Monday, July 27, 2015

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Didelot, Dunya, and Dionysius

In the center of my left cheek there is a faint crease, the mark of an old scar, which was formed when I was four years old. Some fancy had seized me, which had caused me to don a red plastic cube as a hat, and to begin twirling in the living room. I became drunken and giddy in my own spinning world, until I lost control, and the plastic cube slipped over my eyes. My left cheek soon found itself on a collision course with the sharp wooden corner of one of a pair of speakers that stood at attention on two sides of the room. Much blood and scolding ensued. Subsequently, I was discouraged from twirling around at home. 

Maya Plisetskaya, Romeo and Juliet, 1961

What impetus lurks behind the creation of an artist? Is it the result of a pure mastery of various techniques, a leap of faith, the trajectory of a soul in flight, or some combination thereof? What inscrutable forces simmer beneath the surface of a cultural phenomenon, such as the history of ballet?
Charles Didelot, a Frenchman, is considered the "father" of Russian ballet. He arrived in Russia in 1801, after studying under Noverre, and brought with him to the Imperial Ballet the idea of creating a theatrical concept of ballet.

The first meeting of Charles Didelot and Avdotia Istomina

The first meeting of the future ballerina Avdotia (Evdokia) Istomina and Charles Didelot took place in 1805, when Dunya was only 6 years old. The diminutive, dark-haired orphan was apparently dropped off at the St. Petersburg ballet school by a certain mysterious army flautist, who believed she had talent. Dance became Istomina's father and mother, her food, drink and shelter. Dancing and Didelot launched her into the eye of the public. At age nine, she made her debut, appearing onstage, astride an enormous swan, in the ballet, Flore et Zéphire, as a member of the corps. A few years later, she would prance onstage as a soloist in the role of Flora en pointe: the first ballerina in Russia to do so.

(A portion of a re-enactment of Flore et Zéphire by Yuri Soloviev and Natalia Makarova--alas, without a swan.)

According to the choreographer Lyubov Ryuganova, Charles Didelot was fond of conducting experiments on his students, and his young pupil Dunyasha became a favorite subject. He studied the origins of dance in ancient documents and legends. Once, in some half-forgotten archive, he found a manuscript on Dionysian rites. He brought it one evening after sunset to Istomina, on a tray, together with a glass of wine and a bunch of grapes. After a short explanation, the girl agreed to participate in her teacher's ritual. She sat at the table with him, drank the wine, and began to read the manuscript slowly, not entirely comprehending what she was reading.

Silence filled the room. Then, Dunya began tapping the table, as if in synchronization with a drumbeat heard by her alone. She beat the table faster and faster, until she sprang to her feet. She grasped the cluster of grapes, and tossed them one by one onto the floor, then trampled them with her bare feet. She ran to and fro, laughing, crying, and leaping madly, as if possessed by the twin forces of creation and destruction.

Whenever Istomina appeared on stage in one of Didelot's theatrical dance-spectacles, she delighted and surprised audiences by her technical skill and her ability to serve as the embodiment of a myth, to convey a story without words.


In this short life-time I have spent more time studying the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite than I have the rites of Dionysius.

But lately, I have been sensing the small hand of Dunyasha tugging at mine. "Let's dance," she begs. "I am too tired," I shrug apologetically. When I go out and sit on the stump in my garden, musing, head in hand, I hear the trees whispering: "Dance," they seem to murmur.

Will I be able to muster up the courage to join in the circle of maenads whose holy presence is haunting me? Or do I merely need to let go of what we would normally describe as reality?

Perhaps I am not so tired, after all.

Dance (Mark Chagall)

"We pray that we may come unto this Darkness which is beyond light, and without seeing and without knowing, to see and to know That which is above vision and above knowledge,"

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Silentium! - Fyodor Tyuchev

One poem, written by Fyodor Tyuchev around 1830, is depicted here in two translations alongside the original, resulting in three distinct microcosms which contain the potential to illuminate the path of a singular quest.


Be silent, hide yourself:
In the still spirit;
hoard those hauntings
And let their coming
Be like the speechlessness of stars
By night-time waking, rising, homing.

What temerity may sound
Another's depth, survey its ground?
Utter your thoughts.
They flow in lies. Dig down;
You cloud the spring that feeds the silences.

Learn to live in yourself. There
Thought on thought,
Fretful of glare and stir,
Begets its untold transmutations
And their song
Only in silence may you hear.

(Translator: C. Tomlinson. From Russian Poets: Everyman's Library Pocket Poets.)


Be silent, hide away and let
your thoughts and longings rise and set
in the deep places of your heart.
Let dreams move silently as stars,
in wonder more than you can tell.
Let them fulfill you – and be still.

What heart can ever speak its mind?
How can some other understand
the hidden pole that turns your life?
A thought, once spoken, is a lie.
Don’t cloud the water in your well;
drink from this wellspring – and be still.

