"The Bright Stream" Comic ballet in two acts
Premiere of this production: 18 Apr 2003
The performance has 1 intermission
Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes
The Bolshoi's Bright Stream is a ballet unlike any other.
It does not happen often that you burst out laughing while watching a ballet, nor is it common to see a male dancer in a tutu.
Yet The Bright Stream has it all. It successfully premiered at the Bolshoi and now still amuses, surprises and enchants the audience.
Libretto by Adrian Piotrovsky and Fyodor Lopukhov
Pages of History
DANCE of DEATH
With its dancing farmers and cycling dog, Shostakovich thought his ballet The Bright Stream would delight Stalin. Instead, one of its creators was sent to the gulag. Now the Bolshoi has finally resurrected it.
In the mass of Shostakovich centenary events that have taken place this year, ballet fans haven’t had much to celebrate. It’s not that the composer ignored the form — between 1929 and 1935, he wrote a trio of full-length ballet scores: The Golden Age, The Bolt
and The Bright Stream
. All three, though, were banned shortly after their premieres, leaving Shostakovich’s reputation so damaged, he was reluctant ever to write for the lyric stage again.
It’s a cause of great regret for Russia’s monolithic ballet companies, the Kirov and the Bolshoi. Both are aware that, had Shostakovich been given full artistic freedom, he may have become one of the great modern ballet composers — as inspirational for the dance-makers of Soviet Russia as Stravinsky was for choreographers in the west. Instead, the two companies must content themselves with acts of restitution. This summer, as part of its 10-day Shostakovich festival at the Coliseum in London, the Kirov is performing The Golden Age, while over at the Royal Opera House, the Bolshoi is presenting the first British performances of The Bright Stream.
Of the three ballets, it was The Bright Stream that was punished most grotesquely. The ballet’s co-librettist, Adrian Piotrovsky, was sent to a gulag and never heard of again, while the creative career of its choreographer, Fedor Lopukhov, was all but terminated. Shostakovich’s music was never again played during the Soviet era, beyond a heavily edited suite of his most popular tunes.
Alexei Ratmansky, now director of the Bolshoi, first came across the full score in a recording made by Rozhdestvensky in Stockholm in 1995. He was determined to get it back on to the Russian stage. “It sounded incredible. I couldn’t believe that no one had returned to it before. The music is just so danceable, with this wonderful variety of adagios, waltzes and polkas. It’s like Minkus but all on the level of Shostakovich’s genius.”
At the time, Ratmansky knew Lopukhov’s name only from books. But as he researched the history of The Bright Stream, he realised that it was more than a fine piece of dance music that had been abandoned. It was a remarkable ballet, choreographed by one of the most sophisticated, subversive talents of the Soviet period.
Born in 1886, Lopukhov was among the last generation to be raised in the tsar’s Imperial Ballet — and among the first generation to test its wings in the 20th century. He was a protege of the radical choreographer Mikhail Fokine, and he briefly travelled abroad, spending 1910-11 touring in American vaudeville with his sister. When ballet was up for grabs in the wake of the 1917 revolution, Lopukhov was ideally placed to lead it. As director of the Kirov (then known as Gatob) in the 1920s, he created a repertory that may never have been equalled for its balance between traditional classics and avant-garde experiment.
As Russian culture began to ossify under Stalin’s rule, however, life became difficult for versatile, inquisitive artists like Lopukhov. Ballet itself was still in official favour — Stalin was often to be seen slipping into a performance of Swan Lake. But to choreograph new repertory became risky.
On the face of it, The Bright Stream should have been a riotous success with Stalin’s regime — it was set on a collective farm. But Lopukhov had also worked out a clever comic libretto of romantic flirtations and theatrical encounters that allowed his choreography to range from virtuoso classical variations to moments of buffooning vaudeville, including a dog riding a bicycle (the first bicycle in Russian ballet, thinks Ratmansky) and a man dressed up in Sylphide costume.
