Choreographer Rostislav Zakharov (1907–1975) was one of the foremost figures in Russian ballet during the era of the Soviet Union. Active at Moscow's famed Bolshoi from 1936 to 1956, he created two of the best-known modern ballets in the Russian classical tradition: the elaborate Fountain of Bakhchisarai of 1934 and Cinderella (1945), set to one of composer Sergei Prokofiev's great works for the ballet theater.
Zakharov is less well known in the West than George Balanchine and the other Russian choreographers who emigrated to Western Europe or the United States and who had a significant impact on the development of dance in those countries. His choreography was shaped by the fundamentally political nature of the arts under Soviet Communism. When Russian dancers began to bring Zakharov's works to the West after the fall of the Soviet Union, however, the same qualities of realism and clarity that had endeared his best ballets to Soviet culture commissars ensured his appreciation by new Western audiences that heretofore had hardly known his name.
Studied both Drama and Dance
Zakharov was born on September 7, 1907, in Astrakhan in Russia's southern Caspian Sea region. He settled early on a career as a choreographer, and attended the Leningrad Choreographic School, graduating in 1926. He had a short career as a dancer at the Kiev Theatre for Opera and Ballet, but choreography was his main interest. At first he tried to break into the centralized world of ballet by creating dances for amateur productions. These had little to add to the classical ballet tradition and gained only scattered attention. As Zakharov pondered his next move, deep changes were underway in the Soviet cultural scene; Josef Stalin had triumphed over his rivals and emerged in full control of the Communist Party apparatus, and had begun the collectivization of most aspects of Soviet life.
The status of ballet under full-blown Communism was ambivalent. At first it was considered a remnant of the culture of the old czarist regime, but it was also something of a national symbol, an activity at which Russians exceeded the accomplishments of the rest of the world. By 1927 a compromise solution had emerged: the principle of so-called socialist realism had become entrenched in Soviet ballet. Many Soviet dances were developed around realistic stories aimed at promoting the glory of the Soviet state (such as Gayane, the source of the famous "Saber Dance" by composer Aram Khachaturian, that dealt with a plot by spies to steal state agricultural secrets from a collective farm). Zakharov sensed the way things were moving, and enrolled in a stage direction course at the Leningrad Theatre Institute, hoping to learn how to add conventional dramatic elements to his choreography.
The plan bore fruit. Zakharov studied under director Vladimir Soloviev, keeping his hand in choreography by creating stage routines for productions mounted at a school for circus clowns. He met Leningrad Theatre Institute instructor Sergei Radlov, a leading director who specialized in the plays of Shakespeare, and was a close friend (and chess-playing partner) of composer Sergei Prokofiev. As artistic director of the Leningrad Opera and Ballet Theatre, Radlov invited Zakharov to choreograph dance scenes in operas. His reputation grew, and in 1932 he contributed dances to a production of Cherubini's opera Les deux journées (The Two Journeys, also known as The Water Carrier) at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre, one of the glories of Russian fine arts.
In 1934 Radlov was overseeing a new production at the Leningrad Opera and Ballet Theatre, a ballet based on a long poem by Alexander Pushkin called "The Fountain of Bakhchisarai," with music by Boris Asafiev. Radlov selected Zakharov as choreographer, and Zakharov prepared well for the assignment. He visited libraries to learn more about costumes that would be authentic to the ballet's exotic setting (the swashbuckling story concerns a Polish princess kidnapped by a Tatar tribal chief and killed by her Tatar rival), and spent time with individual dancers discussing the motivations of the characters. One of those dancers was a young Galina Ulanova, considered among the greatest Russian ballerinas of the twentieth century. As New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff noted, the ballet fulfilled all the conditions of socialist artistic doctrine: "Its story was drawn from Russia's greatest poet, [and it featured] a use of national literature to project 'real' feelings' and an uplifting theme," as the Tatar chief Girei is changed by love into a heroic figure.
Moved to Bolshoi Ballet
The Fountain of Bakhchisarai was Zakharov's first major independent work as a choreographer, and it became one of his most famous accomplishments. The ballet was a success from the start, and it landed Zakharov a position as choreographer at the State Academic Theater for Opera and Ballet, later renamed the Kirov Ballet, in Leningrad. When the work was mounted in a production at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, it had the same effect: in 1936 Zakharov moved to the Soviet capital to become a Bolshoi choreographer, remaining there until 1956. He continued to create works for the Kirov Ballet as well. The Fountain of Bakhchisarai was an influential work in the Soviet Union; choreographers began to follow Zakharov's method of emphasizing mime acting for dancers. He later named this method "dancing through the personality" (tanets v obraze), and the wider style of ballet represented by The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, with a clear story and action elevated above abstraction in the choreography, became known among dance lovers as "dram-ballet." It remained in the repertory of the Bolshoi Ballet for decades.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s Zakharov tried to replicate the success of The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, often working with composer Asafiev and story adapter Nikolai Volkov. He created ambitious ballets from Russian and foreign literary works, including the Honoré de Balzac novel Lost Illusions (1936), two more Pushkin stories, and the epic novel Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol (1941). These works did not have the mix of strong personality and pageantry that had characterized The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, however, and they were less successful. Zakharov's 1947 ballet The Bronze Horseman, from a Pushkin story, was a technical tour de force, with a giant flood scene that featured boats, barrels, and even a doghouse that had been washed away by a storm.
