In response to The New York Times review of Gyor National Ballet’s recent performance at The Joyce Theater, dance writer, historian and frequent Joyce Theater Dance Talks facilitator, Linda Szmyd Monich offers the following contextualization and reading list for those wishing to gain more perspective on the work:
“I recently gave a lecture on January 7, 2010 for The Joyce Theater at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in New York City about the Gyor National Ballet from Hungary and their production of Petrushka. The Gyor Ballet’s performances were part of the Performing Revolution in Central and Eastern Europe Festival, which was presented by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in association with leading cultural organizations and academic institutions, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Gyor National Ballet was formed in 1979 by the graduating class of the Hungarian State Ballet Institute. Their goal was to remain together and create a contemporary ballet company. 30 years later, the company is alive and well under the artistic direction of one of its founding members, Janos Kiss. I was curious about how much state censorship was still in place in 1979, and he replied via email:
“In 1979 everything was censored. Maybe not directly, but informants were always around and every artistic work and artists were continuously reported on by the Secret Police. If anything was created which could be identified as a problem, the authority would discuss this with the artists and convince them to make appropriate changes. If they did not, some work would be forbidden from performance… However, the most important censorship was the self-censorship. This means the artist knew what was allowed and how much the balloon could be stretched. This was the most dangerous. None of the artists wanted to stretch the limits too far since it was dangerous. Since their livelihood depended on staying within acceptable boundaries, they used self-censorship in their works - this was motivated by fear. It is important to note that the level of censorship decreased slowly and we may say that it disappeared, although not completely, after the 1989 political changes.”
The Gyor National Ballet continues to thrive, and has established a school which many of its dancers attended. The company remains committed to producing contemporary work.
The choreographer Dimitri Simkin was born in Perm, Russia, and studied at the Bolshoi Ballet School from 1974-82. He was known for his virtuosic classical technique and was awarded the first prize and gold medal at the Varna Ballet Competition in 1988. He is, coincidentally, the father of Danill Simkin, one of ABT’s most dazzling young dancers who joined the company in 2008 as a soloist. Dimitri Simkin left Russia in 1990 to dance in Austria. Petrushka, created in 1995, was his first ballet.
The Gyor Ballet’s 1995 premiere of Petrushka was extremely controversial. Audiences were stunned and frightened by the ballet, according to the company’s manager in the US. He wrote, “the show was too real, the memories were too fresh. They were still not used to the idea that there was no censorship. It was a kind of ingrained reaction in their souls.” This was complicated by the fact that many people ‘recognized themselves’ in the performance – either as the ones who did not do anything against the system and joined it, or as the ones who were the interrogators. The wounds were too fresh yet.” Petrushka was very successful on tour in Western Europe.
I must confess that when I first watched a DVD of Simkin’s Petrushka I was confused – I didn’t understand it as a “dark satire” of the Stalinist 30s. As a child of the Cold War era, I don’t remember learning anything about life under Stalin until I was a college student in the 1970s. I knew I had some reading to do about Stalin, the Great Terror of the 30s in Russia, and some background about the history of Hungary (please see my reading list at the end). As Americans, we are, in general, woefully uninformed about the history of Eastern Europe and the monstrous repression imposed by Joseph Stalin that resulted in an estimated 20-40 million deaths. His victims died of starvation, execution, torture, and sheer overwork and disease in the gulag of labor camps.
Simkin’s Petrushka openly confronts the horrors of this era. I think he has intentionally staged it in the style of Socialist Realism that was imposed on all artists in 1934 in Russia and would outlive Stalin after his death in 1953. Art was considered a vital part of the propaganda machine therefore artists who deviated from the norm could be exiled, sent to a labor camp or prison, or executed. The four basic “rules: were: the work must be Proletarian (art relevant to the workers and understandable to them), typical (scenes of everyday life of the people), realistic (in the representational sense), and partisan (supportive of the aims of the State and the Party). I believe that Simkin created Petrushka in the bright, optimistic style of Socialist Realism to create a dissonance between what we see happening to his character Petrushka and the activities of the group who are the “tiny wheels of the system,” and the ominous, powerful Soviet Commissar.
