaviness and they struggled to keep their feet parallel. The short ballets took hundreds of rehearsals to get right. Difficult music required the dancers to count aloud throughout; Nijinsky even resorted to stamping his feet offstage to keep the dancers in time with each other.

For Nijinsky emotion was the originator of movement, not aesthetic – another departure from traditional ballet. Nijinsky he wanted to create “for the ordinary viewer a jolting and emotional experience”. But it was so new, so shocking, that the audience revolted.

L’Apres Midi d’une Faune was first performed in the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on May 29, 1912. The unballet-ness of the ballet was difficult enough for the audience to take, but the sexual references led to outrage. The plot is simple: a faune plays with seven maidens. When they leave one drops her scarf, which he picks up, spreads on the ground and lowers himself onto, a movement many considered obscene and mimicking of masturbation. Newspaper Le Figaro condemned the ‘vile movements of erotic bestiality’.

Sacre created an even bigger scandal. It lasted only six performances, premiering at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913. Stravinsky’s discordant experimental music was unlike anything audiences were accustomed to. The plot, an unflinching portrayal of sacrifice in pagan Russia, was unpalatable. Everything about the choreography was raw, harsh. The movement was reduced, stripped bare of flourish; more like gesture springing from emotion. It contained repetitive motions of walking and stamping in order to evoke the primitive setting and reflect the score.

Many took the ballet to be a mockery of art. Its opening night in Paris caused a near-riot, which began even before the curtain was raised, during the opening music. The audience jeered and whistled and catcalled so loudly they drowned out the orchestra. Fights broke out. The orchestra played on despite having things thrown at them. The dancers danced on despite the sounds of both the orchestra and Nijinsky off-stage keeping time being drowned out by the rioting audience. The police were called in. Some critics called it “coarse” and “brutal” while others were intrigued.

To Diaghilev scandal meant tickets. Indeed the second night sold out. Scandal gave his company greater publicity and in turn greater profits. But while the Ballets Russes enjoyed continued success Sacre did not and they never performed it again. Over the years it has been revived and re-choreographed many times all over the world. Despite the initial revulsion, Stravinsky’s score, and the themes of ritual and sacrifice have kept drawing choreographers and audiences back.

Nijinsky was dismissed from the company in 1913. Though he choreographed again his work never attained quite the same infamy. The Ballets Russes had made their mark on Europe. Movement had become released from the restrictions of Classical ballet and in turn become more expressive. Ballet had returned as a relevant art form in Europe.