The Ballet Master.

The Ballet Master.

A look into the Tour de Force Life of Pyotr Andreyevich Gusev.

Pyotr Gusev as “Asak” and Olga Mungalova as “Solveig” as the original performers in the ballet “Ice Maiden” choreographed by Fyodor Lopukhov to music by Edvard Grieg (c. 1927)

It seems an overwhelming task to write about the unique individual whom I have studied for almost a month, a personage who is revered as a supreme authority in the high art of classical dance.

So maybe I should start out by writing about how his students and colleagues felt about him.

Pyotr Gusev as “Boris”and Tatiana Vecheslova as “Olga” in Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Bolt (1931) with choreography by Fyodor Lopukhov

Contact with him would leave a mark in the soul, in the brain.

— Celebrated Mariinsky Theatre Principal Nonna Yastrebova

Ninel Aleksandrovna Petrova (born 1924)

Our generation was very lucky, because in the very beginning of our creative journey we met such a person.  It is to him we owe our accomplishment… we worked with spirit, if only to earn his approval.

— Distinguished Mariinsky Theatre Principal Ninel Petrova

Askold Anatolievich Makarov (1925–2000)

His critique was always targeted, precise. No extensive lectures.  He had the ability to draw out of a person that, which was inherent within…

Nona Borisovna Yastrebova (1923-2012)

… This entire group (of famous dancers):  Ninel Petrova, Askold Makarov, Inna Zubkovskaya, Olga Moiseeva, Alla Osipenko – Pyotr Andreyevich made us all…

— Nonna Yastrebova

Yes, my research project into this exceptionally accomplished dancer, teacher, choreographer, artistic director and writer has taken me awhile… not only because of my translation process from Russian to English… but just to wrap my head around the sheer number of accolades garnered by this individual… to metabolize that this person has literally molded the greats of the greats, among his students the famous choreographer Leonid Yakobson and outstanding dancer Aleksey Yermolayev… and that his school buddy and close friend was none other than George Balanchine.

George Balanchine born Georgiy Melitonovich Balanchivadze (1904 –1983)
Ninel Petrova

But unless you really seep into the depth of this person’s being, unless you really look into “the man behind the mask”, so to speak, he’s just a great, faraway star, someone you can never reach.

In fact, you find out it’s quite the contrary when you begin to explore the life of Pyotr Andreyevich.

Ballet great Ninel Petrova recounts a tender experience with her beloved mentor:

“Not long before the departure (of Gusev) we were at his apartment on Rossi Street. There were blini (Russian style crepes), a wonderful meal, and it was very simple and easy for us.  He possessed an incredible talent – he was able to be as an equal.”

So let’s take a closer look at the portrait of Pyotr Andreyevich Gusev, a surprisingly approachable man who lived an extraordinary life and left us an extraordinary legacy.

Pyotr Andreyevich Gusev really does have a remarkable fate in terms of his education and life trajectory from early on — it’s as if he was made for his great role.

It is a rare bird who gets to study from the get-go at a private school with a famous ballerina of the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, who then brings him into the St. Petersburg ballet school, where he clearly emerges as not only a talented dancer, but a gifted teacher, conducting practice classes with the younger students during his senior years at the school.

Gusev’s famous teacher, Mariinsky Theatre ballerina Olga Preobrajenska (1871–1962)

SIDEBAR

As an older student at the St. Petersburg ballet school, Gusev coached his junior peers including future choreographers Leonid Yakobson and Rostislav Zakharov as well as the future outstanding dancer Aleksey Yermolayev, who even upon becoming the premiere of the Bolshoi Theatre, continued to study with Gusev.

Galina Ulanova

He goes on to become the principal dancer with two of the world’s top-ranking theatres, dancing with partners Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya, legends in their own right, and later becomes a teacher, choreographer and artistic director of the biggest world-known ballet institutions in his country.  If that isn’t enough, he travels to China to organize a ballet company in Peking and choreographic schools in Shanghai and Canton, pioneering the integration of classical ballet with Chinese classical dance.

Maya Plisetskaya

Here I must interject, because it is impossible to go on talking about Gusev without the inclusion of the historical figure Fyodor Vasilievich Lopukhov.

