Dance of Steel

[From the Paris Review]

8th July 1927: US dancer Leonide Massine (1896 – 1979) holding a large hammer over the head of Russian dancer Alexandra Danilova (1904 – 1997) during a Ballets Russes production of ‘Le Pas d’Acier’ at His Majesty’s Theatre, London. Music by Sergei Prokofiev, choreography by Leonid Massine and designs by Yuri Yakoulov. (Photo by Sasha/Getty Images)

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.

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