By way of Le Pas d’acier Prokofiev and Iakulov’s Ursiniol comes to the stage

Scetch by Millicent Hodson

The ballet had passed into oblivion after the demise of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1929. It was restaged with a new scenario for New York City in 1931 by choreographer Edwin Strawbridge and designer Lee Simonson. The most recent staging took place over half a century ago in Paris, a little known production by choreographer Serge Lifar and designer Fernand Léger. The idea to revive Le Pas d’acier once more came from dance historian Lesley-Anne Sayers (the Artistic Coordinator) and musicologist Simon Morrison (the Project Director) as they were collaborating on an article, “Prokofiev’s Le Pas d'acier: How the Steel Was Tempered”, published in the book Soviet Music and Society under Lenin and Stalin: the Baton and the Sickle (2004). Generous funding from many Princeton University offices, councils and departments as well as from the Arts and Humanities Research Board of the United Kingdom, not to mention three months of intensive work by all the collaborators, allowed their dream to come true.

   The lack of recorded choreography and even a trustworthy scenario for the first part of the Ballets Russes production was perhaps more a liberation than a liability. With the composer’s Diary as their primary source, Sayers and Morrison decided to stage Prokofiev and Iakulov’s original conception, bypassing the changes impresario Serge Diaghilev mandated at the start and the disfiguring changes wrought by choreographer Leonide Massine during rehearsals for the première in 1927. To achieve their goal they needed a choreographer knowledgeable about dance in that period. Fortunately the team of Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer was able to join the production and take charge of the choreography and staging. Although they have made numerous reconstructions over the years, their best known is probably Nijinsky’s 1913 Le Sacre du printemps for the Joffrey Ballet in 1987. Understandably, some movements and formations from this, and other reconstructed and surviving Ballets Russes ballets could be seen amidst the busy, almost kaleidoscopic action on the Berlind Theatre’s stage. Iakulov’s familiar set was the focal point in both acts, being used as a railroad platform in the first and as a factory platform in the second. The décor was realized from his original designs by Ms Sayers; the lighting was designed by Mark Simpson. Ingrid Maurer created the costumes based on the few surviving Iakulov sketches, Ballets Russes production photos and a good deal of conjecture in keeping with the ballet’s overall aesthetic. Sayers insisted that Iakulov’s asymmetry be preserved as well as his move from the monochrome, flat silhouettes of the first act (lit up with spot colour) towards the full colour, dynamism and depth of the stage in the second.
   Diaghilev asked Prokofiev to compose a “modern Russian ballet” for his company on 22 June 1925, shortly after the lacklustre Parisian première of the composer’s Second Symphony. The impresario had been following the latest in Soviet art through his contacts, including the writer Ilia Ehrenburg and the artist and theatre designer Georgii Iakulov. Both were brought before the company’s inner circle; Ehrenburg did little but wax on about life in present day Russia whereas Iakulov arrived with a portfolio full of drawings and drafts, as if he had been waiting for a moment like this to occur. Iakulov finally received the nod, but only after Ehrenburg enraged Diaghilev with his proposed fee and confessed indifference to the project. Diaghilev had been concerned about Iakulov’s inability to conceive a workable story. But, while walking with Prokofiev to the train station after one meeting, Iakulov shared some of his visions – cigarette girls, ladies wearing lampshades as hats, thieves, sailors, commissars, characters escaping from one platform level to another, workers with hammers, and an orator with a book attached to his hand by a rubber band. Prokofiev suddenly saw a Bolshevik ballet before him. He convinced the impresario that all Iakulov lacked was organizational skills, “and I have those”, he claimed.
   Prokofiev’s Diary account for 29 July 1925 describes his meeting with Iakulov near the composer’s summer home south of Paris; it provides the foundation of the Princeton production. Readers familiar with the scenario for the Ballets Russes version will be surprised by how much its ending differs from that of the original.

