Thursday, March 31, 2011

Goodbye Lyudmila

It is very sad to hear Lyudmila Gurchenko passed away yesterday.  She leaves a great cinematic legacy behind her.  Truly one of the great screen actresses.  Her list of films is long and varied.  Equally at home in comedy as well as drama.  My favorites were Siberiade (1979), A Railway Station for Two (1983) and Starye klyachi (2000)  Here's a wonderful video of her, from 2004, as the object of Moiseev's affections.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


A few year ago, Bertrand Normand made a lavish documentary, Ballerina, which focused on five dancers from the famed Mariinsky Theatre.  Unlike Black Swan, this film truly goes behind the scenes to reveal what it takes to become a prima ballerina in one of Russia's most revered theaters.

You can purchase the documentary individually or part of this fabulous box set.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My Perestroika

Interesting to see an American making a documentary entitled My Perestroika, but according to the production notes Robin Hessman spent 8 years in Moscow and earned a graduate degree in film directing from the prestigious VGIK, with a "red diploma" of honors.  So, she would have been quite aware with the events swirling around the capitol during that time.

Hessman follows five persons who came of age during the Perestroika era, interspersing their recollections and thoughts with archival footage and home movies.  It is sure to strike a soft spot in most viewers, judging from this teaser.  Hard to get much sense of the film from the homepage, but it seems to capture a feeling of "Paradise Lost," as events since the second social revolution haven't exactly lived up to many Russians' expectations.

Re-imagining the Black Swan

Watching Black Swan the other night made me wonder what really were the roots of Tchaikovsky's most famous ballet, Swan Lake, and if it really did carry with it some of the dark roots Aronofsky attempted to uncover in his recent movie.

Seems like much of the early controversy surrounded the prima ballerina, Anna Sobeshchanskaya, who was not satisfied with the production, bringing in Marius Petipa and Ludwig Minkus to redo the choreography and the music.  Needless to say, this incensed Tchaikovsky who felt he alone had the right to revise the music.  After some fighting back and forth a compromise was reached and the prima ballerina seemed pleased with rewrite and first performed the ballet in 1877.

As for sources to the libretto, numerous theories abound.  Apparently, Tchaikovsky left few notes in regard to his inspiration, other than he had initially fantasized a "Lake of Swans."  Some of the possible sources are explored in BalletNotes.  The ballet we have come to know was largely composed after his death.  Of course what we do remember most is the music, which was quite a departure from the traditional ballets of the day and why Sobeshchanskaya probably had such a difficult time coming to terms with it, and called on Petipa and Minkus to clean it up a bit.

The idea of the white and black swans is principally about dualities, and allowed the prima ballerina to explore two sides of her character.  Some directors have actually split the role into two parts with two dancers.  In the recent movie, Aronofsky chooses to internalize this conflict, turning the classic ballet into an effective psychological thriller.  However, this film doesn't capture much of the dance aspect of the role.  In fact, we see very little dance in the movie, rather a splitting of the soul in Nina, as she becomes torn by conflicting emotions.  Natalie Portman flaps her arms uselessly as Nina, conveying little of her character in the dance sequences.  Of course Portman is not a ballerina, but still it would have been nice to see a little more care given to this aspect of the story.  Here is the lovely Zenaida Yanowsky, well known for her daring roles, demonstrating how to convey the rival swans in this video clip.  You can see her in a reprise of Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House through April 8.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Remembering Alexandra Kollontai

It was interesting to learn that Alexandra Kollontai urged Lenin to make International Women's Day a national holiday in the Soviet Union.   A fully committed Marxist, her involvement in the socialist movement dated back to the late 19th century.  She helped to organize women workers in Russia following the 1905 Strike, before being forced into exile in Germany.  She became a major catalyst in recognizing International Women's Day throughout the Socialist world.  She later wrote Love of Worker Bees and other stories depicting modern women in Soviet Russia.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Molotov's Magic Lantern

Always on the lookout for a new book on Russian history and culture, I was surprised to come across this article, in which Orlando Figes apologizes for having anonymously savaged Rachel Polonsky's new book, Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey in Russian History, in an effort to steer readers toward his books at  Sad, because I have always liked Figes, particularly Natasha's Dance, which provides an engaging and very insightful review of Russia's vast cultural legacy. Doesn't seem to me that he needs to resort to such tactics to attract readers.  Now, it appears he will lose many readers.

As for Polonsky, it looks as though she too has written a very engaging book, judging by Alexander Nazaryan's review in The New Republic,

But still this is an audacious effort, one that tries to capture an entire literary legacy, and the collective tragedy of a beleaguered people, in fewer than four hundred pages. And it is, at least to my limited knowledge, the only history of Russia to use a Bob Dylan lyric as its epigraph: “I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read.” I imagine that Figes was, at bottom, stung by the thought that Polonsky had written a book more clever and current than his: there she was, drinking Jack Daniels at 3 Romanov while he poured over Stalin’s archives. And so he went online, and at a time when people are reading less, tried to turn away a potential audience away from a book that is worth their attention. Molotov would have been proud.