Tatiana Bruni, Costume design for a Drunkard, 1931

The narrative, or the libretto, of The Bolt was provided by Victor Smirnov, then director of the Second Moscow Academic Arts Theatre. Inexperienced in this field, he produced a lacklustre storyline with poorly fleshed out characters, which eventually led to the downfall of the ballet. After Shostakovich saw the initial version of the libretto in Moscow in February 1930, he provided a humorous account in a letter to a friend: ‘Comrade Smirnov read to me his story for the ballet At the New Machine. The content is very topical. There was a machine, then it broke down (the problem of wear and tear). Then it was mended (the problem of depreciation), and they also bought a new one. Everyone then dances around the new machine. Apotheosis. The whole thing takes three acts. Comrade Smirnov and I remain friends.’

Tatiana Bruni, Costume design for an Invalid, 1931

This essentially remained the story presented in The Bolt, although it acquired one significant change. The machine in question breaks down not due to wear and tear but due to sabotage. In 1930 this was a hot topic as the country witnessed the so-called ‘Industrial Party Trial’ where several supposed industrial saboteurs were put in the dock. Stalin had launched the First Five Year Plan in 1929 and shortly after began to consolidate his regime though highly-publicised show trials that claimed to expose dangerous class enemies. The press added to the hysteria with headlines such as ‘Drunks and Absentees are Disorganising Production’, ‘Hooligans Sabotage Cultural Work’ or ‘Saboteurs Must Be Shot!’. This atmosphere quickly spread to the cultural sphere. One journal called The Worker and the Theatre printed a cover showing a saboteur obstructing a lathe with a stick, anticipating the plot of The Bolt. Another publication entitled The Proletarian Musician claimed that ‘ideological sabotage does exist in the musical sphere’ and called for those guilty to be exposed. This must have been particularly concerning for Shostakovich, whose friend the composer Mikhail Kvadri had been accused of counterrevolutionary activity and shot in July 1929. As one musical historian has suggested, once the theatre announced the creation of a new ballet exposing ‘hooliganism and industrial sabotage’ it was too late for any of the participants to back out for fear of denunciation.

The Bolt, Scene from Act II from the 2005 revival at the Bolshoi Theatre by Alexei Ratmansky


Criticism levelled at The Bolt often used the term ‘grotesque’, accusing its creators of contaminating ballet with low culture. Shostakovich’s score sounds remarkably fresh to a modern listener, with its jazz undertones, foxtrot riffs and passages of cinematic suspense. While a student at the Petrograd Conservatory, Shostakovich had been forced to support himself by improvising live piano scores for cinema audiences. Although he resented the time spent away from his studies, his music was influenced by this exposure to a form of popular culture that dealt in exaggeration, from silly slapstick to high drama. Noticing this inclination, a teacher at the Conservatory tore up one of Shostakovich’s assignments exclaiming: ‘I cannot say anything about such music. What is this enthusiasm for the grotesque?’ Shostakovich’s arrangement for the popular American musical number ‘Tea for Two’ which he wrote in 45 minutes for a bet, caused waves of criticism when included in his ballet The Golden Age under the title ‘The Tahiti Trot’.

Lopukhov was similarly interested in popular culture, from country fair performances to vaudeville and music-hall and in the early 1920s often attended the performances of the Theatre of Popular Comedy. The satirical bent of The Bolt is thus easy to understand, its characters parodying the self-righteous newspaper reports of the period full of good shock-workers and evil saboteurs. It was this levity that shocked critics who expected much more gravitas from a ballet performance. One commentator was upset by the ‘dansification’ of industrial processes, another complained of that the dance of the blacksmith with two hammers resembled a parody, while the Red Army cavalry dance, with the cast astride a line of chairs, was considered a shocking mockery.

Unknown photographer, Rehearsal for the dance of the Red Army Cavalry from Act III of The Bolt, 1931

In fact, dances inspired by industrial innovation had been popular for some time, especially due to the work of Nikolai Foregger and his cabaret-style productions. As early as 1922 he presented a performance called Machine Dances in which dancers used their bodies to re-enact the workings of complex industrial equipment. Accounts of these performances describe chains of performers imitating conveyor belts or daring lifts where dancers turned into human hammers. One sequence simulated a speeding train with dancers stamping their feet, banging metal sheets together and even waving burning cigarettes in the air to create flying sparks emerging from the make-believe locomotive. These ideas clearly inspired Lopukhov. Unfortunately, if such light-hearted experimentation was considered appropriate for the music hall, it was frowned upon in ballet.

