Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Balieff's Bat

At the beginning of the last century all Europe seemed to be caught up with things Russian.  As early as 1905 Serge Diaghilev had brought a exhibition of Russian paintings to the Petit Palais in Paris.  In the next five years he introduced Russian performers and artists to Western audiences with concerts, opera and his groundbreaking Ballets Russes.   After the Revolution many of his collaborators, proteges and friends choose to settle in Europe and later Americn.  They would be joined by others who found that they were not happy or not welcome in the new regime. 
Nikita Balieff graced the cover of Time
on October 17, 1927.

Nikita Balieff was amongst those who left Russia in the first years after the Revolution.  A minor player and "dog's body" with the Moscow Arts Theatre, in 1908 he had launched a late night cabaret Летучая мышь/Letuchaya mysh' (Chauve-Souris/The Bat) in a cellar just outside the walls of the Kremlin.   It proved popular with both the theatrical crowd and theatre-going public.  Balieff hung in until 1919 and then left Moscow for more welcoming climes.  When he reached Paris (via Constantinople) in 1920 he found willing accomplices - many of them singers, dancers, musicians and designers who had worked with him in Moscow - in setting up Chauve-souris at le théâtre Femina on the Champs-Elysée.

The exotic, colourful and imaginative decors and costumes of Serge Soudeikine, Nicolai Remisoff and the Benois family were paired with old Russian folk ballads, gypsy dances, Cossack songs, Russian classics and scenes based on Russian stories, poems and legends.   It was all overseen by Balieff himself acting as compère.  Looking much like a rolly-polly Matryoshka doll he would introduce each number, commenting on the acts and often the audience in a thick, at times almost incomprehensible, accent.  It appears that as much of the success of the revue can be attributed to Balieff's hosting as to the colourful numbers themselves.

Image Map

Almost as colourful as the various scenes themselves were the elaborate programme books filled with pictures of the numbers and designers' sketches.  The covers were created by Soudeikin, Remisoff, the Benois and other Russian artists  - a left click on each cover will reveal a larger image.

At that point in theatrical history there was a fairly brisk commerce in plays, musicals, revues, composers and artists both Trans-Channel and Trans-Atlantic.  It was not unusual for  a show to become a hit on three shores and international artists seem to travel without any great regard for restrictions of language or nationality.  Balieff's troupe came to the attention of the British impresario C. B. Cochrane and in 1921 they were featured in his international season along with Sarah Bernhardt and Diaghilev's Ballet Russe.  Though not a financial success Balieff's revue caught the eye of Morris Gest and F. Ray Comstock - two of America's more adventuresome producers.  Gest made his reputation by bringing companies from Post-Revolutionary Russia including the Moscow Arts Theatre to North America.  Gest and Comstock mounted international seasons featuring artists such as Eleanore Duse in her last American appearance,  productions of plays by Ibsen, Chekhov and Gorky, and extravaganzas that included Max Reinhardt's The Miracle.

Two colour production designs by Serge Soudeikine:
Russian Toys (top); The Nutcracker Trepek (bottom).
Where Cochrane had failed, Gest and Comstock succeeded in 1922 when they presented Balieff's Chauve-Souris on tour in the US and on Broadway.  It is difficult to say if the show was actually as wonderful and ground breaking as many of the reviews and Broadway histories say it was.  Or as unique an artistic achievement as the Messieurs Gest-Comstock and Oliver Sayler their publicist trumpeted in the press or in the colourful little book  filled with designs by the brigade of talented artists who created costumes and decor for Balieff.  So good, and I do mean good, was the Gest-Comstock publicity machine that Dorthy Parker, very much in the minority, commented:  .... it has come to the stage where these poor nerves jangle nastily every time the local cognoscenti hail as incomparable art any bit of literature, play, writing or stagecraft that comes out of Russia. ..... what I don't really grasp is just why "Russian" and "great" should have come to be looked upon as synonyms.  Nor was Patterson James, the resident Broadway wit at Billboard magazine, impressed and he went so far as to question the authenticity of Balieff's fractured English.