Spanning the majority of his career, Pyotr Gusev sustains a rare collaborative partnership with the famous Soviet-era choreographer Lopukhov, initially dancing break-out roles in his concept-themed experimental productions, and eventually joining forces with his visionary friend to head up the Mikhailovsky (Maly Theatre) where the two continue to up their game by staging societally risqué productions, taking their creative alliance to the next level.

Fyodor Vasilievich Lopukhov
Pyotr Gusev as head ballet master at Novosibirsk Theater (circa late 1960's)

Down the road, Gusev is invited to stage productions as chief ballet-master at the premiere ballet companies of Stanislavski and Novosibirsk Theatres as well as the aforementioned Mikhailovsky. He also becomes head of the unique Leonid Yakobson Ballet Theater.

Next in his repertoire, Gusev is appointed head of the ballet-master department at the Leningrad Conservatory eventually becoming a professor there.

Along the way he pens a number of poignant scholarly articles dedicated to questions about ballet and preserving the legacy of classical dance.

Believe it or not, this is the short version of the man’s resume.

But in all his achievements, three things
really stand out revealing the secret behind his ultimate value and contribution, making this article worthy of writing… and reading 🙂

An astonishing level of organization.

“He had everything remarkably organized.  Everyone always came prepared to the rehearsals – he was a great authority for us…”

— Ninel Petrova

Perhaps Gusev’s organizational talent had its first visible debut in 1923 via the Young Ballet project which he created with his school friend Georgi Balanchivadze, better known as Balanchine, and several other academy peers who would become future notables. The Young Ballet project was a series of evenings mostly showcasing performances staged by Balanchine, and attracted enthusiasts and young dancers including the acrobatically inclined Olga Mungalova, who would become Pyotr’s irreplaceable partner for many years to come.

Olga Mungalova with Pyotr Gusev in George Balanchine’s choreographic samples at Petrograd Training Ballet Theatre Academy (Petrograd, 1923)

To organize such a project is no ordinary endeavor. It takes a sharp, focused mind with an unobstructed vision of what you want and the ability to harness it.

It equally demands the kind of broad-mindedness that is driven to create beauty on a grander than personal scale.  Because it is about bringing talents together and seeing them shine as a group.

But that’s not all.  This skill-set must be accompanied by the ability to draw out the best in people, which means to see the best in people.

And this brings us to the next discernible trait of Pyotr Gusev.

A gift to see and draw out talent.

To see the best in people means to see the often less noticeable traits and latent potentials tucked beneath our outermost layers.  And in this respect, Gusev went above and beyond.

“He was able to see talents, with an exceptional ability to grow them,”  as prominent writer D. Truskinovskaya puts it.

Former head of Novosibirsk Ballet and Philharmonic, Alexander Savin recalls:

“Gusev had a god-given talent, to see the potentials of a ballet master in a dancer.”

Savin goes on to say that this is in fact, how world famous ballet figures Oleg Vinogradov and Nikita Dolgushin got their start:

“… he [Gusev] initiated Oleg Vinogradov into producing “Swan Lake” and practically convinced Nikita Dolgushin to start staging his first big works: “Cinderella” and “Romeo and Juliet”.

Oleg Vinogradov
Nikita Dolgushin

From the composite of sources describing his life and career – the two being literally fused – it becomes apparent that Pyotr Gusev’s creative drive was fueled through his work with young dance professionals.

“He always helped young people…” an article quotes ballerina Ninel Petrova’s recollection of Gusev.

“Gusev’s style of work was in his work with the dancers… He encouraged artists to try out for different roles, secured a ballet coach… [and] send them out onto the stage,” contributes Alexander Savin.

“Pyotr Andreyevich Gusev had a principle, from which he even suffered – he promoted the young…” remembers his student and colleague, ballerina Nonna Yastrebova.

Yastrebova further reveals:

His life was not at all easy… Pyotr Andreyevich had very big problems.  He was in fact removed… he left Petersburg. And because of what? Because, he put us, the youth, into productions.  We suffered for him very much. But it was impossible to shove us back.

