Red Whirlwinds: Fyodor Lopukhov and the Ballet Revolution

By Olivia Bašić

In April 1923, at the Twelfth Congress of the Russian Communist Party, it was decided that the theatre would become an essential tool in the organisation of mass propaganda regarding the struggle of communism. A resolution was passed declaring ‘it was necessary to strengthen the work for the creation and selection of a corresponding revolutionary repertoire, utilising in it heroic moments of the struggle of the working class’.[1]

It was not until the following year that the (then) Leningrad State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet (GAOB) were to take up this directive.[2] Whilst the Ballet Theatres had already begun to reform and ‘improve’ classics from the Imperial era, the desire to create works ‘of revolutionary content’ had become imperative as the seventh anniversary of the October Revolution approached.[3]

The repertory inherited from the Imperial era had provided a model for the full-length ballet and a language of expression, but even with new and updated librettos the ballet was widely considered ‘an integral component of tsardom’ and thus required a radical

picture1
Act One of ‘The Red Whirlwind’, 1924

transformation of both form and content.[4]

As director of GAOB, Fyodor Lopukhov attempted to fulfil these ambitions with a new ballet, The Red Whirlwind, depicting ‘the great events of October’.[5] In choosing the image of the whirlwind, Lopuhkov was drawing on a plethora of associations recurrent in Russian and Soviet culture suggestive of upheaval, struggle, growth and renewal. He understood the significance of images and symbols as instruments of the revolution and as tools for the remaking of a new culture, explaining:

‘We wanted to display the events of the revolution, a new life. We have seen such attempts undertaken in the Drama Theatre, we heard talk that the revolution needs images in allegories and symbols which would rise above the chronicles’.[6]

These images are all that is now left of the ballet. On October 29, 1924, after only one performance the ballet was dropped and the choreography has since been lost. Contemporary reviews, accounts of the action on stage, and programme notes outlining the choreographer’s intentions have often been scrutinized, to attest to the failure of the production as an allegorical characterisation of the ‘birth of socialism’.

The criticism focuses on the choreographer’s unsuccessful simplification of the classical dance language. In an attempt to create a modern dance lexicon suitable for the theme and new proletariat audience, Lopuhkov avoided using movements suggestive of court spectacles. Relying on marches and shape formations that resembled gymnastic exercises, the result was unsophisticated and oblique.

However, the striking symbol of a powerful force journeying across the earth in helical movements destroying and uprooting the old and propelling the new forward, perfectly allegorises the revolutionary change taking place on and off stage. The whirled image and

picture2
Act One of ‘The Red Whirlwind’, 1924

repetition of spiral formations continued throughout Lopukhov’s career. It is a curious and at times subtle image but nonetheless it is useful for an interpretation of his work.

Spinning snowflakes in The Nutcracker conjured up the harsh Petersburg winters, but also represented a perpetually shifting cultural climate throughout the 1920s. The spiral formation of eighteen dancers at the climax of The Magnificence of the Universe were recognised as a homage to the constructivist style celebration of industrial production.[7]

Despite varying degrees of success, each new avant-garde interpretation of classical dance promoted the idea of carrying society forward alongside a dialogue that questioned the extent to which classical heritage should be reformed or retained.

Lopuhkov’s career marked an exciting experiment with the possibilities that the revolution afforded the Ballet Theatres, as well as a desperate attempt to relate ballet to contemporary life. If nothing else, Lopukhov’s modernisation of the ballet demonstrated a radical change in approaches to choreography, which mirrored the ‘great upheaval’ in Soviet cultural and political life.

Olivia Bašić is currently completing her MA in Art History at the University of Manchester, where her research interests include the influence and legacy of the Russian Ballet. You can find her on Twitter at @bonjoursouffle_

References:

[1]  Mary Grace Swift, The Art of Dance in the U.S.S.R., (University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), p. 61.

[2] The Imperial Mariinsky Theatre was renamed State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet in 1920 and renamed again Leningrad State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet in 1924. It is often referred to by its Russian acronym GATOB (Gosudarstvenniy Akademicheskiy Teatr Operi i Baleta).

[3] Tim Scholl, Sleeping Beauty: A Legend in Progress, (Yale University Press, 2004).

[4] Fyodor Lopukhov, Shest’desiat let v balete: Vospominaniia i zapiski baletmeistra, (Moscow, 1966), p. 192.

[5] Lopukhov was made director in 1922, Lopukhov, Shest’desiat let, p.58.

[6] Lopuhkov, Shest’desiat let, p. 193.

[7] Elizaveta Surits, ‘Soviet Ballet of the 1920s and the Influence of Constructivism’, Soviet Review, Vol. 7.1, 1980, p 119.

Full Image Attributions:

Image 1: Act 1 of The Red Whirlwind, 1924 – taken from Dobrovol’skaia, Galina, Fyodor Lopukhov, (Leningrad: Iskusstvo, 1976).

Image 2: Act 1 of The Red Whirlwind, 1924 – Dobrovol’skaia, Galina, Fyodor Lopukhov, (Leningrad: Iskusstvo, 1976).

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