Gest and Comstock commissioned caricaturist Ralph Barton to create an intermission curtain featuring some 140 theatrical, operatic, political, financial and society celebrities of the time.  It is now displayed in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian.   I was unable to find a full-on photo of it and had to make do with this capture from a copy of a souvenir book written by Oliver Sayler, the Gest-Comstock publicist

If Mrs Parker was amongst the naysayers her fellow Algonquin Round Table-type Alexander Woollcott praised it to high heavens and even wrote a later article putting the dissenters in their place amongst the lower orders.  The crafty Gest-Mill made it known that only the true connoisseur could appreciate the unique fare that was being offered them.  Charity performances were arranged with much of the theatrical community assisting as ushers and programme sellers. Like an early Ed Sullivan Balieff took to recognizing visiting celebrities from the stage and if your attendance hadn't been noted then you "my dear" really didn't count.  Earlier in the year Reginald Marsh had created a popular celebrity curtain for John Murray Anderson's Greenwich Village Follies; not to be outdone Gest and Comstock commissioned caricaturist Ralph Barton to paint their celebrity curtain with the avuncular Balieff gazing out over his captive audience.  Later in the run they had the roof top theatre of the Century Theater redecorated by Serge Soudeikine in the "Russian Style".  It was as colourful and exotic, and a touch chaotic, as his stage designs.

The programme was a varied one and the troupe appears to have had some 50 different numbers in their repertoire  to choose from.  As with any variety show some were brief, others were elaborate production numbers that took up an entire act of the three act evening.  And the spectrum ran from the religious to the boisterous with stops in between for the melancholy, the sentimental and the historical.   But no matter what else was being performed there were several numbers that were a must on every programme: that Balieff would announce Katinka and The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers were a given!

Katinka was described as being based on "an old Russian polka from the (18)60s" though it appears the music may really have been been the creation of Alexy Archangelsky, Balieff's resident composer.  The story was a slim one - Katinka is the far too modern daughter of an old fashioned Merchant and his wife.  Much to her parents' displeasure she has learned to dance the polka at her boarding school.  Further she announces that she will marry an army officer which her parents naturally forbid.  The wily Katinka pretends to be dying which frightens her parents who yield to her wishes.  To celebrate her happiness she breaks into an ecstatic dance.  As designed by Soudeikine to resemble a colourful wooden music box and dolls come to life and danced by the beautiful, and reportedly voluptuous, Zhenya Nikitina it was one of the most popular numbers in their repertoire.   Igor Stravinsky was a friend of the Soudeikines - Vera Soudeikin was to become his mistress and eventually his wife - and briefly an ardent admirer of Mme Nikitina.  He was to quote the polka in his Suite #2 for Small Orchestra and in the overture to his one act opera Mavra - and it has been suggested that his little opera may have started life as a possible musical skit for Chauve Souris.

The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers (or Phooden Soldiers according to Balieff) grew out of a Russian legend and a little march by Leon Jessel, a popular German composer of light music and operettas.  Originally titled  The Parade of the Tin Soldiers (Die Parade der Zinnsoldaten) it was often played piano piece and concert band number and became a favourite with palm court orchestras and on children's radio programmes.

Balieff changed the soldiers to wood and matched the music to the legend of an Imperial regiment in St Petersburg that began marching at the orders of Tzar Paul I.  When the Tzar left the parade ground without giving the order to halt they continued to march and ended up in Siberia.  When the Tzar realized his mistake he gave the order for their return so they marched all the way back to be dismissed.  

As the less than laudatory Mr James remarked in Billboard, variations of this sort of precision number had been presented previously by dance lines so it was not particularly new or original though apparently Balieff's take on it was highly comical.  (This type of routine can be seen right up to our day when each Christmas thirty-six Rockettes march onto the stage at Radio City Music Hall performing wheels, turns and that wonderful slow motion domino fall.)     It was the most popular, most often remembered and remarked upon number in the programme  and was  constantly encored to the delight of even the most sophisticated New York audience.   There is a film in the Library of Congress archives of this little production number - sadly not available.  It would be interesting to see what exactly drove spectators to such excesses of delight.

The recording I used in this video was made in Berlin in November of 1911 by Carl Grunow and released on a Russian label that same year.  The designs for the original by Nicolai Remisoff were used on the sheet music cover and  Mstislav Doubzhinksy was responsible for the designs in later editions of the revue.

Balieff and his company played 65 weeks in New York and then toured across North America.  The troupe then returned to Europe and appeared in London, Paris and Berlin as well as on tour in South Africa.  They returned to America five more times -  in 1923, 1925, 1927 and 1929 and in what was billed as the New Chauve Souris in 1931.  By then the show had lost much of it's appeal and the material seemed dated and slightly passé.  A planned production in 1934 never materialized though Balieff himself appeared in 1935, the year before his death, in a revue at the French Casino as well as in several of the more intimate night spots around Manhattan in his familiar role as affable compère.

December 2 - 1908: Puyi becomes Emperor of China at the age of two..

1 comment:

David said...

Never heard of Balaieff - fascinating. By the way, there's an excellent (free) exhibition of Russian avant-garde theatre designs, mostly loaned from Moscow's Bakhrushin Theatre Museum, at the V&A.