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Igor Moiseyev and his World of Dance
Bonus segments: Belarusian folk dance: Bulba (1982); Tartar dance (1982); Sicilian tarantella (1982); Viva Cuba! (1964)
Moiseyev Dance Company/Igor Moiseyev
VAI 4462 [78:00]
Experience Classicsonline

If you’ve ever been on a package holiday, you’ll know that very many of them offer extra excursions to an “Egyptian evening”, a “Moroccan evening”, a “Turkish evening”, or whatever, and that, along with the snake charmers, galloping desert horsemen and the like, you’ll usually see some rather bored looking youngsters dressed up in old-fashioned clothes and gamely going through the paces of their traditional native folk dances.

The whole thing can be quite entertaining, especially if you’ve opted for the deal that includes unlimited drinks with your meal, but thankfully it doesn’t usually go on for too long.

This DVD, based around a somewhat dated documentary showcasing the work of Igor Moiseyev, the founder of the Folk Dance Ensemble of the Soviet Union, offers rather a lot more, however. Its spoken commentary lays its cards boldly on the table:

“... an avid collector of folk dances, a brilliant director and dramatist and one of the most outstanding choreographers in the history of the art ... In Moiseyev’s choreography, each nation speaks its own language, each one has its own rhythm, plasticity and manner, its own inimitable national flavour. We don’t see a mere repetition of the folk dance but rather a magical transformation of its best elements. As great poets transformed folk tales, Moiseyev returns the dance in its perfected form to the people...” [From the commentary accompanying the documentary film].

Well, yes ... but, one might ask, isn’t the whole idea of “perfecting” traditional folk dances something that rather defeats the whole object of attempting to preserve them in the first place?

Later in this film, Moiseyev himself attempts to explain his revisionist philosophy: “... I am convinced that it is not enough simply to love folklore or just enjoy it ... It’s not enough to study it or popularize it. Folklore must continue to evolve. If we only fixate on historically based folklore, we’ll be buried in the past and we’ll become a museum. Folklore is a continuous process, like a stream of water that is ever changing; something dies and something is born. So it is necessary to find something in the life of the people that is contemporary and topical.”

What, one might legitimately ask, is so very wrong with museums? But it is a question that is never answered here. Rather, it is taken for granted that Moiseyev’s approach is the most appropriate way in which to present folk dances to modern audiences. In fact, not many questions are answered here at all; mind you, the old Brezhnev-era Soviet Union wasn’t really a great place to ask questions in the first place. It’s all really just an opportunity to see some colourful, lively and quite enjoyable performances from some clearly very talented dancers, though whether the choreography - mixing as it does such disparate elements as folk dance, Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire - quite justifies the “outstanding” tag is another matter entirely.

An excerpt from Russian suite successfully establishes a few ground rules. Given that an important function of village folk dancing would probably have been to give young people the opportunity to get to know each other, the men are generally athletic show-offs while the women tend to be flirtatious yet coy. That general impression is confirmed by a Bashkirian dance (for seven women) and a Kalmuk dance (three young men).

Apart from those, though, Moiseyev soon takes us away from the Russian peasant village. A regular theme is his fondness for music conveying something of the hot Mediterranean lands. Sicilian tarantella features an exciting, rhythmic “village dance”, with a colourful pantomime horse providing a welcome piece of stagecraft. All the other dances we see here feature no scenery or extra props at all. Aragon jota - to an arrangement of Glinka’s familiar score - has 15 men and 15 women showing off some intricate footwork amid swirling dresses and clicking castanets. The Latin theme is maintained with the rather over-long Gaucho (Dance of the Argentine cowboys) in which three male soloists strut their macho stuff … though how many cowboys, one wonders, ever wore frilly white lace around their knees? Thereafter a Gypsy dance opens appropriately with a typically sensuous zigeuner atmosphere but soon degenerates into music that might be appropriate to the athleticism on stage but that has abandoned altogether any claim to gypsy-ness.

The rest of the dances in the main documentary film are a very mixed bunch. The male and female dancers in At the ice rink - set to the music of Johann Strauss rather than Waldteufel as one might have guessed - are supposedly trying to demonstrate that sport is a modern, urban and collective form of folk activity (hmmm...); Naval suite, perhaps the most obvious attractive crowd pleaser here, sees a stage full of naval ratings mugging away to all those familiar clichéd mariners’ stances and gestures while giving their all to Gliere’s well-known Sailors’ Dance from The Red Poppy; while Celebration of Labour is a Stalinist/Maoist fantasy that rather reminded me of the National Ballet of China’s famous production The red detachment of women. Featuring massed ranks of dungaree-ed factory workers, agricultural labourers, growing crops (I think!) and jolly peasants, not to mention a couple of Soviet astronauts and what I would swear were - but probably weren’t - a gaggle of bewigged High Court judges, it is completely mad - and made even more so by a final choral blast of something trying desperately to sound like the Internationale!

After the documentary, we are offered three extracts from what appears to have been a live 1982 theatrical performance, complete with audience. A short Belarussian folk dance for women dressed rather like matryoshka - those peasant dolls that fit one inside the other - is followed by a brief Tartar dance (two men and one woman) and then yet another version of our Sicilian tarantella, complete with the coup de théâtre pantomime horse that was obviously thought so effective that this time it gets to come on stage twice.

You will no doubt recall Moiseyev’s assertion that, in order to maintain folk dance as a living art, “it is necessary to find something in the life of the people that is contemporary and topical”. Well, he certainly put that into vivid effect in the programme’s very last item - a 1964 piece - in very grainy black and white and looking like it was originally probably a TV item - called Viva Cuba! Clearly inspired by the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, this is an utterly camp, completely over the top collector’s item: it is, indeed, billed on the DVD’s back cover as hitherto “rare” - and I am not in the slightest bit surprised. Mixing into the score some clichéd Latin American rhythms with clear musical hints of our old friend the Sicilian tarantella, Moiseyev fills the massive stage with a prancing mixture of boys and girls who look like they’d been auditioning for parts as Sharks and Jets in West Side Story, machine-gun toting women freedom fighters and at least half a dozen lookalikes of Fidel Castro himself. Shamefully, there is also an actress in caricatured blackface - but we in the UK, at least, can hardly tut-tut, given that one of the most popular programmes on BBC television at the time was The Black and White Minstrel Show.

I see that the front covers of two earlier volumes in this series bore the slogan The astonishing Moiseyev Dance Company. I doubt very much whether anyone who watches this remarkable DVD will have any doubt that it was, indeed, a most astonishing company - but perhaps not necessarily only in the way that production company VAI meant in that rather ambiguous description.

Rob Maynard


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