Simkin’s ballet is not a triumphant celebration of the end of Communism. It is a dark work about the worst years of the Great Terror and the tragic, frequently fatal suppression of individuality. In the original production a huge statue of Lenin dominated the stage, but for touring purposes the set has been redesigned so the audience sees a large red star, and the hammer, sickle, and head of Lenin – lying on the stage in fragments – as potent symbols of the all powerful regime. Simkin wrote about his work: “I present here not dolls with feelings like in Fokine’s work, but I present humans who act like puppets in a society controlled by propaganda where misleading the masses and brainwashing controls the whole society. The death of Petrushka is a symbol of an ideology gone wrong, let it be either Communism or National Socialist excesses, or the sacrifice of human rights for the benefit of a cruel ideology. It interested me how I can approach this topic, which is usually coupled with tragic circumstances and physical suffering, in a satirical manner.”
To try and make sense of this I turned to biographies and memoirs in order to understand the human cost of Stalin’s reign. I learned that the great Bolshoi ballerina Maya Plisetskaya was personally and tragically affected by Stalin’s policies while still a child, and a student at the Bolshoi Ballet School. Her father was tortured and interrogated in the notorious Lubyanka Prison, and executed in 1938. Her mother was arrested in 1938 as the “wife of an enemy of the people” and sentenced to eight years in prison for refusing to sign a statement against her husband. Plisetskaya writes in her autobiography, “I was not the only one engulfed by grief. Many in my class lost their parents in the same sweet Stalinist manner.” Her father was rehabilitated posthumously during the Krushchev “thaw” for “lack of criminal charges.” She learned the date of her father’s death from a scrap of paper clipped to his document of rehabilitation, which stated “executed through false denunciation.”
What mystified me about this period is that everyone seemed to get caught in the purges: farmers, scientists, intellectuals, the military, Communist Party members at all levels, artists, writers, poets, dancers, composers, conductors, as well as the husbands, wives and children of the accused, were all swept into prisons and camps. In a world of informers, arrests, torture and imprisonment, fear crippled everyone. Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of the great poet Osip Mandelstam who died in a labor camp, wrote, “Mandlestam always said they knew what they were doing: the aim was to destroy not only people but the intellect itself.” He also said, “only in Russia is poetry respected – it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?” Poets had circles of friends who memorized their works – written copies could be dangerous. The great poet Anna Akhmatova documented this period in her poetry, particularly in “Requiem.” She was married twice – both husbands were executed and her only son spent 18 years in labor camps. While standing in one of the endless lines at a prison to obtain information about her son, she was asked if she could describe the scene. She replied, “I can.” She is the voice of the victims of the era. It is in this terrifying world that Simkin sets his Petrushka.
The first scene begins with an improbably peppy Young Pioneer song, danced by an ensemble dressed in sailor dresses, suits, and pinafores, with the ever present red kerchief. Petrushka enters and reluctantly joins the group. It is a haunting scene of the political indoctrination of children. The Chalatan in the Fokine ballet is now a Soviet Commissar, who clearly controls the group. They become more puppet-like in his presence, mesmerized by his power and gestures.
Scene 2 is Petrushka’s interrogation by the Commissar. It is a dark depiction of the tactics used by Stalin’s Secret Police: persuasion and violence. Alexander Solzenhitsyn has an entire chapter in the first volume of the “Gulag Archipelago” about interrogations. They usually took place at night and often went on for a period of months, and sometimes years. He wrote, “once it was established that charges had to be brought at any cost and despite everything, threats, violence, tortures became inevitable. And the more fantastic the charges, the more ferocious the interrogation had to be in order to force the required confession. Given the fact that the cases were always fabricated, violence and torture had to accompany them.” When friends would ask “what for?” about the recently arrested victims, the Anna Akhmataova would exclaim “what for? What do you mean what for? It’s time you understand that people are arrested for nothing!” Simkin’s Petrushka seems to have committed the crime of not conforming. In the real world of the 30’s most were caught up under the dreaded Article 58. Section 6 prohibited the association with foreigners, which seemed to be the cause of the arrests of ballerinas and actresses, who ended up in labor camps for simply speaking to their foreign admirers. More sinister was Section 10: “Propaganda or agitation, containing an appeal for the overthrow, subverting, or weakening of the Soviet power…and, equally, the dissemination or preparation or possession of literary materials of similar content.” Solzenitsyn writes, “in all truth there is no step, thought or action, or lack of action under the heavens which could not be punished by the heavy hand of Article 58.” In the ballet, the blindfolded Petrushka is first handled gently by the Commissar in a lilting dance. But the interrogation veers from persuasion to increasing violence, and ends with Petrushka on the floor, his head beneath the Commissar’s boot.
