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Theater of Cruelty

To Dance

by Valery Panov, by George Feifer
Knopf, 397 pp., $15.00

Valery Panov and George Feifer have a highly dramatic, indeed tragic, story to tell in this book: the story of how the gifted dancer was prevented from developing his talents on the stage of the Kirov Theater in Leningrad. They tell how Panov became instead a puppet in the cruel and absurd bureaucratic theater of Soviet culture.

Panov describes the humiliation of his efforts to find out what the omnipotent authorities held against him. Why was he prevented from touring abroad with the famous Kirov company? Why, when he decided to emigrate to Israel, was he so harshly treated by the KGB? His account of his campaign to be allowed to dance, and then to leave Russia, do much to explain why, beginning in the early 1960s, the best classical ballet company in the world was deserted by its best dancers.

To understand his story, however, we must recall that the theater from which he was expelled has long seemed under a curse. It is as if fate, personified by the Russian bureaucracy, both tsarist and Bolshevik, had determined to take revenge on the tenacious company that had survived as an island of classical art, first in the flood of modernist Russian culture during the two opening decades of the century, and then later when this culture was destroyed by “proletarian” conquerors.

The Kirov Theater has always suffered from the petty tyranny of its official supervisors: they dropped the great Petipa when he grew too old to dance; they fired Nijinsky, ignoring his talent. The exodus of artists escaping from the Kirov’s rigid management was begun by Diaghilev when he took the first of his famous seasons abroad. Balanchine left this theater to go first to Paris and eventually to the US. Indeed, were it not for the continuing bureaucratic pressure forcing Russian artists to flee to the West, Western ballet might never have developed to its present state. Other dancers, like Nijinsky and Spessivtseva, found respite from the pressure only in madness.

The Kirov Theater has also been marked by a number of sinister mysteries. The first, in 1924, was the drowning of Lidia Ivanova, a young dancer who promised to become another Anna Pavlova. The circumstances of the incident are still obscure, and some evidence indicates that she was in fact murdered by the KGB. Half a century later there was the suicide, without apparent motive, of Yuri Soloviev, known for his incomparable Blue Bird, his Spectre de la Rose, and the fantastic soaring ballon leap that led old St. Petersburg ballet fans to compare him to Nijinsky.

Under Stalin, when emigration to the West was impossible, the best dancers of the company—Ulanova, Semyonova, Chaboukiani—fled to the Bolshoi in Moscow. The Maryinsky, renamed the Kirov in 1934 after a Party leader murdered by Stalin, became the stronghold of the St. Petersburg dance tradition, under close supervision by the Party bureaucracy and the powerful influence of Agrippina Vaganova’s ballet school. Swan Lakes and Sleeping Beautys flourished, while at the same time several new Soviet “narrative ballets”—drambalety—were introduced in the repertory. Often in these new pieces dance was replaced by superficial pantomime, but the company did not entirely abandon the classical heritage of Petipa and Ivanov. Stalin himself had a weakness for this flotsam of imperial luxury and apparently took pleasure in watching Fokine’s sylphides and Petipa’s nereids.

The flight from the theater continued through the beginning of the 1960s. Yuri Grigorovich, by then a devoted partisan of neoclassicism, and exhausted by his struggle with Party wardens, finally left for Moscow. Then in 1961 Rudolf Nureyev left, going not to Moscow but to the West—the first in a series of defections. He was followed by two other stars of equal stature: Natalia Makarova in 1970 and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974. Then in 1975 Kaleria Fedicheva, another leading dancer of the company, left to join her husband in the US. Later in 1975 Valery Panov and his wife, Galina Ragozina, finally were allowed to leave, after struggling to do so for some twenty-seven months.

Panov thus was the last in a long line of runaways, and his flight was particularly hard. The reason for his delay in leaving was not, as Feifer writes in his prologue, that “he alone did not defect, but stayed—even though not by his own choice—to face the murderous music of Soviet revenge.” Feifer’s statement is not only in bad taste (one of many other lapses of taste in this book), it is also misleading. Panov could not defect earlier than he did because since 1959, when he was alleged to have committed a still obscure “misdemeanor” during an American tour, he had not been allowed to join the company’s trips to the West.

