Boris Romanov and
the Russian romantic theatre
Prokofiev at work
Romanov at work
The Ballet: Scenario and Music
The Ballet: Performances
Prokofiev's first sketch of the scenario.
18 Souritz, Elizabeth, Soviet Choreographers in the 1920s, (London: Dance Books, 1990), p. 36.
19 Letter to Romanov, 6 August 1924, unpublished, The Serge Prokofiev Archive.
20 Leon Zack (b. 1892) was a prominent poet around 1913 in the highly modernistic and short-lived movement known as ego-futurism. In Paris where he emigrated in 1920, he made his name for his drawings and paintings, rather than his writings. One of the three regular artists at the Russian Romantic Theatre (along with W. Boberman and Philip Hossiasson), he designed the décors and costumes for Trapèze.
21 Letter to Prokofiev, 4 March 1925, unpublished, The Serge Prokofiev Archive.
22 Letter to Romanov, 2 October 1925, unpublished, The Serge Prokofiev Archive.
Original scenario of June 1924
1. Ballerina (Theme and variations)
2. Dance of the boors (with the ballerina, 5th variation).
It ends with the group (They hug)
3. The tumblers leap out (their intensity frightens the Chinamen). They hug the ballerina
4. Challenge to a duel (choreographic roll-call)
Fight with a fire-cracker. They spin. Explosion
5. They mourn the dead ballerina
This scenario was in fact a re-working of an earlier ballet created by Romanov in St.Petersburg in the winter of 1913-14, entitled What happened to the Ballerina, the Chinamen and the Tumblers. In a study on Soviet choreographers in the 1920s, the dance historian Elizabeth Souritz refers to this “ironic” work as “a puppet farce in which Chinese dolls with mechanically nodding heads, and quickly turning clowns moved about on the background of the painter Alexei Radakov’s colourful screens”.(18) The music was by Vladimir Rebikov, a raucously anti-romantic composer best known for his ideas and writings on psychological music. Even though this short ballet had been poorly received in Russia, it had clearly remained dear to Romanov, who was now attempting to present the subject to a new audience with music by a much more famous composer.
Even though details of the ballet’s scenario, production and music are scarce, important ones emerge in the letters of Prokofiev who, in the process of composing the music, shared some of his thoughts with Romanov. “The most interesting […] is the third movement, the Tumblers”, he writes in the summer of 1924. “But it will also be the hardest to perform, for both the musicians and the dancers, since it is written in the form of a fast running fugato in 5 crotchets. Both the form – that is the fugato character – and the counting in five crotchets per bar, demand a performance of great precision and agility; particularly if you take into account that the 5 crotchets (10 quavers) are divided in one bar 2+2+2+2+2 (as per usual), and in another 3+4+3. With good team-work, it should turn out very lively, but don’t panic because the other movements will not present such rhythmic complexities.
“[…] ‘Challenge to a duel’ is very impassioned. ‘Pulling the fire-cracker’ – a mournful Adagio. In my opinion the explosion should occur at the end of the Adagio, without any music. I think that when the music stops then the explosion should occur and the first brouhaha – a little scene of 15-20 seconds – should take place to total silence from the orchestra; and then the sixth scene starts, a funeral minuet.”(19)
It is not known if these suggestions were taken up by Romanov who did not start work on the ballet or even hear the music for another seven months. But in March the following year, following a meeting between the two men, Romanov started to address certain aspects of the production. “I plan to leave the dramatis personae as discussed in Paris – i.e. ballerina, Chinamen and tumblers, but no boxers, acrobats etc. – all these costumes and characters from the world of sport have been awfully used in Germany, and in France by Diaghilev.
“I intend to produce the ballet in a décor of tightly stretched ropes. Zack (20) gave me this idea last year and I think it could be very wittily applied here. Imagine an open-work décor of interwoven, decorated ropes, which will provide a great opportunity for the choreography and with it, an opportunity for something different; i.e. it will be possible for the dancers to leap onto the walls, if one can put it like that, and continue to dance in the air.
“It should be fine for a piece of the grotesque, as I consider your ballet to be. I don’t want to call it ‘amusing’ as this year I’ve had the painful experience of watching numerous ‘amusing pieces’, during which, from boredom and on occasions from whim, I’ve waited for the curtain to come down.”(21)
At their meeting, Prokofiev finally played the music to Romanov; but although most complimentary, Romanov asked him to re-organise the movements for he had changed his mind about the scenario. This did not please Prokofiev, who wrote in his Diary: “I composed this work following the instructions of the written scenario and it was not easy for me to write the final part, having had to submit myself to that plan. And now ‘please be good enough to change’. But I will not change the concert Quintet because of the integrity of the tonal organisation.” (10 May 1925).
A few weeks later when Prokofiev was asked to provide another two numbers (Overture and Matelote), he reluctantly agreed because “so far Romanov only comes up with concrete offers.” (Diary: 16 July 1925). However he would not have failed to realise that these numbers would be stylistically different from the Quintet. Prokofiev had been deeply affected by the recent failure of his Second Symphony (6 June 1925), which he had composed immediately after the Quintet and in the same chromatic language and thick textures. He was now experimenting with the “new simplicity”, turning to a more diatonic language and transparent textures, features which are apparent in these two numbers.
Further problems arose later that summer when Romanov, having started rehearsals, requested more changes to accommodate his choreography. On 28 September, he wrote apologetically, asking Prokofiev to authorise a “minute change” to the music: “I’m talking about the ballerina dance which, according to the piano score, is No.1 “Theme and Variations”. There, after a rather animated part and the theme, the first variation takes place in a slower pace, and it is quite long. I’m asking you to authorise me to curtail this variation or rather to start the variation towards the end, not from the beginning – that is to remove 27 bars.” Four days later Prokofiev replies wryly: “ ‘Make yourself at home with my innards’ said a patient to his surgeon, when he was lying on the operating table. I feel like saying the same thing about your blood-thirsty intention. I only beg you not to call the theme from the variations ‘animated’, as you wrote. It is on the contrary smooth and if it is the instrument that gallops, then kill its ardour.”(22)
Their final but serious disagreement appears in Prokofiev’s last letter to Romanov, dated 17 October 1925, one that provides the best clues as to the scenario:
“Dear Boris Georgevich,
The more I think of the way you staged the Overture, the clearer it becomes to me that it is not right. When you showed it to me last Sunday I thought that, with time, I might get used to it, but in fact it is the opposite.
Your fault lies in the fact that in the summer you explained your plan to me in great detail. I composed the music strictly sticking to it, but now you have completely changed the whole scene. Remember: at first there are merry cobblers and gloomy functionaries – and music follows this. But now it is being played with the curtain down. I don’t like this. I want movement, I want the curtain to rise immediately over 3 or 5 bars – I even wrote the clarinet line with this in mind. Then, in the middle of the Overture there must be a love scene, of real tenderness, out of which is born the drama at the end of the ballet; but now you bring out a prostitute with a cigarette – once more in dissonance with my music. And there is a third dissonance: the lack of movement on the stage at the end of the Overture when the music is clearly rhythmical and skipping. I already commented on that. Think about this my dear! And perhaps make some changes.”(23)
How tantalising this letter is and how much more one would like to know about the final scenario! However, until Romanov’s notes come to the fore, one can only infer from these letters that the dance did not represent the intentions behind the music. And even though the ballet did start with the newly composed Overture, the overall order in which the remaining seven movements were performed remains unknown. Next Back