The final scene takes place in a labor camp. The labor camps in Stalin’s USSR stretched from Minsk to Vladivostok. Between 1936-38 it is estimated that 90% of those sent to the camps died. Of the 600,000 Party members sent to camps, only 50,000 survived. Approximately three million people died in the camps during this period. A 1988 Soviet article stated “their death was caused by unbearable toil, by cold and starvation, by unheard of degradation and humiliation.” Propaganda, however, was still present. A song sung by the camp inmates who helped build White Canal contained the lyrics “this kingdom of swamps and lowlands will become our happy native land.” But a bitter rhyme survives from the Kolyma camps: “Kolyma, wonderful planet, 12 months winter, the rest summer.”
Petrushka enters the camp shirtless, with only his pants and his flop-eared hat to protect against the cold. It brings to mind Akhmatovas’s comment during the height of the Terror: “everything is straightforward now…they stick a fur hat on your head and send you straight to the taiga [virgin forest].” She repeats this image in her “Poem Without a Hero;” “There, behind the barbed wire, in the very heart of the dense taiga, they take my shadow for questioning.” Petrushka is drawn into the group of prisoners, oddly playful given the circumstances, then dances a powerful solo that seems to be a heart-breaking declaration of his independence and individuality. In the end he is crushed by the Commissar with the great head of Lenin. As he lies dead, the Pioneer song is repeated, and the prisoners continue their unison dance. It is a horrifying image.
Simkin wrote about his Petrushka: “How far can the system influence the individual? How far can the individual influence the system? Two things can happen to a person: he accepts it and is integrated, or he revolts and is excluded and that can lead to his death. My Petrushka doesn’t want to be a puppet! Just a normal human being.”
I said in my lecture that I feared the audience wouldn’t understand Simkin’s ballet without a firm understanding of the terror inflicted by Stalin. Perhaps it resonates the most with audiences who have the knowledge or experience of life under a repressive regime. Should anyone try to deny the importance of works that give voice to this era I will quote a small news item. Clifford Levy wrote in The New York Times on December 22 about Russia: “The Communist Party celebrated the 130th birthday of Joseph Stalin on Monday with an appeal for people not to bring up the more unsavory aspects of his record. Stalin is still a polarizing figure in Russia, still popular for winning World War II and industrializing the Soviet Union while reviled for the purges that killed or displaced millions of people. On Monday, the Communists sought to focus on the achievements, lining up in Red Square to lay flowers on his grave. ‘We would like very much on this day for the discussion about any mistakes of the Stalin era to stop, so that people can reflect on the personality of Stalin as a creator, thinker, and patriot,’ said Ivan Melnikov, a senior party official.” Need I say more?
The Gyor Ballet’s Petrushka give us a window into a world we know little about, and reminds us, as part of a Festival celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall and Communism, of the deadly years of the Stalin era that affected not only the Soviet Union, but Eastern Europe as well. The experiences of Eastern European dancers and choreographers who were born and lived under Communist restrictions are unique. We should make an effort to respectfully understand their history, artistic perspectives, and works. Petrushka is a grim, explicit reminder of the dark past that preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall. We should all remember that Russia and much of Eastern Europe still struggle with their legacy of Communism, and have not yet completely reconciled the past as they continue the effort to sustain a democratic present.
Korda, Michael “Journey to a Revolution: A Personal Memoir and History of the Hungarian Revolution”
Marton, Kati “Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America”
Meyer, Michael “The Year that Changed the World: The Untold Story of the Fall of the BerlinWall”
Molnar, Miklos “A Concise History of Hungary”
Sebestyen. Victor “Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution”
Akhmatova, Anna “Poems”
Applebaum, Anne “Gulag: A History”
Brent, Jonathan “Inside the Stalin Archives: Discovering the New Russia”
Conquest, Robert “The Great Terror: A Reassessment”
Ginsberg, Eugenia “Into the Whirlwind”
Hall, Coryne “Imperial Dancer: Mathilde Kchessinska and the Romanovs”
Krasovskaya, Vera “Vaganova: A Dance Journey from Petersburg to Leningrad”
Mandelstam, Nadezhda “Hope Against Hope”
Montefiore, Simon S. “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar”
Plisetskaya, Maya “I, Maya Plisetskaya”
Reeder, Roberta “Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet”
Solzenhitsyn, Alexander “The GulagArchipelago”
Souritz, Elizabeth “Soviet Choreographers of the 1920’s”