Wednesday 4 February 2015

Bolt - return of a banned ballet at London's GRAD gallery

Costume design for a drunkard
The GRAD gallery in London's Little Portland Street is continuing its excellent record of exhibiting Russian art from the Soviet period with its current show The Bolt, featuring Tatiana Bruni's costume designs for Shostakovich's ballet of the same name. The ballet was performed just once before being banned by the Soviet authorities, anxious about anything that might not fit their view of the world and deeply suspicious of artists generally.

The Bolt premiered on the 8th April 1931 at the Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet in that was then Leningrad and is now St. Petersburg. Choreographed by Fyodor Lopukhov, it tells the story of  Lenka Gulba (which is Russian for lazy idler), who with the help of an anti-Soviet priest attempts to sabotage the work of a Soviet factory by placing a bolt in the machinery. The feckless Lenka is foiled by a group of young communists from the Komsomol. You might wonder why the Soviets didn't like this tale of young socialists saving the day. It seems the "good" characters were deemed too boring and the baddies too interesting - the lazy worker, bourgeois women and drunkards being too attractive for the censors. It was not only the story that bombed with the authorities, they didn't like the score - too western and they didn't like the choreography either, describing it as "grotesque". The opening night's audience was divided with both applause and catcalls throughout. Well you can't win 'em all. 

Shostakovich attracted much official criticism during his career, his 1948 From Jewish Folk Poetry song cycle not being performed until 1955 due to it incurring displeasure during a period of state-sponsored anti-semitism. He also produced another ballet with Lopukhov - The Bright Stream - in 1935. If the authorities didn't like The Bolt, they hated Bright Stream. The librettist ended up in Siberia, Lopukhov lay low in Tashkent and Shostakovich was shaken enough to cancel the premiere of another new piece. Still, it could have been worse as thousands of artists of all kinds were executed during Stalin's reign - the theatre suffering particularly badly. Of course, this makes the stunning achievements of artists working under the former Soviet regime even more impressive.

Costume design for a friend of Kozelkov
Costume design for a petit-bourgeois woman
But back to the exhibition and Tatiana Bruni's designs which are on loan from the St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music. Wonderful examples of the Soviet avant-garde period, they are extremely stylised, colourful, humorous and leave the viewer in no doubt about the inclinations of the characters they were designed for. The petit-bourgeios woman's costume is frivolous, fussy and impractical. The costume for the young communist woman is serious, sporting and red. Kozelkov's female friend is dressed in a revealing outfit held together by a huge pink bow denoting frivolity and perhaps loose morals whilst the drunkard has patched clothes and shoes on the verge of collapse, showing the wasteful, disorganised nature of the character. Perhaps the most inventive costumes are those for the actors playing the parts of the American navy and the Japanese navy, with ships around their waists, "capitalist" style shoes and trousers and in the case of the US navy, a torpedo for a cigarette!

Bruni faired rather better than her colleagues involved in the production of The Bolt, going on to design for many other ballets as well as opera and drama, producing costumes and other works for more than 200 different productions working in the Soviet Union for several decades. The Bolt did not return to the stage until 2005 when the Bolshoi Ballet performed it in Moscow. You can see clips from the ballet in the exhibition at the GRAD and some of the costumes themselves in addition to Bruni's designs. The score seems very modern and accessible and the titles of some of the pieces are irresistible. I am particularly taken by "The Dance of the Women in Shabby Coats" and "The Installation of the Machines Pantomime", both of which might lead one to believe that Shostakovich might just have been   having a very risky laugh at the authorities.

Costume design for the American navy
Costume design for a Komosomolka
In the years London has seen some superb exhibitions of Russian art from the Soviet period at the GRAD, at the Pushkin House and also at the  Victoria and Albert Museum where until March 15th, you can still see Russian a vant-garde theatre - war, revolution and design - much recommended. The Bolt runs at the GRAD until February 28th - don't miss it. And it's free too.

A clip from The Bolt...

You might also like Collaborators at the National Theatre - It's Man versus Monster Mikhail and Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen at London's GRAD

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