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About the Change

Mikhail Messerer
and the Bolshoi Ballet and Class Concert

interview by Charlotte Kasner

© John Ross

'Class Concert' reviews

Bolshoi reviews

Company Discussion

Charlotte Kasner reviews

Ballet has relied heavily on dynasties in its more than four hundred year history, for plots as much as for its own survival. The annals of ballet would not be complete without a mention of the Messerer dynasty, a remarkable family that have devoted their lives to ballet for nearly a century. Britain is particularly fortunate in having Mikhail Messerer as a resident in London and as the force behind this first professional production since the 1960s in London of Class Concert, staged by the Bolshoi at the Coliseum as part of a triple bill this week

The survival of ballets can often be as much a matter of chance as popularity, and Class Concert is no exception. Its antecedents date back to at least 1848 when Bournonville created Le Conservatoire - the physical embodiment of Dégas' paintings thirty years later perhaps. Comparisons with Harold Lander's Etudes a century later will be inevitable, not least because it is a work with which we are fairly familiar and which is popular. Asaf Messerer had staged a class in the 1920's when he was teaching at the Moscow Technikum, but it was not until 1960, following a visit to Moscow of the Paris Opera Ballet with Etudes, that he was asked to create a similar work for the Bolshoi Ballet School. Since then, and rather like Balanchine's Serenade, it has been performed by students, professionals and a combination of the two ever since. It has been seen in London at least three times since the mid-1980's in student showcases, but has been mounted on companies all over the world and has been seen in, amongst others, Milan at La Scala, Australia, Japan and the USA, where it premiered at the Met under the auspices of Sol Hurok.

It was not seen on the Bolshoi stage during Grigorovich's reign, except for a shortened version that Asaf Messerer produced for his own 80th birthday gala in 1982, but it was danced by Bolshoi dancers at the request of impresarios on foreign tours, particularly by Maya Plisetskaya, Messerer's niece. This thus ensured its preservation in dancers' memory and in performance in spite of disapproval from above.

Class Concert
© Bolshoi Ballet

Merle Park and her husband James Moynahan saw it in the 1960's and requested it for the Royal Ballet School. Fortunately Alexander Tzeitlin who had been the Musical Director at the Bolshoi School when the work was created, had taken the score to the USA when he emigrated and was able to send it to Mikhail Messerer when he remounted the work in the mid 1980's. Yet again, a vital link in the chain had ensured its survival.

The continuity between Asaf Messerer, the ballet's creator and his nephew Mikhail Messerer who has both danced in the work and re-staged it on numerous occasions, is mirrored in chains of connection between dancers and between the composers whose work is used. Without Messerer's memory and the chance for him to have staged it within a reasonable time after he last danced in it, it could not have been staged with reliability and fidelity. Notation was not (and is still not) used to any extent in the Soviet Union or Russia, so experience and memories are all the more precious.

Mikhail Messerer
© John Ross

Christopher Weeldon, Christopher Hampson, Jonathan Howes, Darcy Bussell and Edward Watson have all danced in it. Internationally renowned dancers including Vladimir Vassiliev, Ekaterina Maximova and Carla Fracci have reputedly clamoured to dance cameos and there is much competition for the various battements. Young dancers can start in the opening sections and progress as their technique (and reputation) grows into the virtuoso steps at the close. On the occasion of its recreation for the Bolshoi this season, dancers gave up their spare time to fit in with two separate fortnightly rehearsal sessions.

The composers form a paper chain link from Lyadov to Rubinstein, to Glazunov, to Shostakovitch, each being master and pupil along the chain. The Romance from Shostakovitch's The Gadfly was added after the inception and his work opens and closes the ballet, but otherwise, the music follows the development of the class in chronological order. Shostakovitch worked closely with Asaf Messerer on the work.

Class Concert, as well as chronicling the universal structure of a ballet class, aimed to take the dancers back to the purity of the Moscow style and concentrates on precision and cleanliness of footwork, placing, a lightness in the upper body, expressive gesture, especially ports de bras, and turnout. It can easily be forgotten, when attitudes towards the Bolshoi can degenerate into clichés of bravura brashness, that such details of technique are as important as at the Kirov/Maryinsky who are more usually associated with purity and classicism.

Class Concert
© Bolshoi Ballet

We have only recently had the opportunity to see the Bolshoi company in smaller scale works. It is fitting that this triple bill should include an American classic, a new work by an Englishman who made his home in New York and a great Soviet/Russian work that has stood the test of time, perhaps against the odds.

This is a paper chain that looks as if it will decorate this exciting Bolshoi season with due honour.

I am immensely grateful to Mikhail Messerer for his time and co-operation in enabling this piece.

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