The Ballets Russes, that solar flare, weren’t the first Russian dancers to reach the West. The Degas exhibition now on at the Royal Academy in London makes it clear that there was a vogue for Russian dancing in Paris in the 1890s. Did the Imperial ballet ever tour?
There is a pastel of some red-booted Russian, actually Ukrainian, dancers who are obviously dancing the gopak. Also some film (shot in Paris?).
Here is a gopak from Mussorgsky’s unfinished opera, Sorochintsy Fair, after Gogol.
It’s called Sorochinsky there (Albert Coates, LSO), I don’t know whether wrongly. Anyway, I find poetry in “Sorochintsy Fair”. Gopak comes from hopaty (гопати), to jump. Tchaikovsky put a gopak or Cossack Dance into the first act of his Ukrainian opera Mazeppa, after Pushkin. There’s a famous trepak in the Nutcracker. It’s usually called “Russian Dance”, but is also Ukrainian. Is there an etymological connection there with “trip”?
Anyone who thinks Degas ballet pictures have no more to tell them, and when you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all, needs to go to that exhibition if they can. It’s entering its last seven days and is an amazing piece of exhibition-making. The last main room, assembling many of his late pastels, would alone have been a major event. It won’t be reassembled in my lifetime. The last important pastel is from 1903. When you look at those works, it is impossible to believe that he had been born in 1834.
Cold rehearsal rooms in Paris and St Petersburg. Degas painted one at the Salle Le Peletier, the old opera house, several years after it had burned down.
The exhibition is called Degas: Picturing Movement. We are shown the cinematic experiments of Marey in France and Muybridge in England.
What happened to stockiness?
Also fascinating experiments of others, especially the photosculptures of François Willème.
We are given a glimpse of the low life of Marie van Goethem, the Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. Her face is beautifully-rendered.
Is there a lack of humanity in Degas?
Russians are the world’s best dancers. Go to any authentic club in Moscow. I saw proof in a disco in Almaty in 1996, where I went with a Kazakh of Korean ancestry called Vlad.
Tchaikovsky’s dance music is evidence. Deportation of Koreans in the Soviet Union.
At the end of the exhibition is a 10- (15-?) second clip of Degas in a street in Paris in 1915 shot by Sacha Guitry. I could watch it forever.