Live in yourself. There is a whole
deep world of being in your soul,
burdened with mystery and thought.
The noise outside will snuff it out.
Day’s clear light can break the spell.
Hear your own singing – and be still.

 (From The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, published by Penguin Classics .)


Молчи, скрывайся и таи
И чувства и мечты свои —
Пускай в душевной глубине
Встают и заходя́т оне
Безмолвно, как звезды́ в ночи, —
Любуйся ими — и молчи.

Как сердцу высказать себя?
Другому как понять тебя?
Поймёт ли он, чем ты живёшь?
Мысль изрече́нная есть ложь.
Взрывая, возмутишь ключи, —
Питайся ими — и молчи.

Лишь жить в себе самом умей —
Есть целый мир в душе твоей
Таинственно-волшебных дум;
Их оглуши́т наружный шум,
Дневные разгоня́т лучи, —

Внимай их пенью — и молчи!..


Friday, July 17, 2015

Love and Separation (Okhudzhava, Schwartz) sung by Inna Razumikhina

This is one of Oleg Pogudin's favorite songs, but I think I prefer how Razumikhina performs this piece, as if it were a message humbly and fervently conveyed from her shining eyes and voice to the soul of the world.

Monday, July 06, 2015

White Night, White Dream - Polyxenia Solovyeva

Born in 1867, Polyxenia Solovyeva was the twelfth child of  the historian Sergei Solovyev, and the younger sister of the philosopher-poet Vladimir Solovyev. One of the first authors she became acquainted with as a child was Afanasy Fet--both literally and figuratively. She learned to read and write at an early age, and published poems under the pseudonym, "Allegro," but did not consider herself to be a particularly talented writer. Instead, she concentrated most of her efforts on painting, and on acting as the editor of a children's magazine; she also wrote children's books. She preferred the company of women.

She was forced to flee to the Crimea after Russian Revolution. She died in 1924, not long after being brought to Moscow by friends, in hopes of rescuing her from failing health.

An illustration by Polyxenia Solovyeva 

Her poems may not belong on the same podium as those of Blok and Fet, yet I find within them a certain undefinable quality, a delicate, haunting echo of an aftertaste of gilt, as if one had just unfolded a long-lost telegram from the Silver Age. (Apologies for a bit of a perfunctory translation after work...)

White Night

The earth does not sleep, it vainly awaits
The embrace of dusk and gentle silence;
Daylight* burns, embracing half the sky,                       * Zarya
Frightened dreams wander by in a crowd.

And everything thrives with some false life,
The eyes crave tranquility in vain,
As if a pale and anxious angel has
Stretched its white wings above the world.



Земля не спит, напрасно ожидая
Объятий сумрака и нежной тишины,
Горит заря, полнеба обнимая,
Бредут толпой испуганные сны.
И все живет какой-то жизнью ложной,
Успокоения напрасно жаждет взор,
Как будто ангел бледный и тревожный
Над миром крылья белые простер.


A recent photo from one of our White Nights

White Dream

Do you remember how, along the quiet river,
We strolled as children at an early hour,
I--with my fiery anguish,
You--with your white dream.

And everywhere my glance hesitated,
And everything you looked upon,
The world, a sparking flame, was set ablaze,
And there appeared white blossoms.

People came, were born, and died,
Their ways were too far-off for us,
We, bending over the bank, listened
To the quiet tales of the slow river.

If a darkness breathed above the water,
We fought against this evil shadow:
I--with my fiery anguish,
You--with your white dream.

And now, as the years pass us by,
A narrow path leads to the sunset,
Where immortal vaults await us,
Where eternity sings its song to us.

We, as of old, walk hand in hand,
An incomprehensible pair for most folk:
I--with my fiery anguish,
You--with your white dream.

--Polyxenia Solovyeva


Cerastium tomentosum (snow-in-summer)

Помнишь, мы над тихою рекою
В ранний час шли детскою четой,
Я — с моею огненной тоскою,
Ты — с твоею белою мечтой.

И везде, где взор мой замедлялся,
И везде, куда глядела ты,
Мир, огнем сверкая, загорался,
Вырастали белые цветы.

Люди шли, рождались, умирали,
Их пути нам были далеки,
Мы, склонясь над берегом, внимали
Тихим сказкам медленной реки.

Если тьма дышала над рекою,
Мы боролись с злою темнотой:
Я — с моею огненной тоскою,
Ты — с твоею белою мечтой.

И теперь, когда проходят годы,
Узкий путь к закату нас ведет,
Где нас ждут немеркнущие своды,
Где нам вечность песнь свою поет.

Мы, как встарь, идем рука с рукою
Для людей непонятой четой:
Я — с моею огненной тоскою,
Ты — с твоею белою мечтой.