A part of an earlier quote by ballet principal Ninel Petrova bears repeating in appreciation of his gift:

Our generation was very lucky, because, in the very beginning of our creative journey we met such a person.  It is to him we owe our accomplishment. Pyotr Andreyevich – an incredible leader, dance coach, teacher…

Nonna Yastrebova as the Autumn Fairy in Cinderella (Kirov Ballet, 1940′s)

If Pyotr Gusev was the sculptor of human talent, then these young dancers were the perfect medium for the molding and shaping of its expression.

“King of Partnering”.

Pyotr Gusev with Olga Mungalova in George Balanchine’s choreographic samples at Petrograd Training Ballet Theatre Academy (Petrograd, 1923).

Gusev had a remarkable quality that garnered him the famous title “king of partnering.”

“This artist… contributed a huge amount to the development of partner dance,” writes D. Truskinovskaya, “…and even today not many artists can repeat his almost acrobatic stunts.”

Nonna Yastrebova contributes excitedly:

The way Pyotr Andreyevich lifted you, no one could lift a partner.  No one!

What Lepeshinskaya (renowned Bolshoi ballerina) did in the famous “Moszkowski Waltz”?  She ran to him for the ‘fish dive lift’, holding her arms in back of her and… jumped!  And he caught her. He could catch from any position…

Freeze frame from the famous Moszkowski Waltz performed by Pyotr Gusev and Olga Lepeshinskaya for Bolshoi Ballet (circa 1940)
Pavel Andreyevich Gerdt was the Premier Danseur Noble of the Imperial Ballet, the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, and the Mariinsky Theatre with a 56-year tenure (debuting in 1860, and retiring in 1916)

Yastrebova goes on to gives an almost humorous, historical context to the significance of Pyotr Gusev’s partnering know-how:

Earlier, such a thing didn’t exist. Pavel Andreyevich Gerdt (the best dance partner of the imperial theatre era – “News” source) walked next to, some held by the hand, and if he circled around – this was already very good. But to push one up (high), double ‘fish’ lift down – this only Gusev could do.

Frankly, the real value lies not in his “stunts”, but what enabled Pyotr Gusev to impeccably perform the never-before seen feats. We can certainly get a clue as to what it is from exalted Mariinsky Theatre prima Tatyana M. Vecheslova’s quote:

Gusev was glorified as an outstanding partner, “king of partnering”… the  real virtuosity was that Gusev never clung to his partner. Performing the most difficult combinations, he barely touched her.  This created a feeling of lightness, ease. His technique, developed to the level of excellence, giving the dance an [exceptional] mood.

 

Pyotr Gusev and Olga Mungalova in Alexander Serov’s Opera “Judith” Dance of the Egyptian acrobats with choreography by Fyodor Lopukhov (1925)

What does this clue to Gusev’s rare aptitude imply?

Apart from the caliber of preparation required from a professional on this level – a given – this picture clearly denotes Gusev’s ability to genuinely CONNECT with his partner, to feel and gauge the mood, energy and character with whom he was dancing.

In fact, you can see the element of CONNECTION running through all the facets of Pyotr Andreyevich:

Pyotr Andreyevich Gusev with influential ballet educator Alisa Vasilevna Nikiforov at Novosibirsk Theatre (circa late 1960's)

… through the impressive synergy in the wiring of his brain allowing for genius in organization

… through his uncanny insight into the ability of others

… through his flair to bring talents together into a collaborative unit

… through his power to sear knowledge into the mind and heart of those he worked with

… through his piecing together of prior works with meticulous attention and methodical re-staging technique

… through his versatility in staging numerous and multifaceted ballets ranging from classic revivals to avant-garde abstractions

… through his capacity to bring the elite world of ballet to a greater audience, giving us insider access to privileged information through his earnest, concise and encompassing writing on the subject.

All these things – the ability to envision, construct, order, relay, transform – are based on CONNECTION…  a connection of qualities that Pyotr Gusev possessed within himself.

Ultimately, Pyotr Gusev was able to inspire the formation of personality in others.  He had the gift to grow Identity. Really, he was just passing onto others what he himself already had.

And in all likelihood the framework of classical ballet is what fostered this phenomenon.

