The Bolshoi Ballet’s production of Soviet-era The Bright Stream turned out to be anything but a strident celebration of the nobility of labour. Instead it was the lightest, loveliest, funniest work I’ve ever seen.
Ideally, I’d have been at both Le Corsaire and The Bright Stream, the two productions brought to Brisbane by the Bolshoi Ballet.
But I had to choose and went for the final Sunday afternoon performance of The Bright Stream, to treat my daughter the Little Chef on her day off.
She’s been working very hard of late and as we took our seats she clutched my hand in excitement. I couldn’t help but express my shock at the state of her rough, cracked hands.
She was philosophical, as she always is, about the costs of her very difficult profession. A few callouses are the least of it.
And I remarked that, given the subject of our afternoon’s entertainment, she probably had the most appropriate hands in the place.
The Bright Stream was written in the Soviet era and is set on a collective farm at harvest time.
I was therefore expecting a strident celebration of the nobility of labour. The revolutionary fervour of Madame Mao’s Communist ballets with a few Cossacks thrown in, I supposed.
The opening moments promised exactly that, with a set of glowing wheatfields bathed in impossibly bright sunshine and bold, triumphant music.
Deliriously happy farmers in gloriously colourful dresses, led by one of the main characters, a tractor driver – it was all so reminiscent of the Communist fare I grew up with.
How exciting, to see a Soviet interpretation of art as propaganda.
Scene set, the mood changed and The Bright Stream turned into the lightest, loveliest, funniest work I’ve ever seen.
The music by Shostakovich leads the way and it’s the most joyful thing I’ve ever heard. It’s got everything, from sweet classical moments to snatches of jazz and, of course, stirring traditional melodies.
The story it tells is one of Shakespearean comedic complexity. The program notes are bewildering. Three sets of mixed-up lovers, a bit of cross-dressing, and a dog on a bicycle.
Yes, a dog. On a bicycle. And a tractor driver. And a hunky male principal dancer en pointe stumbling brilliantly around in a sylphide frock. Oh, and a gorgeous female principal in flat cap and britches, with the lipstick of a lesbian kiss smeared on her face for much of the second act….
There’s a lot to love in The Bright Stream.
The story plays out so coherently on stage that it was no surpise to learn it was born from a close collaboration between the composer and his co-librettists.
All three suffered political disgrace because of The Bright Stream. Adrian Piotrovsky suffered the worst fate. He was sent to a gulag and never heard of again.
Fedor Lopukhov’s career all but ended and Shostakovich’s ballets were never again performed in the Soviet era.
The Bolshoi’s creative director Alexei Ratmansky resurrected The Bright Stream in 2003 working from the extensive notes left by Lopukhov.
It’s hard to imagine he’s got it anything other than pretty much right. The music – performed magnificently by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra – practically demands every nuanced witty gesture and each breathtaking, slapstick-inspired stunt.
If this was how joyously life could be depicted down on the collective farm, what on earth was Stalin so upset about?
According to Judith Makrell, writing in The Guardian, a Pravda editorial just after the Moscow premiere condemned Lopukhov and Shostakovich in the most dangerous terms.
Instead of studying the real way of life on a collective farm and respecting the real folk songs, dances and games of their comrades, these “slick and high-handed fakes” had represented Russian farmers as “sugary paysans from off a pre-revolutionary chocolate box.”
There was no room for joy in the countryside, in the Russian or the Chinese version of Communism.
When I was 16 I was in Hong Kong for the long Christmas break and took a part-time job teaching English conversation for a few hours a week.
One evening I had a new student. He was an elderly Chinese man who spoke perfect English.
He carried a palm-sized ancient looking book of English grammar. He thumbed its well-worn pages until he found what he was looking for and asked me to explain the past imperfect tense.
I’m of the generation which wasn’t taught grammar and, if he felt he’d been gipped the cost of an English conversation class, he didn’t let me know it.
Instead he treated me to an hour of courteous conversation on a range of subjects, so that I almost forgot my inadequacy.
Near the end of that fascinating hour, he told me that during the Cultural Revolution he had been sent to the countryside for re-education.
He was tasked with filling a cart with big heavy stones and hauling it along rough, muddy tracks.
“I was not used to such work,” he said and he looked down at his hands resting on the small table between us.
He had the longest, slenderest fingers I have ever seen.
“I was a scientist,” he said, very softly.
I remembered him, that afternoon, as I held my daughter’s rough hand and thought about what it was really like in the countryside, in Maoist China and Stalinist Russia.
Not much room for moments of simple human joy, as depicted by The Bright Stream. No wonder it had to go.
Except it didn’t. Here it is, alive and well and bursting with life. It’s a celebration from start to finish, made all the more powerful thanks to its history.
That history has made it a dance of death and a celebration of the indomitable human spirit in the face of it.
Dance of Death by Judith Makrell writing in The Guardian in 2006. Includes an account of the fate which befell Shostakovich, Lopukhov and the tragic Piotrovsky.