The Art Pitch: Football and Ballet

The Art Pitch: Football and Ballet
Tatyana Kuznetsova, Ъ ballet critic, on football and choreography
The Art Pitch: Football and Ballet
Tatyana Kuznetsova, Ъ ballet critic, on football and choreography
Despite being a sport, football has served as a vibrant source of inspiration for many artists. This Welcome2018 project explores the reflection of football, the planet’s favourite sport, in various art forms.
Staged by demand
On the face of it, ballet looks like a feminine affair with its diaphanous swans, fairies on a string, and miscellaneous ethereal creatures flitting about in breathless silence as a lonesome prince wonders to and fro. In the end, everyone gets their fair share of applause. Football, on the other hand, appears to be the male prerogative. Two dozen restless dudes chasing the football as the crowds alternatively roar and whistle. They run like hell when they attack, they do amazing tricks with that football, they tackle like there's no tomorrow, they jump on corner kicks like they're jumping for their life, and then they heap up on top of each other when they score a goal. But we shouldn't rush to conclusions. Ballet and football have more in common than what meets the eye.
Ballet and football have more in common than is usually believed: both require excellent physical shape and perfect technique. In this photo: The Beautiful Game ballet, Unicorn Theatre, London, 11 September 2008
Firstly, physique is of the essence. Ballet and football require almost identical physical faculties in terms of stretching, jumping, coordination, promptness of motor reactions, spatial orientation and team-play acumen. Secondly, technique is a sine qua non. Technique is mastered under the guidance of a training coach, according to a custom-designed methodology. It is equally important to possess advanced team-playing skills, and the soloists (strikers, playmakers) always take centre-stage. There is a play script in either case. The passion, dynamic, plastic expression, stuntmanship and egalitarianism of football make it a stage-worthy show indeed.
Ballet instructor Doreen Armitage practicing stretching exercises with FC Millwall footballers, London
Ballet appreciated this potential back in the early decades of the Soviet Union, when this art form narrowly escaped full abolition as a "plaything of the Tsarist regime." In gratitude, ballet had to appease the new regime and earn its keep with proof of its ideological loyalty and its commitment to the propagation of a new outlook on life. Ballet urgently had to cover relevant topics, and those had to be topics approved by an audience of workers and peasants. Ballet choreographers came up with a succession of metaphoric parables about the victorious revolution, but none of them got the imprimatur from the proletariat. Eventually, ballet companies ended up with only one "relevant" production as the 10th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution approached. It was a ballet about Soviet sailors bringing a message of liberation to the oppressed Chinese workers and peasants, represented by a geisha, who falls in love with the Soviet ship's captain.
But right then the Soviet Union's favourite game, football, came to the rescue. Ballet choreographers clutched at it like a drowning man clutches at a straw. In 1930, several months apart, Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre and Leningrad's National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre (now the Mariinsky) simultaneously staged epic plot-based ballet productions with football characters and real football matches onstage.
Moscow's The Footballer, March 1930
The Moscow ballet, composed by Oransky to a libretto by one Kurdiumov, had an unassuming title, The Footballer. It was a light-hearted comedy with a satirical slant. The ballet lampooned the Soviet incarnation of philistines and their preference for lush (as opposed to healthy) living, and extolled the virtues of happiness the Soviet way. The plot is so basic it is difficult to fathom how they had managed to drag it out over three acts. The first act is all football: first comes a rehearsal (I mean, training), then the match, in which the main character scores the winning goal. In the second act, trying to flee from the fans, the Footballer and his fiancée Broomella (which is the elegant nom-de-ballet for "cleaning woman") pop into a department store, where one NEP (entrepreneur) Lady starts flirting with the football star, while some Dandy hits on his fiancée. In the third act, having fled the advances of those obnoxious individuals, Footballer and Broomella have a good time at the stadium in the company of the entire football squad, as well as some tennis players, pioneers and Red Army soldiers.
Footballer and Broomella from the Oransky ballet The Footballer, 1930. Maitre de ballet: Igor Moiseev
Lev Lashchilin, the maitre de ballet, who had successfully staged dances of the oppressed coolies at Red Poppy three years earlier, as well as Yablochko for the Soviet Navy sailors and exotic dances for some foreign ethnic communities, was positively mortified when the proletarian art evaluation jury turned down his all-but-ready football ballet three times in succession. The premiere was saved by the young Igor Moiseev. The 24-year-old Bolshoi soloist contrived to convey it all: the scintillating fun of football, the optimism of the popular masses, and the grotesque irrelevance of the "remnants of the past." The ballet stayed on the play-bill only for about a year, but played 35 times with unflagging success, kick-starting the choreography career of the future founder of the iconic Moiseev Ensemble.
Leningrad's The Golden Age, October 1930
Leningrad's was a much more serious take on "football ballet." First they announced a libretto tender. The winner – Dinamiada (derived from Dinamo) by film director Ivanovsky – was characterized by clearly cinematographic scene montage, a plot so overloaded as to seem almost meaningless, and a heavy ideological slant. The Soviet football squad takes on the entire capitalist system.
In The Golden Age, the Soviet football squad takes on the entire capitalist system with its infernal Charleston, foxtrot, two-step and other "unhealthy eroticism," in the words of Dmitry Shostakovich
The scene is laid in some "western town," where the footballers have arrived for a friendly match. At the local music hall, members of the local bourgeoisie are celebrating their "Golden Age," insidiously trying to corrupt the Soviet athletes by dint of a local Diva and some bourgeois dance routines: the foxtrot, black bottom, two-step, Charleston and suchlike. The squad's captain has had enough of this provocation. He grabs a football and holds it up threateningly like it's a bomb he's about to hurl at his foes. This works and the whole congregation drop down to the floor. The libretto writer definitely got carried away. The action features some pioneers, boxers (a black one and a white one), and Komsomol girls (a Soviet one and a western one, the former played by Galina Ulanova). There are chases, shootouts, there is a Nazi changing into a Soviet football uniform and, finally, there comes the football match. It is not clear who won. The libretto is not telling, but we can guess in the finale as the footballers and the proletarians merge in an ecstatic dance of solidarity.

