Artistic repossession (USSR)

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Artistic repossession
Location: Soviet Union
USSR map.png
Author: Christina Ezrahi

Original text by Christina Ezrahi

‘Artistic repossession’ is a theoretical term used to describe a range of creative strategies developed by artists working under the constraints of strict ideological control and censorship within the context of an authoritarian dictatorship such as the Soviet Union. The term focuses on the enabling power of constraints by analysing ways in which artists turned pressure into creativity, responding to the ideological constraints by finding increasingly creative ways of artistic self-expression. Just as the owner of a house who was dispossessed might aim to repossess his property, artists working under the pressure of censorship and ideological control tend to seek ways to repossess their house of cultural production (Ezrahi 2012: 7[1]).

‘Artistic repossession’ looks at deep structures of resistance and systemic subversion by identifying tactics that operate within the system but seek to use the system to promote goals alien to it. Artists in the Soviet Union had no choice but to accept the political organisational structures and ideological frames imposed on cultural production, but they learnt to creatively adapt and redefine the rules imposed on them, and to even exploit them for their own artistic ends in a way that had nothing to do with the regime’s goals or the values of the structures and ideological concepts they were supposed to promote (Ezrahi 2012: 7[2]). Thus ‘artistic repossession’ does not describe informal practices such as samizdat (self-publishing) that explicitly rejected and challenged the official system of Soviet cultural production. The term looks at more subconscious ways of subverting the system from within by artists who endeavoured to forge their own destinies within the system’s parameters. An interesting structural parallel can be found in Michel de Certeau study of indigenous peoples of the Americas who subconsciously subverted Spanish colonisation from within: ‘submissive, and even consenting to their subjection, the Indians nevertheless often made of the rituals, representations, and laws imposed on them something quite different from what their conquerors had in mind; they subverted them not by rejecting or altering them, but by using them with respect to ends and references foreign to the system they had no choice but to accept’ (de Certeau 1984: xiii[3]).

The term ‘artistic repossession’ originated from a study of choreographers and dancers at the Kirov and Bolshoi Ballet companies which analysed the way in which they exploited the ambiguity inherent in the system to develop strategies that allowed them to reclaim some artistic autonomy during the period of the cultural thaw in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and early 1960s (Ezrahi 2012[4]). One strategy it revealed was that the companies used political patronage for purely artistic purposes. For example, in 1956, the young choreographer Yuri Grigorovich was entrusted with choreographing Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet The Stone Flower for the Kirov Ballet. Overtly, Grigorovich stayed within the boundaries set by the officially sanctioned dramatic paradigm for Soviet ballet: the ballet had a narrative plot based on a story from Pavel Bazhov’s folkloristic fairy tale collection The Malachite Casket and was told in the language of classical dance. Beneath the surface, however, Grigorovich challenged the established dogmas of late Stalinist ballet by modernising the language of his choreography, by including quasi-abstract divertissements of pure dance, and by working with a set designer, Simon Virsaladze, whose aesthetics strayed from socialist realism. A fight between the Kirov Ballet’s ‘old guard’ and its young challenger ensued. In order to overcome resistance from within the company and to ensure proper working conditions, Grigorovich and his team declared the ballet a ‘youth production’ and dedicated it to the Sixth International Youth Festival, to be held in Moscow and Leningrad in 1957. This enabled them to enlist the help of the theatre’s Komsomol (Youth) organisation, which counted some of the main dancers involved in the production amongst its members. At this point The Stone Flower metamorphosed into an initiative of the theatre’s Komsomol organisation and enabled the young, innovative choreographer to secure the Soviet government’s support and thus to counter his conservative opponents within the theatre. An order issued by the Minister of Culture of the USSR commanded the Kirov Theatre to ensure that the ballet would be completed in time for the festival. Instead of increasing political awareness and instilling Communist values, the Kirov Theatre’s Komsomol organisation had unwittingly used its influence to support the artistic goal of challenging the existing aesthetics of Soviet ballet (Ezrahi 2012: 118-128[5]).

Throughout the Soviet period, the Kirov and Bolshoi Ballet companies continuously struggled to meet the government’s demand for ballets on Soviet themes. In the 1950s and 1960s, some of the most daring challenges to Soviet ballet aesthetics found an audience simply because they helped theatres fulfil official quotas for new ballets based on contemporary Soviet themes. Further examples of the successful use of this strategy are found in the work of the choreographer Igor Belsky, whose ballets on Soviet themes were attacked as dangerously abstract in their execution, and by the enfant terrible of Soviet ballet, Leonid Yakobson, who staged ballets on contemporary Soviet themes using an idiosyncratic movement vocabulary which was far removed from classical dance (Ezrahi 2012: 129-136, 169-200[6]).

Ultimately, art is an inherently resistant medium because it is impossible to completely control either the artist’s intention behind the creation of a piece of art, or its subsequent interpretation by a performer and/or an audience. In 1968, Yuri Grigorovich created the Soviet ballet blockbuster Spartacus for the Bolshoi Ballet within the context of the fiftieth anniversary commemorations of the revolution. Despite the ballet’s hordes of goose-stepping Roman soldiers and its propagandistic plot about Spartacus, leader of a slave revolt in ancient Rome, its strength as a theatrical production showed that choreography could become resistance. The choreography, the dancers’ charisma and the spectacle of the production engaged the audience in the power of the performance, making them forget the ballet’s ideological subtext, and allowing them to interpret it in their own way. In the production, Maris Liepa, who created the part of Crassus, leader of the Roman army, portrayed himself not as the evil anti-hero and oppressor of slaves, but as the defender of an ancient civilization against a barbarian revolution. The ballet outlived the political context of its creation and continues to be a signature piece of the Bolshoi Ballet in the post-Soviet period. (Ezrahi 2012: 201-231[7]).

Notes

  1. Ezrahi, C. 2012. Swans of the Kremlin: Ballet and Power in Soviet Russia. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press.
  2. Ezrahi, C. 2012. Swans of the Kremlin: Ballet and Power in Soviet Russia. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press.
  3. De Certeau, M. 1984. The Practices of Everyday Life (transl. by Steven Randall). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  4. Ezrahi, C. 2012. Swans of the Kremlin: Ballet and Power in Soviet Russia. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press.
  5. Ezrahi, C. 2012. Swans of the Kremlin: Ballet and Power in Soviet Russia. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press.
  6. Ezrahi, C. 2012. Swans of the Kremlin: Ballet and Power in Soviet Russia. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press.
  7. Ezrahi, C. 2012. Swans of the Kremlin: Ballet and Power in Soviet Russia. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press.