More successful than these works, however, was Cinderella, which Zakharov choreographed in 1945 to music by Prokofiev. Its success was partly due to the fact that the Prokofiev score was one of the twentieth century's orchestral masterpieces. But Zakharov's choreography also made a strong contribution. Critic Paul Parish, reviewing a contemporary Russian production of Cinderella on the Danceview-west website, wrote that "it maintains that consistency of tone which keeps disbelief suspended and sustains the atmosphere of a fairy tale." Zakharov understood, according to Parish, "what parts of the story can be simply indicated—since everybody knows the story of Cinderella—and what parts should be dwelt on."
The ballet, once again featuring Galina Ulanova in the original production, marked another major success for Zakharov and came at a time when the Soviet people were in a celebratory mood: the German invasion had been beaten back, though at the cost of millions of Russian lives. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich, writing in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda (as quoted on the Russian Musical Highlights of the 20th Century website), called the ballet "a veritable landmark bringing out the overall feeling of jubilation felt by our people who know full well the price of Good's victory over the dark forces of Evil." Zakharov became artistic director of the Moscow Choreographic School in 1945, and the following year he was named head of the choreography department at the State Institute of Theatrical Art in Moscow, an influential position that effectively made him one of the nation's cultural overseers.
Attacked Ballet Experimenters
Cinderella proved to be the high point of Zakharov's career. He continued to teach until his death, but his style did not evolve fundamentally. He set himself up as a guardian of Communist values, attacking "decadent" Western arts and modern "formalist" experiments. As Stalinism faded and the Soviet arts scene opened up, Zakharov's own works came under criticism from younger choreographers. Zakharov responded with articles and books, including The Art of the Choreographer (1954), which condemned his detractors as political troublemakers and reasserted his own aesthetic principles.
Zakharov's reputation was on the decline, however. He retained his teaching post, but his chances to choreograph major productions became less frequent, and his activities with the Bolshoi Ballet came to an end after he directed and created dances for a production of the opera Carmen in 1953. Tours of Western ballet companies in the United Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) met with an unfriendly reception from Zakharov, but he was unsuccessful in turning the tide, and an attempt at a revival of his own career, the ballet Into the Port Came "Russia," failed to make much of an impact after its premiere at the Kirov Ballet in 1964. Zakharov died in Moscow on January 15, 1975, little known in the West and no longer influential at home.
As Communism declined and it was possible to sort out the artifacts of Soviet Russian culture in a dispassionate way, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai and Cinderella were revived by Russian companies. (Dances are transmitted by means of a writing system called Labanotation.) Ballet director Sergei Radchenko's touring production of Cinderella, which visited 88 cities in the United States in 2004, was a success, and the Kirov added The Fountain of Bakhchisarai to its repertoire once again.
Brought to the United States and the United Kingdom, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai received mixed reviews. Kisselgoff wrote that "like the so-called masses, the audience at the Met[ropolitan Opera House] … could respond easily to an accessible message through accessible choreography." Debra Craine of the Times of London felt that "Zakharov's choreography had plenty of gusto: Polish ladies swooning into savage Tatar arms; fierce whip-cracking war dances in the courtyard of the Palace of Bakhchisarai; serpentine sensuality in the harem." Dance Magazine writer Roslyn Sulcas, however, was less impressed, arguing that "Zakharov sets an interminable series of ensemble dances for the court against solos and pas de deux for the young lovers in the first act, then an interminable series of harem-girl dances between Zarema's [the Khan's mistress] solos in the second act—few of which seem to emerge from any dramatic necessity." Cinderella, however, was recommended by several critics as a ballet that could appeal to all ages. Zakharov's reputation, after several ups and downs, was finding a level place in the historical pantheon of dance.
International Dictionary of Ballet, St. James, 1993.
Albuquerque Journal, February 17, 2004.
Dance Magazine, March 1995.
New York Times, July 8, 1999; August 22, 1999.
Times (London, England), July 31, 1995.
"Cinderella: Moscow Festival Ballet," Danceviewwest, http://www.danceviewtimes.com/dvw/reviews/2004/winter.suburban.htm (February 5, 2006).
"Russian Musical Highlights of the 20th Century: 1945," http://www.vor.ru/century/1945m.html (February 5, 2006).