The Ballet Master.
A look into the Tour de Force Life of Pyotr Andreyevich Gusev.
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.
Contact with him would leave a mark in the soul, in the brain.
— Celebrated Mariinsky Theatre Principal Nonna Yastrebova
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
His critique was always targeted, precise. No extensive lectures. He had the ability to draw out of a person that, which was inherent within…
… 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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…
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”.
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…
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.
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:
… 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.
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.
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.
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.