Dmitry Shostakovich, then a young man, composed a joyous, inspirational score for this action libretto, eventually titled The Golden Age. This was his first ballet project. Shostakovich was also a religious football fan and held the qualification credentials of a republic-level referee. The 23-year-old Shostakovich composed 37 music pieces in just two or three months. He prudently included this explanation of intent in the ballet brochure:
In Western Europe, dancing is characterized by unhealthy eroticism, which is also typical of modern bourgeois culture overall. By contrast, I deemed it necessary to saturate Soviet dancing with elements of healthy physical culture and sports.
Dmitry Shostakovich
The staging of this ballet epic about modern times was entrusted to young choreographers: Vasily Vainonen, 29, and Leonid Yakobson, 26 (both future mentors of Soviet choreography) and V. Chesnokov, who would remain in obscurity.
The Golden Age was Dmitry Shostakovich's debut in the genre of ballet
The focus was there alright but, as happened only too often, the "decaying West" looked much more attractive than the "healthy USSR" in just about every way: the music, the dancing, and the personalities of the characters. The proletarian public, oblivious to the class struggle, came in droves to see The Golden Age, and received it ecstatically. The ballet was staged by other choreographers in Kiev and (under the original title – Dinamiada) in Odessa the same year. The audience response in Kiev and Odessa was all positive.

The ideologues were alarmed as the critics condemned the music as "not melodic enough and not danceable," and the choreography, as "eclectic." Overall, the show was accused of "propagating the bourgeois life-style, which the people reject." The ballet did not last very long. The Golden Age was just not right for the Soviet state. Yuri Grigorovich directed a play of the same name at the Bolshoi Theatre in the later years of Brezhnev's stagnation, and it is still on the repertoire. But there is no football in this melodrama about a face-off between Soviet fishermen and some low-life element.
The Golden Age at Mariinsky Theatre, June 2006
It was Valery Gergiev's idea to resuscitate Dmitry Shostakovich's ballet debut to mark the composer's 100th jubilee. In Russia, no choreographer could be found to tackle a task of such magnitude. The Mariinsky had to put an American, Noah D. Gelber, on the case, who had previously worked on the Forsythe ballets with the Mariinsky artists.
Some say that the golden age is a time of youth and unlimited possibilities. Others say that the golden age comes later in life. My Golden Age is an exploration into what gives life meaning, regardless of age.
A new libretto was commissioned – even more bombastic and confusing than the original one. Here is the plot. This old man (a former footballer) and this old woman (formerly a citizen of a capitalist country, now a patient in a Russian hospital, getting daily IV drip feeds) reminisce about the events of 70 years before. Scenes from the past come in flashbacks: these people first meeting each other somewhere in the West, Soviet and Nazi footballers playing, the war, an improvised concentration camp at some stadium, the man's imprisonment, and his flight from captivity. Not only did the onstage football match fail to save the day; it actually highlighted the show's absurdities. To imitate a real football game onstage, with all its running, jumping, pushing and tackling, seemed like an un-cool proposition for a 21st-century ballet production. So the choreographer, Gelber, choreographed a symbolic football match. There is no ball-play and no ball as such. The squads line up facing each other, and keep their ranks as they move around. The dancers throw their legs up in truncated battements, jump vertically up, crop the air with some hiccupping entrechats, and never have any physical contact with their opponents. For all the action it generates, it could have been the representation of a chess match. Somehow the main character gets injured in this weird and sluggish football match. The injury is the choreographer's idea of a relationship starter. A blushing, bashful nurse dresses the Soviet footballer's wound while the wounded himself seems genuinely agitated, although this is definitely agitation of a purely spiritual nature.
The Golden Age was resuscitated with a new libretto in 2006, but it didn't fly
This ballet turned out so bad that it only played three shows in St. Petersburg and totally flopped in London before being issued a one-way ticket to the trash bin.
Football is the name of a ballet number, choreographed by Igor Moiseev to the score of Alexander Tsfasman in memory of Moiseev's ballet debut, remains on the repertoire list of the Igor Moiseev National Academic Folk Dance Ensemble to this day.
In the ballet number Football, which remains on the play-list of the Igor Moiseev National Academic Folk Dance Ensemble, the dancers play an imaginary football
The celebrity choreographer had no fear of being criticized as too low-brow or outdated, so he kept all the hallmarks of Soviet ballet realism in his production. His Football is not an international political affair. There is a photographer with his antique camera fidgeting on the bench at the edge of the field next to two orderlies with a stretcher and a young pioneer. The goalkeeper in the very real goal onstage seems bored sometimes – that's when the game is somewhere in the wings, at the opposing squad's goal. He will get nervous when the game rolls out downstage, the players pummelling each other in plain view. Sometimes he will duck down under the cross-bar to grab the imaginary football. The dancers representing the "red" squad (Spartak) and the "blue" squad (Dinamo) go at it for real, colliding in mid-air, mincing as they dribble, going full split as they tackle, punching each other, flying wing to wing in particularly giddy stunts, and arguing with the referee every chance they get. And you know what, this charmingly old-fashioned number stands a good chance of becoming the piece de resistance of all the galas to be staged on account of FIFA World Cup 2018 Russia™.
Photo credit:
Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images,, Mariinsky Theatre / Natalia Razina,, Dzhavakhadze Zurab/TASS, Images via Getty Images