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Early Russian Dance (Chap. 12, 17)

Natalia Roslavleva, in her Era of the Russian Ballet (Victor Gollancz Ltd., London, 1966), makes some interesting statements I’ve not found elsewhere:


“Silver figurines of dancing men discovered in treasure-troves in the region of Kiev and belonging to the sixth century A.D. portray them in the familiar squatting poses of the ‘prisiadka’…  These silver figures have their arms akimbo, knees bent and well turned out, and feet on half point, as though the dance, stayed in a momentary pose, were about to continue.”  (p.17)


She also elucidates the Russian words for dancing and dances:

1. tanets : introduced by Peter the Great, from German Tanz, and implying “a dance incorporating a series of steps,…the rudiments of choreography.”

2. pliaska, pliasati : “for folk dances composed spontaneously, the steps being arranged in any succession.”  This type of dance was “slow and flowing” and “usually (but not necessarily) danced by women” whereas—

3. skakati : “originally from the verb ‘to jump’, indicated that there would be plenty of hops and capers of all kinds.”  These “belonged to the domain of men.”

4. khorovod : “the most ancient form of circular chain dance,…performed to songs” on every festive occasion in the villages.  (p.17)


And she quotes from a 1788 source:

“Early travelers to Russia noted in their memoirs…particularly the ability of the performers to dance with their entire body…  Thus Johann Bellerman, a German scientist and author, residing in Russia from 1778-1782, wrote in his Bemerkungen über Russland in Rücksicht auf Wissenschaft, Kunst, Religion, Vol. I, published at Erfurt in 1788, as follows: ‘The Russian national dance is so eloquent, that I know of nothing to match it…. Its beauty is contained not merely in adroit steps, but in the fact that the head, shoulders, trunk, arms—in other words the whole of the body—participate in the dance to make an incomparable impression upon the spectator.’  These remarks were made upon seeing ordinary village revels, danced by peasants.”  (p.18)


She also discusses skomorokhi for nearly 2 pages (18-19), calling them “professional dancers” and remarking that they were “famed for their virtuoso jumps and acrobatic capers.  The art of the skomorokhi was largely in the grotesque and comic style, and most of their dancers were male.  There also existed female professional dancers,” called “pliassovitsa, or pliassitsa, while the male dancer was called a pliassun.  A chronicle of the beginning of the sixteenth century tells us that Ivan the Terrible’s mother…at the wedding of her brother-in-law…[entered] preceded by pliassitsi or professional dancing women belonging to the court of the Grand Duke of Russia.”

Male and female skomorokhi often resided as companies at the mansions of nobility; others roved as far west even as Italy.  [I wonder if western sources exist for that?]

“A relic of the skomorokhi art has been preserved for us in frescoes dating to the eleventh century A.D. on one of the walls of the St. Sophia Cathedral at Kiev, built in the reign of Yaroslav the Wise…  The frescoes depict different types of dancing.  One of the dancers, marking the rhythm with copper cymbals held in both hands, is preparing to execute a typical Russian squatting step.  He is being accompanied by three other skomorokhi playing various kinds of wind instruments.  But in the lower part of the picture two other men dance facing each other.  One of them is waving a handkerchief in the traditional Russian way, while the other spreads his arms out in a broad gesture, also typically Russian.  However crude, the painting proves that its author was aware that the two kinds of dancing existed in Russia already at that time: the languid pliasati and the fiery skakati.

The Russian people introduced skomorokhi into their epic songs (byliny), and left unforgettable memories of the great skill of these entertainers in such proverbs as: “’Anyone can do a dance, but can they match a skomorokh?’ ”

Persecuted by the Church (e.g., in 1551 they were forbidden “to appear close to any church or to perform at weddings”), they moved north, settled on the estates of wealthy patrons, and turned themselves into the early private orchestras and private theater groups.

Roslavleva’s sources were entirely in Russian, from Soviet libraries and museums.  I cannot figure out her source for the silver Kievan figures, but for skomorokhi she cites:

A. Famitsyn, Skomorokhi in Russia. St. Petersburg, 1889.

She apparently read the Bellerman passage in Russian in an article by Abram Gozenpud in Scientific Annals of the State Research Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinema (Leningrad 1958) 222.