Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Serf Ballet

One of the more bizarre chapters I’ve come across in my recent readings is the phenomenon of the serf ballet in 18th and 19th century Russia. Large landowners who could afford to do so would hire foreign dancing masters and train serf children in classical dance. Some of the dancers would be sold to one of the Imperial theaters, and some would remain on the estate and perform in the in-house theater. The most famous serf theater was that of Count Sheremetiev at Ostankino. The count’s dancers were all named after precious stones. One of them, Praskovia Zhemchugova (named after the pearl), actually married the count. 
Being a serf dancer was not easy. You could be sold, plus you had to work in the fields in addition to your rehearsal, class, and performance time. It was a situation, to put it mildly, ripe for abuse. 
As late as 1806, the Imperial theaters purchased 36 dancers and musicians from the estate of Stolypin. (!!!!) 
In Soviet times, Lavrovsky made a ballet entitled Katerina (1935) dramatizing the plight of the serf dancer. The Governor of the estate purchases Katerina, a serf ballerina, thereby separating her from her true beloved. She commits suicide rather than become the lecherous Governor’s property. This plot perfectly conveyed the necessity and moral inevitability of the Revolution by showcasing the backwardness of Russia’s economic system under the tsars. 
In another scene in Katerina, the drunken master of the estate forces the serfs to dance for him by wielding a whip. The main emotion of their dance is lamentation, not the celebration wanted by the master. This scene as described by Roslavleva very much reminds me of some studies of forced dances by American slaves in the south, although in these false celebrations slaves encrypted subversive gestures in language and in movement. 

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