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.