The Bolt: Shostakovich’s controversial ballet

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote The Bolt in 1931. It was a piece of musical experimentation, a ballet of unruly satire, populated by a host of comical characters.

The Bolt is based on a true story that follows the exploits of Lyonka Gulba (Gulba in Russian means idler), an indolent worker who persuades a young man to throw a bolt into the factory machinery, sabotaging the production of his workplace in revenge for being sacked.

The production featured real hammers and machine-inspired daring choreography by Fedor Lopukhov; the composer embellished the story with aerobics and acrobatics, with several passages mimicking the swishing and hammering sounds of modern factory machinery.

Critics reacted terribly to premiere at the Leningrad Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet that same year. So much so that it was immediately pulled off the programme with any performance thereafter strictly forbidden, until 74 years later when it saw the stage again, this time reconstructed for the Bolshoi Ballet by Alexei Ratmansky.

Gallery for Russian Arts and Design in London is staging an exhibition to celebrate this controversial ballet through costume designs and period photographs. Curated by GRAD’s Elena Sudakova and Alexandra Chiriac, the exhibition is organised in collaboration with the St Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music.

It features the witty costume designs of Tatiana Bruni bringing to life the characters that populate the ballet – from the Sportsman, the Textile-Worker or the Komsomol Girl, to the Drunkard, the Loafer and the pompous Bureaucrat.

Bruni’s designs have striking geometrical colour blocking. They are often seen as the apogee of post-revolutionary Russian experiments in stage design, and were inspired by the aesthetics of agit-theatre and ROSTA windows or artist-designed propaganda posters.

Constructivist values and aesthetics are reflected in all of the elements of the ballet, from
the costume designs to the score, choreography to set design.

Shostakovich’s exceptional blend of proletarian music genres play through the gallery space, transporting us to early thirties Russia and evoking Lopukhov’s daring choreography.

Bolt is at the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design in London from 6 December 2014 to 28 February 2015

Nargess Banks

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Russian Avant-Garde Theatre, War, Revolution, Design

It was a time of change. It was a time of hope. In those first thirty years or so of the twentieth-century the artistic world moved in tandem, and at times with the same pulse as the political movements that fought for radical change.

In painting Cézanne and then Picasso and Braque changed the way we looked at surfaces, Vlaminck and Signac, in the footsteps of Van Gogh and Gauguin revolutionised, in their own individual way, our perception of colour.

In music Schoenberg had taken Liszt and Mahler to their logical conclusion and torpedoed tonality, and with it melody as it was understood as well as harmony. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring did the same for rhythm.  All these artists and many more had overthrown the old order in art.

But only in Russia the dream of establishing a totally new society became a real possibility. And it was there, in those turbulent early years of the century, that the most radical artistic revolutions took place. And in particular they took place in precisely in that art form that required group co-operation and directly addressed the audience – theatre and later the cinema.

It was to be art of the people for the people. As the curators of Russian Avant-Guard Theatre: War, Revolution and Design, 1913-1933 at London’s V&A point out, this was one of the characteristics distinguishing the Russian scene from all others.  Virtually all the artists, regardless of their other artistic fields of interest, worked in theatre.

Here we encounter the radical painter Kazimir Malevich, the photographer Alexander Rodchenko, constructivists Vladimir Tatlin, and Liubov Popova, film director Sergei Eisenstein, and composers Shostakovich and Gliere.

New types of theatre production required innovative design solutions and artists from a variety of mediums, painting, architecture, textiles, photography, painting, and design came together to create a rich tapestry in the theatres. These in turn influenced every art form not just in Russia but elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

Also, as the curators point out, at this time women had equal representation to men. In addition to Popova, the exhibition shows works by Alexandra Exter, Varvara Stepanova, and Tatiana Bruni. Moreover, the art and theatre world was not just confined to Russian artists, but the Georgian Irakill Gamrekeli, Belarusians, Latvians and Ukrainians.

Here, on walls painted the vermillion red of change, the red of revolution, you see the incredible variety of designs employed, the daring use of colour and line in the costumes, the bold designs, the application of industrial imagery in the scenery, indeed the totally new way of linking clothes, movement, music, and background as a totality.

Malevich is presented by sketches and lithographs for the futurist opera Victory Over the Sun, premiered in 1913 in St Petersburg, where the costumes are made of contrasting patches of colour, using the beautiful clashing of black, white and red in large patches –  and the backdrops of cloth sheets painted in monochrome graphic forms.

One such is a large black and white square divided diagonally, a forerunner of his iconoclastic Black Square of 1915, a work which embodies the aesthetics of the Suprematist movement. On show are also his voluminous creations in bold colours which reshape the human figure.

As a member of Malevich’s art group Supremus from 1914-1916, Liubov Popova contributed to a number of exhibitions. Her involvement in theatre design is presented by her amazingly dynamic costumes for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and a maquette for a set model for the The Magnanimous Cuckold (1922) performed at the radical Meyerhold Theatre.

