Tatiana Bruni

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V. Maksimov, Portrait of Tatiana Bruni, 1930s
During her childhood in St Petersburg Tatiana Bruni was surrounded by creativity. Her family included artists and professional musicians (her father taught the young Sergei Prokofiev to play the piano), and as a child she was often taken to plays and ballets. She was in her teens when the Revolution came, but finished her schooling and in 1920 enrolled in the prestigious Society for Promotion of the Arts. From then onwards she showed an interest in theatre design, working for a number of new theatre companies, including the radical Young Ballet which had the involvement of legendary choreographer Georges Balanchine. The Young Ballet was wracked with difficulties; it was disbanded and re-formed several times, but the artists, choreographers and dancers were united by a desire to bring modernity, and the wonders of the industrial world, to the ballet stage. In the 1920s Bruni mostly worked for small theatres and travelling companies, meaning that her costumes and set designs had to be cheap and easily portable. She was influenced by contemporary Soviet agit-theatre and its glorification of industry; in this tradition, her proletarian heroes were dressed in versions of ordinary work clothes, while the villains’ costumes were exaggerated and grotesque satires. It wasn’t until 1930 that Bruni got her first work in an established theatre, when she produced designs for a comedy entitled The Saint at the Leningrad Bolshoi Drama Theatre.
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Tatiana Bruni, Set design for Act I of The Bolt, 1979 after 1931 original

Bruni began work on The Bolt soon afterwards, making it another of her earliest major commissions. Her stage designs for The Bolt show the influence of constructivist theatre and Soviet poster design on her aesthetics. The backdrop for the factory in Act I, for instance, consisted of contrasting black and white geometric shapes, almost abstract but with the suggestion of factory windows and a crane. In Act III the stage was dominated by a giant diagram of the Soviet Union’s technological achievements, with the emblematic Volkhovstroi dam represented in bright primary colours, aiming to bring industrialisation and electrification to the stage. Bruni’s costumes also reflected the influence of Constructivism and poster design in particular. She used geometric shapes and bold blocks of colour to outline the details of the costume and suggest the movement of the dancers. Her costumes for The Bolt also showcase the artist’s sense of humour and sharp eye for satire, from the ridiculous Bureaucrat in paper trousers to the grotesque drunkards and counter-revolutionaries. These larger-than-life costumes make an important contribution to the ballet’s satirical, unruly view of the Soviet reality.

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Tatiana Bruni, Costume design for a Friend of Kozelkov, 1931

Fedor Lopukhov

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V. Pleshakov, Portrait of Fedor Lopukhov, 1931

By the time choreographer Fedor Lopukhov started work on The Bolt he had already established himself as a pioneer of modern ballet. In 1905 he joined the Mariinsky Theatre after graduating from its affiliated school and in 1916 he began work on his seminal text The Ballet Master and His Art. Published in 1925 the treatise outlines Lopukhov’s development of ‘symphonic’ choreography which dispensed with narrative in order to truly unite the mediums of dance and music. His ideas were premiered in 1923 with the staging of Dance Symphony: The Magnificence of the Universe, which interpreted Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony through choreography that would later be considered a landmark in the development of modern ballet despite its mixed reception from critics at the time. Lupukhov continued to embrace Modernism across the arts throughout the 1920s, during which time he used the music of Igor Stravinsky, Vladimir Deshevov and Shostakovich.

Lopukhov was influenced by the Constructivist movement and commissioned accordingly abstract sets for productions of Pulcinella and The Nutcracker in 1929. Productivist themes similarly influenced his choreography, inspiring Lupukhov to create dances with machine-like movements and mass formations.