--Поликсена Соловьева

Friday, June 19, 2015

Frédéric Chopin, Op 28, No. 15

The rain came in overflowing torrents. We made three leagues in six hours, only to return in the middle of a flood. We got back in absolute dark, shoe-less, having been abandoned by our driver to cross unheard of perils. We hurried, knowing how our sick one would worry. Indeed he had, but now was as though congealed in a kind of quiet desperation, and, weeping, he was playing his wonderful Prelude. Seeing us come in, he got up with a cry, then said with a bewildered air and a strange tone, "Ah, I was sure that you were dead." When he recovered his spirits and saw the state we were in, he was ill, picturing the dangers we had been through, but he confessed to me that while waiting for us he had seen it all in a dream, and no longer distinguished the dream from reality, he became calm and drowsy while playing the piano, persuaded that he was dead himself. He saw himself drowned in a lake. 

Heavy drops of icy water fell in a regular rhythm on his breast, and when I made him listen to the sound of the drops of water indeed falling in rhythm on the roof, he denied having heard it. He was even angry that I should intepret this in terms of imitative sounds. He protested with all his might — and he was right to — against the childishness of such aural imitations. His genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature, but transformed into sublime equivalents in musical thought, and not through slavish imitation of the actual external sounds. His composition of that night was surely filled with raindrops, resounding clearly on the tiles of the Charterhouse, but it had been transformed in his imagination and in his song into tears falling upon his heart from the sky. … The gift of Chopin is [the expression of] the deepest and fullest feelings and emotions that have ever existed. He made a single instrument speak a language of infinity. He could often sum up, in ten lines that a child could play, poems of a boundless exaltation, dramas of unequaled power.

--George Sand

...The Brahms she played was thoughtful, the Schubert confounding. The Debussy she sneaked in between the covers of a Bach Mass was all contrived nature and yet as gorgeous as a meadowlark. Beethoven contained all messages, but her crescendos lacked conviction. However, when it came to the Chopin, she did not use the flowery ornamentation or the endless trills and insipid floribunda of so many of her day. Her playing was of the utmost sincerity.

And Chopin, played simply, devastates the heart....

--Louise Erdrich, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Each one writes what he hears (a rose for Bulat)

If a friend were to ask me today, "Which is your favorite Bulat Okudzhava ballad?" I might have to choose, "Historical Novel."

There is a habit that particular song has of sneaking up subtly on the listener. I will provide a translation for non-Russian speakers, but the true effect, naturally, is contained in the rhythm, rhymes and word-games of the original.

The literal translation of the refrain, "Each one writes what he hears, each one hears how he breathes," hints at only a fraction of the magic of the pure falling-leaf cadence of this, when half-whispered, half-sung by Okudzhava:

"Kazhdy pishet chto on slishet, kazhdy slishet kak on dishet."

Watch Okudzhava work his tacit wizardry on the audience in this historical performance I have included below.


I Write a Historical Novel

In a vase of dark glass
From an imported beer
A red rose bloomed
Proudly and unhurriedly

Bit by bit, I began
Writing a historical novel
Floating as if through a fog
From prologue to epilogue

Each one writes what he hears
Each one hears how he breathes
How he breathes, thus he writes
Without trying to impress

This is what nature intended
Why, is not our business
And for what, not ours to judge

There were blue horizons
There was an excess of imagination
And from my own fate
I began tugging out the threads

An outfit from the heroic past
Suggested an identity
And I imagined myself
A retired lieutenant

Each one writes what he hears
Each one hears how he breathes
How he breathes, thus he writes
Without trying to impress

This is what nature intended
Why, is not our business
And for what, not ours to judge

Imagination is not deception
The thought behind it is not ended
Give us time to finish the novel
Up until the last page

And while it is still alive,
The red rose in the bottle
Let the words be shouted out,
Which have long been collecting

Each one writes what he hears
Each one hears how he breathes...

--Bulat Okudzhava

Я пишу исторический роман

В склянке темного стекла
Из-под импортного пива
Роза красная цвела
Гордо и неторопливо

Исторический роман
Сочинял я понемногу
Пробиваясь как в туман
От пролога к эпилогу

Каждый пишет что он слышит
Каждый слышит как он дышит
Как он дышит так и пишет
Не стараясь угодить
Так природа захотела
почему не наше дело
Для чего не нам судить

Были дали голубы
Было вымысла в избытке
И из собственной судьбы
Я выдергивал по нитке

В путь героев снаряжал
Наводил о прошлом справки
И поручиком в отставке
Сам себя воображал

Каждый пишет что он слышит
Каждый слышит как он дышит
Как он дышит так и пишет
Не стараясь угодить

Так природа захотела
Почему не наше дело
Для чего не нам судить

Вымысел не есть обман
Замысел еще не точка
Дайте дописать роман
До последнего листочка

И пока еще жива
роза красная в бутылке
Дайте выкрикнуть слова
Что давно лежат в копилке

Каждый пишет что он слышит
Каждый слышит как он дышит...

--Булат Окуджава

Rose (Alexei Antonov)