In Soviet Russia, getting a ballet off the ground was no mean feat, as Sergei Prokofiev learned the hard way.
In Russia, during the Soviet era, government control made the challenge of getting a ballet onto the stage no less onerous than being admitted into the ballet schools of Moscow or Leningrad. The daunting auditions of Soviet legend—teachers scrutinizing preadolescents for the slightest physical imperfection—found an ideological parallel in the required inspections by censorship boards at the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky–Kirov theaters. First, the subject of a prospective ballet was adjudicated in terms of its fulfillment of the demands for people-mindedness; the music and the dance would be likewise assessed. There would follow a provisional closed-door run-through to decide if the completed ballet could be presented to the public, after which it would either be scrapped or sent back to the creative workshop for repairs. Dress rehearsals were subsequently assessed by administrators, cognoscenti, politicians, representatives from agricultural and industrial unions, and relatives of the performers. Even then, after all of the technical kinks had been worked out, an ideological defect could lead to the sudden collapse of the entire project.
Bodies as well as plots were changed by politics. The traditional emploi that defined danseurs noble and demi-caractère endured, but emphasis was placed on bigger builds and altogether less softness in the curves. In sculpture, “Soviet man” became like a Greek or Roman demigod, the muscles stronger than steel. So, too, he became in ballet.
In 1927, Sergei Prokofiev and the choreographer Léonid Massine tried to make exactly this point about the heroic Soviet man to audiences in Paris. Their ballet Le pas d’acier, or The Dance of Steel, was brought to the Bolshoi Theatre two years later for a show-and-tell session, igniting a bonfire of communist apparatchik vanities. Resentful mediocrities from the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM) attacked the composer, who found himself in a terra incognita of unlettered sarcasm, baseless paranoia, and pointless rhetorical argument. The ballet had been seen in Paris, London, and Monte Carlo, but it would never reach the Bolshoi stage.
Beyond voicing covetous disdain for Prokofiev’s coddled lifestyle in the capitalist West, critics expressed resentment that the composer should dare to represent the Soviet experience without having firsthand knowledge of it. Indeed Prokofiev had watched the revolution from abroad, touring as a pianist and composer through Europe and the United States. He returned to the Soviet Union first in 1927, at Anatoly Lunacharsky’s behest and with much fanfare, then again in 1929, to a less glorious reception. Had Prokofiev composed an allegorical drama, he might have succeeded, but since he had not himself sold cigarettes (as the worker-girl heroine of the ballet does) or worn an anchor around his neck (as the sailor hero does), he got it all wrong. Plus, it was said, the hammer heavers in the steel plant onstage looked less like the ecstatic fulfillment of one of Stalin’s five-year plans for industrial development than oiled-up slaves.
Le pas d’acier was drafted to depict the aftermath of the revolution, but the first half of the scenario was rewritten by the émigré impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who turned the tale into a series of scenes from folklore for the entertainment of French audiences. Diaghilev added a witch and a crocodile into the middle of a drama unfolding on and around a rural railroad platform, rendering the events of the second half—the metamorphosis of the hero and heroine into model urban workers, and the sacrifice of their individual desires for the benefit of the collective—ambiguous at best. Prokofiev hoped that the Bolshoi staging would restore the original plot and clean up the ending: the steel mill was to be shut down by the bankrollers of the New Economic Policy for failing to turn a profit but subsequently reopened by the workers themselves, with the owner of the steel mill tossed into the clink. Thus the ballet was meant to depict the chaos under Lenin’s coup in the first half, with the swindlers on the streets having no time for political speeches, but in the second half, portray the order of the Stalin era. Grotesquerie morphs into something beautiful. But it was not altogether about factories, communist or capitalist. It was about the kinetics, the mechanical parts, of the body, which are more sublime in their communal operation than anything that could ever be forged, smelted, or tempered.
RAPM would have none of it, and Prokofiev was left to joke, ruefully, that he had been pitched from the theater along with his principal supporter, the deputy administrative director Boris Gusman, a force for change who believed that the old repertoire needed to go. “The salvation of the Bolshoi Theatre would to a large extent be achieved by a big—bol’shoy— bonfire,” Gusman told a repertoire commission a month before Prokofiev’s appearance, “so long as it burned all those things, so long as it pushed the Bolshoi Theatre onto new rails.” Those rails were part of the stage design for Le pas d’acier.
In his diary, Prokofiev used the Russian word for “purge” to describe his conflict with RAPM, albeit long before NKVD interrogators extracted another meaning from it. He described playing through the score and then sitting behind a table on the stage to answer several dozen questions from the audience in the presence of the director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, who proposed redoing the ballet for Bolshoi audiences in collaboration with Asaf Messerer, and “a boilerman or fitter who was acting as presiding officer and who was in fact quite competent in the role.” Prokofiev glowered when told he needed political reeducation, and after the following unpleasant exchange about the accelerated machine rhythms of the ballet’s end: “Is the factory capitalist, where the workers are slaves, or Soviet, where they are the masters, and if it is Soviet, then when and where did you have the opportunity to study any factory here, since you have been living abroad since 1918 and only came back for the first time in 1927, for just two weeks?” “That is a political question, not a musical one, so I don’t intend to answer it.” The consequence of his silence became evident at the January 23, 1930, meeting of the Bolshoi’s artistic and political council. The meeting, chaired by Gusman, concerned the repertoire for the season. Shostakovich’s raucous first opera, The Nose, was listed as “doubtful” for a Bolshoi staging, and Prokofiev’s dance of steel—“canceled.”
Simon Morrison is a professor of music at Princeton University, a contributor to the New York Times and the Times Literary Supplement, and the author of, most recently, Lina and Serge. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Excerpted from Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today by Simon Morrison. Copyright © 2016 by Simon Morrison. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.