Judith Mackrell on Fedor Lopukhov and his sister the Ballets Russes star Lydia Lopokova
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Unknown photographer, A scene from The Bolt, 1931

Lupukhov continued to look to the movement for inspiration as he worked on The Bolt in 1931, commissioning Tatiana Bruni and Georgii Korshikov to provide distinctly Constructivist set and costume designs. By the 1930s Lupukhov’s brand of abstract experimentation through dance had become antagonistic in the face of new Socialist Realist doctrines that called for dramatic narratives and traditional forms of representation. The Bolt, with its Constructivist leanings and bold choreography was consequently branded a failure and Lupukhov was forced to resign from his position as director of the Mariinsky Ballet (then known as the Leningrad State Academic Ballet). Despite the furore caused by The Bolt he collaborated with Shostakovich again in 1935 for The Bright Stream, which was again heavily criticised for formalism, leading to another forced resignation, this time from his position at the Maly Opera House. A decade later he was reinstated as director of the Mariinsky Ballet — renamed the Kirov Ballet — and continued to teach and theorise the art of choreography.

Dmitri Shostakovich

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L. Golubovsky, Portrait of Dmitri Shostakovich, 1977

Dmitri Shostakovich, possibly the best-known of all Soviet composers, had lifelong difficulties in his relationship with the Soviet regime. At the time he wrote The Bolt, he was still the golden boy of the Soviet music world: his graduation piece from the Petrograd Conservatory, the First Symphony, had premiered to great acclaim in Leningrad in 1926, and was performed in Berlin and Philadelphia soon after. During the late 1920s he composed for The Young Workers’ Theatre, although much of this time was actually spent writing the controversial opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which would cause a scandal later in his career. In 1930 Shostakovich’s first opera, The Nose, and first ballet, The Golden Age, premiered in Leningrad. Around the same time he was also working on The Bolt, an industrial ballet whose score incorporates popular songs and anthems, circus music, and marches as well as evocations of factory life, suggesting the sounds of machinery and industrial production.

Rosamund Bartlett on Dmitri Shostakovich

The Bolt was the second in a trio of ballets that Shostakovich composed between 1929 and 1935, the only ones of his career at it turned out. Together, they appear to form ‘a triptych of contemporary life’, as one historian has noted, portraying in turn the threat of capitalism, work in the factory and life on the collective farm. The first ballet he composed was The Golden Age, a rollicking tale of Soviet sportsmen travelling abroad for the eponymous industrial exhibition. A seductive music hall Diva, a thuggish Fascist, dishonest bureaucrats and numerous other perils are overcome by the sportsmen and the ballet ends with a ‘Dance of Solidarity’ between the Western and Soviet workers. The ballet was performed consistently after its premiere in October 1930 until the summer of the following year, but as the political climate changed it faced increasing hostility. Shostakovich included in his score playful takes on modern dances such as the tango, the foxtrot and even a dash of tap. The foxtrot was in vogue in Moscow and Leningrad during the more liberal 1920s, but this era was coming to an end. Anatolii Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar of Education, blamed the dance for all sorts of evils, declaring that ‘the fundamental element of the foxtrot derives from mechanisation, suppressed eroticism and a desire to deaden feeling through drugs.’

The final ballet that Shostakovich composed was another collaboration with Lopukhov in 1935 which reused some passages from The Bolt. Entitled The Bright Stream, it took place on a collective farm and featured numbers such as ‘Dance of the Milkmaid and the Tractor-driver’. Despite initial success, an article in Pravda in February 1936 entitled ‘Ballet Falsehood’ viciously criticised the performance and accused both the composer and the choreographer of producing an uninformed and ignorant depiction of life on a collective farm. Only a month earlier Stalin had walked out of a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Pravda had declared it ‘Muddle Instead of Music’. Shostakovich realised the peril of his situation and cancelled the premiere of his newly composed Fourth Symphony which lay in a locked drawer for 25 years.

Unknown photographer, The creators of The Bolt with Dmitri Shostakovich, 1931
The Golden Age, Scene from a 2007 revival at the Bolshoi Theatre by Yuri Grigorovich
The Bright Stream, Scenes from the 2004 revival at the Latvian National Opera by Alexei Ratmansky