Popova’s set design comprised a mechanical mill, wheels and conveyor belts, in front of which Meyerhold (the curators use the Russian spelling Meyerkhold – there is no ‘h’ in the Cyrillic alphabet) could present his acting theory of biomechanics, which favoured gesture and movement over the representation of emotions.

In Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, with music by Glière, Isaak Rabinovich rejected the traditional set by installing a unified architectural installation to match the structure of the performance replacing the traditional crank-and-pulley system. Elsewhere, the Georgian Irakli Gamrekeli experimented with sets with multipurpose usage.

Artist and photographer Rodchenko collaborated with the innovative theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold on a number of productions attempting, successfully, to represent in costume and scenery Meyerhold’s system of making the actors body more physically expressive. He also worked with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky on the bed bug (1929) for which he designed radically futurist ensembles featuring wide silhouettes and breathing apparatus to convey men from later decades.

Nicolai Musatov working with choreographer Kasian Goleizovsky designed clothes using taut geometric forms and limited colour range that allowed the free movement required by free dance or danse plastique.

Sergei Eisenstein’s costume design for the 1921 comic operetta Being Nice to Horses is both funny and futuristic. Eisenstein’s creations appear again in the costume and stage design for Macbeth. Alexandra Exter’s stage and costume design for Salome (1917) and for the pioneering as well as entertaining 1924 science fiction film Aelita: Queen of Mars are also on display here.

This is a unique collection that has never before been shown in the UK and gives a wonderful insight into the amazingly creative and exciting years, the numerous collective efforts to radically change our perceptions, before Socialist Realism all but killed innovation.

Mohsen Shahmanesh

Works on display in Russian Avant-Garde Theatre: War, Revolution and Design, 1913 – 1933 are drawn primarily from the A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum (Moscow) and St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music. It will be on exhibition at the V&A museum in London until 25 January 2015.

Read more reviews by Mohsen Shahmanesh here

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Music as design: Kafka Fragments

Less is plenty. With some clever lighting, a single trapezoid block of blue-grey wood as both background and foreground around which Elizabeth Watts (soprano) and Alexander Janiczek (on violin) dressed in simple black, moved, sang, acted, and performed only meters away from the audience, they were able to take us through an emotional range that seemed to span the entire experience – humour, fear, pathos, angst, being tong tied, boredom, challenge, amazement, love, life, and death wish.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Centre

This was Kafka Fragments, composed by György Kurtág and directed by the Rene Zisterer, in a single performance at the beautiful sport-gymnasium-like City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Centre.

Composed in the late 1980s, during the fall of the iron curtain in the composer’s home country of Hungary, Kafka Fragments is based on tiny fragments from Franz Kafka’s diaries and letters.

Kurtág chose the 40 fragments seemingly at random, but there is a logic and an emotional power that simply carries the listener through its hour-long songspiel. Using a complex but easily approachable musical language, Kurtág manages to convey the feel of each tiny fragment, some lasting less than a minute.

Even the superficially banal pieces were given deeper meaning by the use of music. You could say the music is used to design the language and vive-versa – viewing design in its more fundamental sense of giving deeper meaning and significance to something, and highlighting a characteristic that is hidden in its essence.

Such apparently random words as: ‘Meine Ohrmuschel fülte sich, frish, rauh, kühl, saftig an wie ein Blatt’ (My ears felt fresh to the touch, rough, cool, juicy, like a life) were given another dimension when set to music.

‘Kafka Fragments is a work that goes to the heart of mankind’s existence, seen through a mix of cutting insight, profundity and at times mundane day-to-day experiences,’ wrote cellist William Conway and artistic director Hebrides Ensemble (who performed Leos Janácek’s Kreutzer Sonata earlier) in the program notes.

The CBSO Centre with its wooden flooring and three rows of balconies skirting the walls provided the perfect setting for looking inward into mankind’s – and one’s own – existence.

Watts sang and acted the words like she had lived them. And Janiczek’s violin, using three instruments each tuned to different pitches, gave out sounds and musical patterns that open the ears to a new world.

In the last fragment, ‘Es blendete uns die Mondnacht’ (the moonlit night dazzled us) ends with: ‘Wir krochen durch den Staub, ein Schlangenpaar’ (we crawl through the dust, a pair of snakes).  Watts crept up to the wall, using her right hand casting a writhing shadow on the trapezoid wall as she sang ‘Schlangenpaar (a pair of snakes) Schlangenpaar, Schlangenpaar’. And Janiczek undulated and twirled the snake around in sound from behind the wall. Both visually and aurally an amazing end to a remarkable evening, achieved with minimal visual intrusion.

It is a sad reflection on the almost total separation of different art forms that the small CBSO Centre remained half empty. There is nothing unapproachable to the evening’s music that could not add to the life-experience of many. Alas, a magical experience was experienced by the void on the empty seats.

Guest blogger Mohsen Shahmanesh

Kafka Fragments by György Kurtág was at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Centre on 3 June 2011.

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