“Seven Beauties” to music of Gara Garayev, staged by Pyotr Gusev at the Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in Baku, Azerbaijan in 1952, and in Leningrad’s Kirov Theatre in 1953
Gusev teaching in Peking (circa 1960)

Ballet is a uniquely powerful instrument proven to develop the integrity of the mind-body unit as one, promoting the functions of focus, orderliness and adaptability, bolstering mental acuity, confidence and very importantly the ability to connect with others.

Connection with others comes through connection with yourself… which in turns comes through connection with your own innate qualities.

This is what it means to have Identity… to “Know Thyself” as the famous aphorism goes.

And this is what ballet can help to bring out in us… the innate capacities already living within.

To know thyself is to have everything and Pyotr Gusev’s life is an exemplary portrait of this.  Through this point of view, he’s not just a dusty old figure in the annals of ballet history, but he comes to life as the ignitor of the great potential in all of us.

The creative offspring of Pyotr Andreyevich Gusev.

Perhaps one of Gusev’s most devoted students, Aleksey Yermolayev went on to pass the torch of his knowledge to the next generation of greats including the supreme Bolshoi principal and ballet master Mikhail Lavrovsky and famed Bolshoi dancer Vladimir Vasiliev, named “God of the dance” by Fyodor Lopukhov.

But don’t take my word for it!  Here’s an excerpt describing the rehearsal image from its contributor, The Reborn Art Foundation in Moscow:

In the 1960s, stars of world ballet and the best dancers of the Bolshoi, such as Mikhail Lavrovsky, Yuri Vladimirov, Maris Liepa, Boris Akimov, Alexander Godunov, and Vyacheslav Gordeev, all worked with Yermolaev. 

Vladimir Vasiliev was Yermolaev’s first student and his successor as a dancer.

Alexei Yermolaev rehearsing with his student Vladimir Vasiliev; photo by Leonid Zhdanov (1971)
Vladimir Vasiliev
Mikhail Lavrovsky
Mikhail Lavrovsky and Natalia Bessmertnova in “The Legend of Love” at the Bolshoi Theatre
Lali Kandelaki rehearsing “Romeo and Juliet” with Mikhail Lavrovsky at State Ballet of Georgia (2011)

Pyotr Gusev’s mentee Leonid Yacobson was instrumental in influencing and helping to shape the creative force of Boris Eifman, a pioneer of ballet exploration in his own right.

Boris Eifman, photo by Sasha Onyshchenko
Tableau of the “Gates of Hell” from Boris Eifman ballet “Rodin”; photo by Gene Schiavone

A good note to end on….  is that all this circles back to ‘lil ole me’ through my dear ballet friend Anna Korotysheva, a student of Inna Zubkovskaya, one of the members of Pyotr Gusev’s famous group of proteges.

til next time... be inspired to explore, expand and share your find!

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Harlequinade

Harlequinade

Saw this ballet for the first time on January 19th of this year at OC’s Segerstrom Center … and was unexpectedly sparked to write about it.

Fashioned on a mock tale of romance, greed, foolishness and mischief, this ballet brings us into the bygone era of comedic theatre accompanied by music and stylised dance.

With the character of a court Jester in the lead, we are invited to travel into the realm of the magical and mystical where all is possible.

The unlikely hero is not only colorful in costume, but reveals the tone of this production, which is painted if not saturated with humor, satire, and whimsicality.

Harlequin costume sketch by Robert Perdziola for American Ballet Theatre’s Harlequinade (2017)
Legendary dancers Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Fokine as attendants of Harlequin and Columbine’s wedding (circa 1900)
Marius Ivanovich Petipa (1818-1910)

The Jester as well as other roles in this ballet are modeled after stage archetypes seen in the beginnings of professional Italian theatre, called Commedia dell’arte, no doubt serving as the palette for the creative genius of Marius Petipa, who originally choreographed the ballet in 1900.

Anna Pavlova as Columbine and the Mikhail Fokine as Harlequin in the "Sérénade" scene choreographed by Marius Petipa to music by Riccardo Drigos in Harlequinade (circa 1902)
Robert Perdziola (circa 1980's)

The costuming is exquisitely executed by uber-talented Robert Perdziola who has been creating costumes and set design for over three decades – and this guy gets around! Case in point, Perdziola designed the sets and costumes for the Finnish National Ballet’s Alice in Wonderland (2016 premiere).