At two Iakulov arrived... We decided to discuss the plot during a walk because the weather was nice... near a bridge we saw a garden with tables in it. It turned out to be the Hôtel La Poule d’eau. We went inside, ordered coffee and started working on the libretto. Iakulov was giving me material and I was trying to build something out of it. First of all, I insisted that the place of action should not be Sukharevskaya square, but a train station – the only useful advice we got from Ehrenburg. Then I was inspired and the first act promptly took shape – in what became the final form. We had some delay with the second act at first, then I again became inspired – and the second part was ready as follows. The décor was rearranged, the factory was at full speed, machines are moving, hammers are hammering. After a little while a small private episode occurs at the proscenium: the orator, cursing the regime, is headed abroad with his suitcases; a young worker and the sailor say good-bye to him with a smirk. Work at the factory continues. Suddenly the factory director appears and says that the factory is closing due to a lack of money and materials. He shows them the factory books. The workers are indignant and chase him away. But nothing can be changed: the factory comes to a halt. A sad meeting: what to do? Suddenly commotion, leaping, and the beating of a drum is heard – there is a children’s procession (Iakulov says this is very typical of modern Moscow). The sailor and female worker join the procession. The procession departs, and the sailor persuades the workers not to be sad but to start exercising, because one’s health is most precious. So with cheerful gymnastic exercises the ballet ends.
   I was satisfied with the double sense of the plot: one could not figure out if it was pro-Bolshevik or against them, and that is exactly what is required (i.e., no politics, which Diaghilev claimed not to want). Iakulov was a little afraid that this kind of plot would make Moscow angry and he had to go back there, although he agreed... Iakulov devised a good name, Ursiniol from URSS, the official letters of Soviet Russia. I immediately liked it – it sounds half-jokingly, harmlessly, either like little bear [in French, ourson. Ed.], or like a caricature of Stravinsky’s Rossignol.

   The next day Prokofiev met with Diaghilev at the latter’s hotel in Paris and relayed their scenario for the ballet. Diaghilev accepted it with two conditions: further develop the private intrigue (love interest) and finish with the factory at full speed with hammers on stage instead of gymnastics. In early August Prokofiev sent him a two-page typescript of the scenario, incorporating the changes (a copy is held at the Serge Prokofiev Archive in London). Prokofiev composed the music to this scenario between August and October, and began orchestrating it in November.
   When the ballet finally went into rehearsal in the spring of 1927, the choreographer assigned to the project was Massine who had returned to the company as a guest choreographer. Iakulov was busy with a theatrical production in Tiflis and was unable to assist. Prokofiev met Massine during rehearsals in early April, but discovered that the choreographer had already repudiated most of the original scenario. Prokofiev did not protest – after a one-year delay he was glad to have the ballet scheduled for its première. Uncharacteristically, Diaghilev remained aloof from his pet project once Massine started work, either as a sign of confidence or more likely, a result of their still-strained relationship (Massine had “jilted” Diaghilev in 1920 just as Nijinsky had done in 1913). Massine’s incorporation of old Russian folk themes and legends in the first act (Baba Yaga and the Crocodile, etc.) would do little but thoroughly confuse critics and audiences alike during the première run. But the ballet’s stunning factory finale and Prokofiev’s score more than compensated and the ballet achieved tremendous success, despite (or perhaps abetted by) the attendant pro-White and pro-Red polemic.
   The Princeton production nearly eliminated Diaghilev and Massine from the ballet, instead it developed the original plans of Iakulov and Prokofiev. In the process the ballet became more humanistic and dramatic. At the end, after the workers begin their gymnastic display, the factory comes back to life. The production’s synopsis states: “The strength and power of the human body is celebrated alongside the machinery of the factory”. The ballet’s structure remained the same: a Prologue (a procession of the characters across the stage behind a scrim), and two acts, with the “Reconstruction of the Décor” coming in between the latter. The “Reconstruction” was one of the production’s high points. This was no musical interlude played before a lowered curtain while stagehands changed the sets, but a real constructivist change of scenery. As described in the programme book “The stage clears. Brigades of shock workers [the company] arrive to reconstruct the set, transforming the railway station into a factory. Lights descend, and wheels begin to spin.” Sayers recalled “we got that one right”; indeed they did, and the audience loved it.