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Alexander Gorsky, considered in Russia today as a pioneer of dramatically oriented ballet realism and as great a reformer as Fokine, was born in St. Petersburg on August 6, 1871. His father was a book-keeper, but his main interests were painting, embroidery and the breeding of silk worms.
When Alexander was eight years old, his mother brought him and his sister to St. Petersburg with the intention of enrolling the former in a school of commerce and placing the latter at the Imperial School of Ballet. Both children were accepted at the School of Ballet.
A year later Gorsky entered the school as a paying student and was placed in the junior class taught by Platon Karsavin, the father of the ballerina Tamara Karsavina. Placed on scholarship one year later, Gorsky also studied with N. I. Volkov and Marius Petipa before he graduated in 1889 and joined the corps de ballet.
Six years later he became a soloist and danced a wide range of roles, including the lead roles in La Fille Mal Gardee and The Magic Flute, Aguilon in Flora’s Awakening, and character roles such as the Satyr in the opera Tannhauser, and the Danse Chinoise in Casse-Noisette.
In 1896 Gorsky was appointed assistant instructor of the Ballet School under Paul Gerdt. A year later when Vladimir Stepanov, a dancer and teacher who had invented a system of dance notation, died, Gorsky decided to continue his work and was responsible for establishing the notation system in the school’s curriculum.
At this time, the director of the Imperial Theatres decided to raise the standing of the Moscow Ballet and chose to stage The Sleeping Beauty, which had not yet been seen by Moscow audiences. Gorsky was selected and his arrival in December, 1898 coincided with the foundation of the Moscow Art Theatre. The premiere of the ballet took place on January 17, 1899, and the program stated that the ballet was staged “according to dance notations based on the system of V. I. Stepanov.”
Satisfied that a ballet could be reproduced from dance notation, Gorsky now wanted to prove that a new ballet could also be staged in this manner. Returning to St. Petersburg he decided to choreograph a one-act ballet “on paper.” The result was Chlorinda, the Queen of the Mountain Fairies, performed on April 11, 1899, at a ballet school performance. The program note explained that it was “the first attempt at composing a ballet…on paper by use of the alphabet of movement invented by V. I. Stepanov. The roles were rehearsed from written-out parts, similar to those used in opera during the current school year.”
On September 1, 1900, Gorsky was promoted to the rank of premier danseur of the St. Petersburg Ballet, but eight days later he was transferred to the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre as regisseur. Although he regarded this move as temporary, he was to remain there.
A great renaissance of the arts was occurring in Moscow during this period in every area but ballet. The Moscow Ballet was in terrible condition. There was no choreographer of distinction (as soon as a choreographer of promise developed he would be transferred to St. Petersburg); the repertory was poor and often the theatre was only filled to a one-third capacity; and the company’s roster listed only 70 dancers. Only the school was in a more positive condition because of the talents of the instructors I. D. Nikitin and Vassily Tikhomirov. But leadership was needed.
Gorsky’s full-fledged debut as a choreographer occurred with his next production, Don Quixote, which he staged quite differently from Petipa’s version, although he did retain certain sections. Completed in 18 months, Gorsky considered the ballet an important step toward achieving a unity of artistic conception. Of the work he said: “The distinction of my production is that there is a continuous movement of groups on the stage; the scenes are based on a plan new and original with me; I do not recognize any rules of symmetry.” For this production Gorsky commissioned the painters Korovin and Golovin to design the settings and costumes. The ballet premiered on December 6, 1900. Although the press had a mixed reaction, the audience attendance began to grow.
In January of 1911, Gorsky restaged Swan Lake, which had not been performed in Moscow since 1877 when the original and unsuccessful production was staged by Julius Reisinger. Gorky worked from the Petipa-Ivanov version, revising the first and third acts, where he eliminated the symmetry of the dance groups, introduced a number of strong character dances to create a contrast with the lyrical scenes, created a definite direction in the development of the plot, and increased the expressiveness of the classic dances.
By the end of 1904, Gorsky was teaching regularly in the school — his teaching was designed to develop individual creativity — and he is considered to be responsible for substituting the piano for the traditional violin as class accompaniment.
In addition to Gorsky’s choreographic activities, he served in several administrative organizations associated with the ballet and worked to improve the quality of ballet training, as well as to develop creativity. He was a well-educated man and was proficient in painting, writing, acting and music. Alexander Gorsky died in September 1924. Sources:
1. The Dance Encyclopedia. Compiled and edited by Anatole Chujoy and P. W. Manchester, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1967.
2. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet, Horst Koegler, Oxford University Press, London, 1977.
3. The Ballet Called Swan Lake. Cyril Beaumont, 1952. Researched and compiled by Fran Michelman.