Card Lady costume sketch by Robert Perdziola for American Ballet Theatre’s Harlequinade (2017)
Card Man costume sketch by Robert Perdziola for American Ballet Theatre’s Harlequinade (2017)

But why am I really inspired to write about this ballet?

A Higher Beauty

Apart from the more obvious facets including the remarkable craftsmanship of costuming, set design, storytelling and choreography – the latter having been profoundly described as the art of giving physical form to music – apart from all this, I am astounded by yet another composition showcasing an artform that in itself is an instrument for elevating the consciousness of mankind.

A ballet production integrates in itself the highest artforms, with music and classical dance at its core.

The artform of classical dance (aka, ballet) is by definition an artform of highest integrity, as it requires its practitioner to integrate all the separate parts of the body into one harmonious, working unit, a unit which becomes an instrument capable of channeling and thereby physically expressing higher beauty.

Larks flying in Harlequinade; photo by Marty Sohl (?) for American Ballet Theatre (2018)

Higher beauty, is in turn evoked through the harmony of working parts acting as one unified whole.

young dancers posing in a bow for Harlequinade 2018 premiere; photo by Rosalie O’Connor for ABT

Bringing it back to the performance, what caught my eye most was the children’s numbers in Harlequinade.

It is an exceptional sight to see some-30 youngsters on a stage in an organized, uniform manner, each member holding his or her own, whilst contributing to the beautiful aesthetic exuded by the group.

This was seeing the integrity of ballet on a collective scale and beyond words.

Resurrection

As our in-the-know ballet lecturer Elizabeth Kaye informed us, we were about to see the revival of a classic masterpiece with its face-lift from none other than ABT’s artist-in-residence and today’s IT-boy choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky.

It is no small task to preserve the integrity of the original whilst filling in the holes and gaps lost in time and giving it new life. Thus Ms. Kaye revealed to us before the show that Alexei Ratmansky and his wife devoted a great amount of time to meticulously combing through Petipa’s original notes in an effort to keep the master’s work in tact amidst the restoration process.

the Larks in Harlequinade; photo by Marty Sohl for American Ballet Theatre (2018)

The notably accomplished choreographer, artistic director, former Bolshoi principal dancer and good friend of George Balanchine, Pyotr Andreyevich Gusev teaches at Novosibirsk Theater (circa 1960s—70s)

Ratmansky is not the first to restage this classic work.

Once again our dear ballet friend Anna comes through, sending a commentary by a distinguished ballet figure who shines some light on the subject!

In his article, Preserving Masterpieces of the Past (from the Journal of Soviet Ballet, 1983, №4), the Ballet Master Pyotr Gusev tells us that Harlequinade fell out of the Mariinsky/ Kirov Theatre repertoire in 1923, with its first reconstruction some 38 years later in 1961 for the Novosibirsk Theatre.

The 1963 debut planned at Novosibirsk never took place, and three years later work resumed on the project.

“The restoration of a ballet production or its choreography – is always a collective project,” Gusev emphasizes.

The Ballet Master recounts how in 1961, the oldest surviving performer in the main role of Harlequin, B. Shavrov, headed up a large group of veteran dancers, gathering old performers from every role all the way to the corps de ballet (with the exception of Lèandre, as no living dancers of this role remained).  In 1963, Shavrov finished compiling all the materials, but as mentioned the production did not take place.

In evidence to the complexity of the process, Gusev also mentions that the stage settings or “tableaus”, were only partially recovered and more difficult to restore than the choreography.

In 1975, after further remastery, the ballet was relocated to the Leningrad Maly (Small) Theatre of Opera & Ballet, aka, Mikhailovsky Theatre where it continued its rehab process.

Pyotr Andreyevich Gusev with highly regarded and influential ballet teacher Alisa Vasilevna Nikiforov at Novosibirsk Theatre (circa 1960s—70s)
Harlequinade “commedia characters in miniature form” as the dance writer Gay Morris aptly puts it; photo by Rosalie O’Connor for American Ballet Theatre (2018)

Surviving an arduous transformative journey Harlequinade retains the essence of its identity, delighting audiences anew while connecting past and present as only the thread of timeless art can do.

til next time!

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