Unknown photographer, Rehearsal for the dance of the Red Army Cavalry from Act III of The Bolt, 1931
The Bolt, Scene from Act II from the 2005 revival at the Bolshoi Theatre by Alexei Ratmansky


Unknown artist, Finished costume for the Bureaucrat, 1931

Bruni’s bright, functional and angular costumes are closely related to the Constructivist theatre designs which made their debut in a handful of key productions in the early 1920s. Constructivism, which took off after the 1917 Revolution, saw a group of artists including Aleksandr Rodchenko, Lyubov Popova, Varvara Stepanova and Alexandra Ekster employ the formal language of abstract art into formal design work in order to create a new proletarian aesthetic. Lyubov Popova’s rotating, mechanical construction for a play entitled The Magnanimous Cuckold in 1922 provided the springboard for further Constructivist productions. Through costume designs Constructivist were able to explore ideas for the uniform of the proletariat. In Varvara Stepanova’s designs for The Death of Tarelkin in 1922, the costumes emphasised ‘simplicity of form and maximum efficiency’, an idea which she carried over into her clothing designs for different types of worker. A similar line of thought can be traced in Bruni’s designs for The Bolt, where, like Stepanova, she devised costume designs whose forms are determined by the occupation of each character. Her designs are similarly related to the work of Vladimir Lebedev, who worked alongside Vladimir Mayakovsky on the ROSTA Window designs in the early 1920s. These hand stencilled propaganda posters were displayed in the windows of Russian Telegraph Agency branches all across the country. They the glorified the image of the worker and portrayed him with the clean, functional attire of the new proletarian aesthetic championed by the Constructivists.

Unknown photographer, Fitting for a costume for The Bolt in the prop studio of the Pushkin Theatre, 1931
Tatiana Bruni, Costume design for the Blast-Furnace Worker, 1931
Tatiana Bruni, Costume design for the Bureaucrat, 1931
Tatiana Bruni, Costume design for the American Navy, 1931


Aleksei Temerin, Dmitrii Shostakovich, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Aleksandr Rodchenko rehearsing their play The Bedbug, 1929

The period following the Russian revolution was a prolific one for theatre and dance in the newly formed Soviet Union. Bold experimentation was at its height and audience numbers exploded, due in part to the distribution of free tickets by the government. This official support was not at all altruistic, but based on the conviction that art, and performance in particular, was an invaluable tool when dealing with a predominantly illiterate population. Anatolii Lunacharsky, Lenin’s Commissar of Education observed that ‘agitation and propaganda acquire particular acuity and effectiveness when they are clothed in the attractive and mighty forms of art.’

Movement became a concern for theatre as well as dance practitioners. Experimental theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold wrote: ‘at the point where the spoken word fails in its power of expression the language of the dance begins.’ Even before the Revolution he instituted lessons in stage movement for actors. In the 1920s, in his capacity as head of the Theatre Department of the Commissariat of Education, Meyerhold led the way towards the application of Constructivist principles in theatre. Plays such as Mystery-Bouffe, The Magnanimous Cuckold or The Death of Tarelkin featured pared back stage sets with wooden ramps, ladders, platforms and revolving wheels suggesting a mechanised utilitarian environment.

Boris Grigoriev, Portrait of Vsevolod Meyerhold, 1916
Judith Mackrell on Russian and Soviet dance

Meyerhold also developed a system of stage movement called biomechanics which included elements of dance, acrobatics and physical culture and whose basic tenets included pronouncements such as ‘the body is a machine’ and ‘the worker is a machine operator’. Meyerhold went further in establishing the link between dance and industrial work, opining that ‘the labour process used by experienced workers always resembles the dance. Here, work verges on art.’ The interaction between actors using biomechanics was meant to be so close and harmonious that the audience would experience the illusion of seeing performers merge, creating multi-bodied characters on stage.