Shostakovich’s writing reflected a similar populist balance, with snatches of folk melody and familiar dance numbers elegantly refracted through the score. As Ratmansky says: “They both wanted to make a ballet that was easy to understand, but of a very high quality.” And when The Bright Stream was premiered in Leningrad, the two men thought they had succeeded. Not only was every performance sold out but, according to Ratmansky, “All the critics raved about new horizons opening up and about this being the first major success of Soviet ballet.”
The problems arose when The Bright Stream was transferred to Moscow, and became vulnerable to the paranoid scrutiny of those closest to the Kremlin. Lopukhov had guessed in advance that he would have to make a few discreet changes, including cutting out the man in the Sylphide frock, which he suspected could be a cross-dressing joke too far. But it seems that the ballet was marked out as a scapegoat even before it arrived.
One of its main offences was simply to be composed by Shostakovich. “Clouds were already hanging over the composer,” says Ratmansky. “Stalin had hated his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and he had a lot of rivals who wanted him brought down.” But the ballet was equally imperilled by its attempt at socialist realism. At that time, no one had yet formulated strict — and safe — guidelines as to what that genre entailed. Lopukhov may have thought that putting farm workers on pointe was a stroke of politically correct genius, but his enemies decided to interpret it as an act of bourgeois false consciousness.
Immediately after the Moscow premiere, an editorial in Pravda condemned Lopukhov and Shostakovich as “slick and high-handed” fakes who had insulted the Russian farmers by representing them as “sugary paysans from off a pre-revolutionary chocolate box”. Rather than having studied the real “way of life” on a collective farm, and respected the real “folk songs, folk dances and games” of their comrades, they had produced a work that indulged the worst crimes of Soviet art, “coarse naturalism and aesthetic formalism”. Given the true state of Russian agriculture, the party ought to have been grateful for the ballet’s tact.
It was only the tragic co-librettist, Piotrovsky, who suffered physically in the gulag, but the professional consequences for the other two were devastating. Shostakovich never wrote another ballet score (his 1975 work, The Dreamers was almost entirely cobbled together out of previous material). And Lopukhov (who may have been saved from the gulag by the fact that his ballerina sister Lydia was married to the celebrated British economist John Maynard Keynes) not only had his appointment as director of the Bolshoi Ballet stripped from him, but during the remaining 37 years of his career would choreograph only a handful of works, mostly for ballet students.
For Ratmansky, the act of rehabilitating Lopukhov was very important. “The richness of his ideas, his courage in using contemporary stories in ballet, are still a real source of inspiration,” he says. Even though he could do nothing to restore the original choreography of The Bright Stream, which was never notated, in 2003 he created a new version, working from Lopukhov’s libretto, which was, he says, “brilliantly detailed, brilliantly constructed with the music”. Those who have seen the ballet feel he has captured some essence of the original, something that matters to Ratmansky not just for Lopukhov’s sake but also for the Bolshoi’s. “These days so many companies look the same, it is hard to have an individual style and identity,” he says. “But Soviet ballets like The Bright Stream, no one else has them. They are unique to us. We need to treasure them”.
The Guardian, 19.07.2006
he Limpid Stream (also translated as "The Bright Stream") is a ballet score, in 3 acts, 4 scenes, composed by Dmitri Shostakovich on the libretto by Adrian Piotrovsky and Fedor Lopukhov and choreography by Fedor Lopukhov, premiered in Leningrad in 1935.
A small wayside halt, in the steppes, on one of the branch lines of the North Caucasian Railway. Early autumn. The local collective farms have completed both their harvesting and autumn sowing.