The opportunity to leave arose only with the beginning of the Jewish exodus in the 1970s. By this time, Panov’s professional career had begun to decline, and the Kirov Theater itself had become known as a flagrant “trouble-maker,” a serious embarrassment to the section of the Leningrad KGB responsible for ideology in the theater. For the KGB, Panov’s decision to emigrate was the final affront, and he bore the accumulated hatred of furious policemen determined to make him pay for their previous failures. The KGB decided to make him an object of exemplary reprisals. In harassing him the KGB intended to warn others, like Plisetskaya, Vasiliev, or Godunov of the Bolshoi, who might have wished to leave for the West.

According to Soviet law Panov could have been tried and put in prison “for dissemination of slanderous insinuations against the Soviet Union.” Or the KGB could have liquidated him at “the beginning of the game,” before his friends, myself among them, began to tell Western journalists about the measures being taken against him. To a certain extent it was the campaign organized in the West by Clive and Patricia Barnes, Rosemary Winckley, Suzanne Massie, and others that finally saved Panov.

One problem for the KGB was that existing emigration legislation did not cover Panov’s case. The authorities could not accept his application for emigration to Israel, for although he is half-Jewish his passport gives his “nationality” as Belorussian. This fifth item in the Soviet interior passport has been a serious obstacle for many Russians who dream of leaving their country, for officially only those registered as Jews have been allowed to emigrate. In the beginning of the exodus this rule was strictly observed, but Panov defied it with the passion of Rocambolle, and eventually won. Of course, he was lucky: his struggle to leave took place at the time of détente—that comedy in which Kissinger and Brezhnev tried to outwit one another—which somewhat confused even the KGB. Meanwhile, the campaign waged by Panov’s friends abroad was growing in momentum.

But if there is tragedy in Panov’s story, it is linked not so much to his political position as a scapegoat for the KGB as to his disrupted and then mismanaged professional career. In his preface Feifer refers to Panov as a “genius” of dance. He supports his claim by quoting Clive Barnes, who saw in Panov a great dancer of our time. But neither inflated appraisal changes the facts, and included in the preface of Panov’s book such exaggerated praise sounds like self-advertisement.

Valery Panov has always been a very gifted dancer with an unusual dramatic talent. He is known for his brilliant technique—a technique that is however more appropriate in neoclassical dance than in the classics. In his book he does not conceal that in the Kirov company he felt like “a plate in the wrong set.” For their part, the Kirov dancers considered him almost a stuntman who cared more about his circuslike jumps and cabrioles than about classical purity of style, which was the glory of the Kirov and of dancers like the late Yuri Soloviev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, who appeared on the Kirov stage in the mid-Sixties.

Among the classics, Panov danced only in Don Quixote. Neither Swan Lake nor Sleeping Beauty was suited for his gifts. He tried to dance Blue Bird with Makarova as Florina—a pairing of incongruous styles not at all to Panov’s advantage. In the 1960s the Kirov repertory included only a very few neoclassical pieces. The inspired choreographer Jacobson tried to introduce this style, but his expressive staging was no more appropriate than the classical style for the athletic and masculine Panov, who was neither vivid nor precise enough for Jacobson’s works. Panov danced only in Jacobson’s Wonderland, a stylization of Russian lubok folk painting. Panov worked mostly in Soviet “narrative ballets,” like Laurencia, The Bronze Horseman, or Distant Planet, where dance is used primarily to illustrate a message. Typically the choreography is sketchy and it is left to the actor’s personality to carry the piece. Panov was admirable in Fokine’s Petrushka, where the main emphasis is on expression and pantomime rather than on dance as such. Thus although he danced on the Kirov stage, where Makarova, Baryshnikov, and Nureyev learned individual expression within a perfected classical tradition, from the beginning Panov worked in a different style.

Soviet “narrative” ballet, a highly provincial genre, was scant nourishment for Panov’s artistic youth. Had he defected ten years earlier, he might have had a chance to work with the late John Cranko of the Stuttgart Ballet, or with other Western neoclassical choreographers, and he might have developed his expressive, dramatic talent. But as it was, he stayed in Leningrad, mired in the provinciality of Soviet theater—a provinciality that shows today in his taste and in his book.