Lyubov Popova, Set design for the Magnanimous Cuckold, 1922


Unknown photographer, Rehearsal for the dance of the Aviators from Act III of The Bolt, 1931

The so-called Blue Blouse troupes travelled through Soviet Russia presenting simple plays inspired by topical news items, often using their acrobatic skills to create shapes such as stars or propellers, or even a mechanical dance entitled ‘Us and Henry Ford’. These performances, known as ‘living newspapers’, were aimed above all at political education. One such sketch involved actors embodying various forms of currency to educate viewers on the proper ways of using them in order to strengthen Soviet finances. Sketches such as these were interspersed with comic songs called chastushki. Sung to popular tunes, these catchy songs touched upon themes such as electrification, women’s rights and literacy. The Blue Blouse movement was launched by just a small group of students at the State Institute of Journalism in Moscow, and yet at its height claimed more than 7,000 troupes and 100,000 members who performed in workers’ clubs, beer halls and cafeterias across the country. Their influence even stretched to Western Europe and America, where imitation troupes sprang up following a Blue Blouse tour through Germany in 1927. There they were admired by the prominent playwright Bertolt Brecht, while in Moscow they attracted the attention of poets associated with the futurist journal LEF, including Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sergei Tretyakov and Nikolai Aseev.

Promotional poster for the Blue Blouse group, early 1920s
Blue Blouse Theatre ‘Us and Henry Ford’, undated
Unknown photographer, L.S. Leontev as Lenka Gulba and two unidentified dancers rehearsing Act I of The Bolt, 1931


Rosamund Bartlett on Shostakovich’s involvement with TRAM
TRAM, an acronym for The Young Workers’ Theatre, was set up in 1925 in Leningrad inspired by the amateur dramatics groups springing up in factories. Young people were encouraged to develop and perform agitprop skits, plays and musical numbers that drew inspiration from everyday life. The concept proved popular and spread to other cities in the Soviet Union. By 1929 the Leningrad TRAM had turned into a professional theatre and employed professional artists as collaborators. Shostakovich composed the music for several of their productions between 1929 and 1931, productions that drew once again on the topical subjects of the factory and the collective farm. Shostakovich was a great supporter of TRAM and Lopukhov later referred to The Bolt as an attempt to bring similar innovations to ballet. The Bolt directly references TRAM not only through its satirical take on a real-life incident, but also by including performances from the fictional factory’s amateur dramatics group in Acts I and III. This device explains the exotic nature of the cast list, where the Blacksmith rubs shoulders with the Colonial Slave Girl and the Bureaucrat with the Aesthetic Young Lady. They are all characters in the recital presented by the factory workers, a fictional performance framed by a real performance.
Unknown photographer, Rehearsal of the dance of the Textile-Workers from Act III of The Bolt, 1931


Even Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, more famous for their decadent sumptuous productions, took inspiration from the constructivism. Having witnessed performances of the Soviet Kamerny Theatre in Paris in 1923, Diaghilev invited some of the artists involved on a new ballet entitled Le Pas d’Acier (The Steel Step). In the end only the artist Georgii Yakulov and the composer Sergei Prokofiev were able to accept his invitation and the ballet was completed in 1927. Yakulov’s set was again a multi-level Constructivist concoction with ladders, ropes and pulleys. In the second act the choreographer Leonide Massine used the principles of machine dance to great effect.

The words of one reviewer give a vivid impression of this performance, which in the absence of a similar descriptions for The Bolt, can be substituted to bring the ballet to life: ‘At first male and female dancers execute movements that imitate labour: they lift, they rip apart, they carry, they hammer. Then gradually they themselves become machines. Groups of them move back and forth, like pistons and levers, they circle in and out, engage each other like gears.

The odd and even numbers of women standing in a single row alternately bend and straighten out, as if controlled by a camshaft. Some rows of dancers represent various valves, others — bobbins, others yet — cogwheels. And behind the banner, as if enveloped in a cloud of steam and smoke, the silhouettes of the blacksmiths can be discerned. The movements keep accelerating and become more and more energetic. Crescendo, agitato. Cardboard wheels spin, the platform shudders under the blows of hammers.’

In 1929 Vsevolod Meyerhold toyed with the idea of the idea of bringing Le Pas d’Acier to Russia but the project never took off, partly because Prokofiev’s score met with heavy criticism. In addition its Constructivist aesthetics was not welcome anymore as the vision of the original artistic avant-garde was slowly being stifled by the rise of Stalin. The reception of The Bolt in 1931 showed that the time for such innovative productions had passed.

Unknown photographer, The dance of the Textile-Workers from Act III of The Bolt, 1931
Sasha, Leonide Massine and Alexandra Danilova in Le Pas d’Acier, 1927
Margaret Bourke-White, Machine Dance at the Moscow Ballet School, 1931
Le Pas d’Acier, Scenes from the 2005 reconstruction at Princeton University