A brigade of artistes from one of the capital’s theatres is due to arrive in the region to take part in the harvest festival, marking the end of the field work. Some members of the nearest collective farm, The Bright Stream, have come to the halt to welcome their guests. They include the collective farm activist, Gavrilych, who, though advanced in years, is full of the joys of life and a general favorite; the school-girl Galya, and some of her friends, with a bunch of flowers for the artistes; Pyotr, an agricultural student and his wife Zina, a local amusements’ organizer. The last to arrive are two dacha dwellers: an elderly man and his anxious-to-be-younger-than-she-is wife. Both of the latter, bored to tears, have come to gawk at the visiting artistes. While waiting for the guests to arrive, the dreamy and thoughtful Zina buries her head in a book. Her husband, Pyotr, who is of a cheerful, buoyant disposition, tries to distract her, inducing the others to share in his efforts. Eventually all, except Zina, proceed to the platform. The excited crowd returns, together with the artistes — a ballet dancer, her partner and an accordion-player.
The amusements’ organizer, Zina, hails the ballet dancer who stops in her tracks. They recognize each other as old friends, for they once studied together at ballet school. Since then Zina has married Pyotr, the agricultural student, and has gone to work with him on the collective farm where no one has any idea that she used to be a dancer. The two friends, who have remained alone, gaze at each other with curiosity.
The ballerina asks if Zina has forgotten her dancing. But, living in the country, she has not forgotten her dancing skills and intends to prove it. The two friends, compete with each other, trying to see who can remember the most of their former lessons. Gavrilych and Pyotr now appear: they have come to fetch Zina and the ballerina. Zina introduces her husband to the ballerina. Dazzled by the ballerina, Pyotr begins to court her. The latter feels her first pang of jealousy.
The day is on the wane. Encamped among the golden sheaves of wheat, a field workers’ brigade from The Bright Stream collective farm joyfully makes plans for tomorrow, which is to be a day of festival. The artistes’ brigade arrives. Gavrilych presents them to the field workers’ brigade.
The two brigades greet each other. An improvised celebration gets underway. The artistes display the presents they have brought with them for distribution to the collective farm’s best shock workers. There is a gramophone for Gavrilych, a silk dress for the best milkmaid. The prizewinners are lustily congratulated, and the jollity merges into a dance. The first to break into a dance are the grey-haired, bearded ‘inspectors of quality’ and their Gavrilych.
The dacha dwellers turn up, late as usual. They are forced to trip a measure and, by way of a joke, they dance an ancient Chaconne. Then comes a number by some young girls, members of an amateur group organized by Zina. But it is the milkmaid who is the center of attention: they want to see her dance in her smart, new dress. The milkmaid dances with the tractor driver. The merriment increases. Gavrilych winds up his new gramophone and asks the guest artistes to dance.
Not wishing to disappoint the collective-farm workers, the artistes agree though they dislike the idea of dancing in their ordinary clothes. They improvise a dance among the wheat sheaves. Their dance gets a mixed reception. The farm workers watch it with pleasure, but the dacha dwellers only have eyes for the artistes themselves (the husband is taken by the classical ballerina, while his wife is attracted by the ballerina’s partner). Zina is jealous of her husband. Pyotr, the young agricultural student, is more and more enchanted by the ballerina who seems so brilliant and talented by comparison to his modest, unassuming wife.
The accordionist is asked to join in the dancing with schoolgirl Galya. Now some young field workers from Kuban and the Caucasus burst into a gay, warlike dance which enthralls all present. The merriment reaches its height. Eventually, the assembled company is invited to partake of refreshment. As all make their exit, the old dacha dweller manages to whisper in the visiting ballerina’s ear that he would like to see her again, his wife makes a similar proposal to the latter’s partner. Meanwhile, Pyotr goes off with the ballerina. Zina is totally distraught, she even starts to cry. The young people, together with Gavrilych, try to calm her down. But now the ballerina returns and assures Zina that she has no intention of flirting with the latter’s husband. She suggests that Zina tell the young people that she too used to be a dancer.
Zina agrees and again the two friends dance together. There is general astonishment. The ballerina proposes that a joke be played on Pyotr and the others: she will dress up in her partner’s costume and go and meet the anxious-to-be-younger-than-she-is dacha dweller’s wife. Her partner, made up as a female dancer, shall go to the rendezvous with the old dacha dweller. While Zina shall go to meet her husband in the ballerina’s costume. The plan is approved.