Indeed, provinciality is a central feature of much contemporary Soviet art, which has for many years been isolated from Western experiments. Western artistic trends have always been a source of inspiration for Russians, although they tried to overcome the influence or transform it in their own way. Tolstoy could not have written as he did had he not read Rousseau and Stendhal, just as Nabokov could not have written as he did without reading Proust, Joyce, and German expressionist writers like Werfel and Meyrink. The present provinciality of Soviet culture can also be seen as a result of the artificial rupture of many great Russian artistic traditions during the postrevolutionary period. The socalled “first wave” of Russians who came to the West after the revolution—artists like Stravinsky and Balanchine—managed to fuse these traditions with Western innovations, but those who came later had long been cut off from both.

Panov’s generation, known as the “third emigration,” discovered both Mandelstam and Faulkner only in the 1960s. Only then did they have a chance to see the choreography of Balanchine, John Cranko, or Roland Petit, and many of these Soviet dancers found it psychologically difficult to admit that Russian ballet had not kept up with the West. A large number of Soviet intellectuals are still living off their glorious cultural past—a heritage sometimes available to them despite the stifling government-sponsored culture, but often not discovered until they reach the West. Inside Soviet Russia people still have passionate discussions about a turn-of-the-century poet as if his work were a new best seller; they still speak about Proust as if he were the “last word” in modernist literature, while only half of his great novel is as yet available in Russian translation; they still debate the merits of Joyce’s Ulysses, which is not yet translated at all and therefore accessible only to very few readers.

Many Soviet intellectuals find this pervasive provinciality so painful that they can neither recognize it nor accept it. Many have developed an almost sub-conscious reaction, an inferiority complex, which they conceal beneath a characteristic Russian intolerance of the achievements of Western culture. Generally, the stronger the expression of this aggression, the more obvious are its defensive roots. It is difficult to live with one’s own inferiority, but to overcome it in art is even more difficult. I know of only two writers, for example, who have completely escaped this Russian provinciality: the poet Joseph Brodsky and the novelist Sasha Sokolov.

Unfortunately a provincial taste and values color much of Panov’s book. From the beginning of his confrontation with the Soviet authorities, the idea of political freedom was for him inseparable from his artistic ideal. He felt an almost messianic calling to impart to the West something of what he had learned from his Russian experience of suffering. He expected that this vision would provide a source of artistic inspiration for Western ballet, which he found seriously misdirected. In fact, when Panov reached the West, although now free of the KGB and of Soviet bureaucratic suppression, he so lacked inner artistic freedom that he was prevented from making the choices that would have helped his career.

Once he had arrived in the West, Panov did not experiment, but instead pulled from his old baggage several worn-looking ballets. Once again he danced Petrushka and A Girl and a Hooligan, two pieces in which he had always been quite good, but also a number of old-fashioned classical pieces like the pas de deux from The Nutcracker, Corsaire, and Drigo’s Harlequinade, pieces in which his performances would hardly strike sophisticated audiences as imaginative. Soon his widely publicized defection began to work against him: his popularity as a political dissident far exceeded his artistic reputation, and he failed to consolidate this popularity with his dancing. His appearances were met with ruthless criticism, as for example in London, where he decided to dance Albrecht in Giselle—a romantic part for which he was not suited even in his early youth. Once again Panov showed an ineptitude for making artistic choices. This poor judgment—this lack of inner freedom and critical perspective—grows directly from the psychological blows inflicted by a totalitarian regime known for its deliberate ignorance and barbarity. Probably the greatest challenge facing any creative Russian is to develop immunity against the suppressive system that is designed to destroy one’s personal system of values.

When George Feifer claims that “in three sentences he [Panov] revealed more about the real workings of Soviet ballet, and of Soviet art in general, than I had learned in scores of visits,” he betrays his own poor understanding of Russia. Panov’s account is sincere and moving, but here, as in his artistic choices, he often shows a lack of judgment.

Throughout the book, copious facts and detailed accounts of others’ scheming against him prevent Panov from rising above his story to interpret it in any thoughtful or impartial way. His opinions of Russian politics sound naïve, his statements on ballet are bland and often narrow-minded. For example, he denounces the “effeminacy” of male dancing in the West—a style which is apparently gaining favor in the Soviet Union. What he fails to recognize is that many choreographers find what he thinks of as effeminacy a legitimate and attractive style. In several of Balanchine’s works, for example—in Symphony in C or Theme and Variations—the athletic style advocated by Panov is as out of place as it is in Les Sylphides or Giselle.