A warm, southern night. A clearing, surrounded by bushes and trees. The young people have assembled. The dacha dwellers turn up too, late as usual. The accordionist has taken a fancy to Galya, the schoolgirl, who had danced with him so merrily earlier in the day. He whispers to her that he will soon be back and that she should wait for him. Galya is quite taken aback. The old dacha dweller, his wife and Pyotr remind their ‘sweethearts’ of their trysts. The young people are now determined to teach them a lesson. They quickly dress up: the ballerina in her partner’s clothes, the latter in female dress, Zina in one of her friend’s theatrical costumes. To add to the fun, the tractor driver puts on a dogskin. All is ready. Now Galya admits that the accordionist has invited her to a rendezvous too.
This revelation threatens to ruin their carefully laid plans, but the tractor driver comes to the rescue. He suggests to Galya that she should meet the accordionist as the latter had proposed, but that he, the tractor driver, disguised as a dog, will not allow the accordionist to approach her. His plan is agreed. Galya, attended by Kolka-‘the dog’, waits for the accordionist. He appears and is much put out by the uncalled-for presence of the dog which seems very fierce and keeps on attacking him. Finally, the accordionist realizes he is being made a fool of but, taking it in good part, he joins in the main plot.
The elderly dacha dweller turns up, wheeling a bicycle. He wants to make a good impression on the ballerina and has donned sporting gear. He is festooned with a gun, ammunition belt and telescope. The thought of the forthcoming meeting excites him. His wife turns up at the same spot. She is wearing ballet shoes to surprise the male dancer. It is time to put the plan in action. Suddenly, the dacha dweller catches sight of his beautiful ballerina , his Sylphide, in the middle of a clump of trees. It is in fact the ballerina’s partner, in female garb, but the old man does not notice this. His wife, who is observing him, objects to his flirting and chases off her husband. But she, in turn, is frightened by the tractor driver who, still in his dogskin, is riding the bicycle. Appearing in her partner’s costume, the ballerina mocks the dacha dweller’s wife. Finally, they both run off.
Enter Pyotr, the agricultural student. He is waiting for the dancer from the distant capital, but instead, he is met by his own wife, disguised as the dancer. He fails to recognize her. Joking and flirting with him, Zina disappears into the bushes. This lyrical scene gives way to slapstick. The old dacha dweller and male dancer disguised as the ballerina now come running in. ‘Romantic passions’ reach an all-time high. The ballerina, dressed in male clothing, comes out from behind the bushes, and makes a scene. She demands satisfaction from the dacha dweller. There follows a comic duel. The first to fire is the disguised ballerina. She misses. Now the old dacha dweller is handed a pistol. Though he is frightened, he takes aim. Simultaneously, Gavrilych bangs a pail, and the old man thinks he has fired. Immediately the ballerina’s partner falls to the ground as though shot. The horrified dacha dweller takes to his heels. No sooner has he disappeared, than the ‘victim’ comes to life and dances amid the laughter of the delighted plotters.
The beginning of the morning of the following day. The harvest festival. In the meadow, an improvised stage for the artistes. All the seats are taken. Pyotr, the agricultural student, is waiting on tenterhooks for the show to begin so that he can see the ballerina whom (he thinks) he met last night in the woods.
But to his great astonishment two dancers, dressed exactly alike, appear on stage, their faces hidden by masks. Their dance over, Pyotr, unable to restrain himself, rushes towards them. They raise their veils and the secret is out. Pyotr, who sees one of the ballerinas is his wife, timidly begs her forgiveness. Eventually they are reconciled. Pyotr has learnt his lesson: he now knows that his modest Zina is both a first-class worker and a marvelous ballerina. The festival ends with a general dance in which alt young and old take part, together with the guest artistes.
© Photo by Damir Yusupov
© Bolshoi Theatre
"The Bright Stream" Comic ballet in two acts
on the playbill
1 Teatralnaya ploschad (1 Theatre Square), Moscow, Russia
Bol'shaya Dmitrovka Street, 4/2, Moscow, Russia