Panov’s accounts of his own ballets show equally little critical sense. He describes at length his own performances in Bronze Horseman and Mountain Girl, without commenting on the minimal artistic value of these narrative ballets. This lack of critical perspective is particularly intolerable in his analysis of Sergeyev’s Hamlet.

One of the principal characters in the book, Konstantin Sergeyev nearly destroyed the Kirov Theater during his decade as chief choreographer there. Like most of the other original ballets he choreographed for the Kirov stage—By Path of Thunder, A Distant Planet—Sergeyev’s Hamlet is typical Soviet kitsch. That it won a state prize for the best ballet of the year is indicative, for it is well known that in the Soviet Union fresh and original works never receive government prizes. Yet Panov mentions the prize in support of his own appraisal of Sergeyev.

Panov’s esteem for Sergeyev’s works is, at best, rather idiosyncratic; at worst it leads him to distort the facts. I once observed the exasperation of Mikhail Baryshnikov when he and Panov discussed Sergeyev. Baryshnikov refused to dance Hamlet not, as Panov suggests, because “he became trapped in the web woven by the anti-Sergeyev spiders,” but because Hamlet is a mediocre work that is both unfaithful to the theme of the play and unsuited to Baryshnikov’s style. If Panov’s words “I was a true Hamlet” sound somewhat ironic it is because Sergeyev’s Hamlet is not so much a ballet about the fate of the Prince of Denmark as an elaborately staged spectacle not unsuited for an athletic dancer like Panov.

Panov casts Sergeyev as a martyr, persecuted as he himself was by the Soviet regime. He writes that

a bloodthirsty viciousness had been injected into the anti-Sergeyev campaign. Ballet’s noblest Prince was dragged to Party sessions and vilified at meetings of a dozen Kirov committees.

From Panov’s account an uninformed reader might think that Sergeyev was an innovator like the extremely talented Jacobson, who was for many years a victim of Party supervisors. In fact, Sergeyev bears much responsibility for denying Jacobson the opportunity for creative work.

Sergeyev’s duty at the Kirov—the duty on which his job depended—was to encourage socialist realism. His professionalism is incontestable, as is his success in preserving the classical Petipa ballets, and during an earlier phase of his career he danced a superb Chevalier bleu. But to cast as a martyr someone who so often set politics above art, who willingly served as the henchman of the Party bureaucracy, and who tried to get rid of every talented choreographer in the theater while condemning “depraved Western art,” is to show unusually poor judgment.

Panov does not mention that Sergeyev’s militant conservatism contributed to the banning of Romeo and Juliet created by the young choreographer Igor Chernyshov for Natalia Makarova—a ban that precipitated her decision to remain in London in 1970. Nor does he mention that the best Soviet ballet critics, such as Vera Krassovskaia, could not publish their criticism of Sergeyev because the press was entirely controlled by his influential patrons from the Party Central Committee. We hear nothing about dancers like Nikita Dolgushin, whose career Sergeyev destroyed to satisfy his professional envy, and we do not have an accurate account of the highly talented Yuri Soloviev, for whom no new ballets were created.

Sergeyev is not the only subject that Panov treats so partially. Perhaps his exaggerated praise of Sergeyev can be explained by their many years of close friendship, but it is more difficult to explain why he labels Jacobson’s work The Twelve as a “pro-Soviet ballet.” The Twelve is probably the best work by this choreographer who is practically unknown in the West. At the end of his ballet about the destructiveness of the 1917 revolution, twelve soldiers—clearly a reference to the twelve apostles—walk out into nowhere, into the dark of the future. To call this “pro-Soviet” is to insult Jacobson’s memory.

In writing his memoirs, inspired by what he felt to be an edifying pathos, Panov wanted to tell the world about his human and professional tribulations. He has achieved his aim. But behind his lengthy and detailed life story, one can see another drama: the drama of his artistic limitations and provincial tastes. It is a drama of an artist with enough strength to survive and even win an uneven struggle against a totalitarian state machinery. But Panov’s was not a victory without heavy inner costs.

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