Muses and Musings
The Red Poppy
Reinhold Glière and Yekaterina Geltzer

Purple Flower - Yekaterina Gletzer and Vasiliy Tokhomirov

Purple Flower – Yekaterina Gletzer and Vasiliy Tokhomirov

Yekaterina Vasilyevna Geltzer was a prima ballerina of the famous Bolshoi Ballet, who danced in the theatre from 1898 to 1935. Her father Vasily was an outstanding mime dance and director at the theater, but he believed that his daughter’s physique was unsuitable for dancing. Yekaterina put up a fight, and finally persuaded her father to enroll her in the Bolshoi ballet school. She developed strong pointe and pirouette technique and gradually worked her way up in the Bolshoi organization. However, political trouble was brewing and the Bolshevik Revolution took a dim view of the imperial theaters. Ballet had been an entertainment for the elites of imperial Russia. “Of all stage arts inherited from the past, ballet bore the largest quantity of ‘birth-marks’ of the exploitative society. That incontestable fact was preserved in the memory of each and everyone.” Ballet companies had to cope with a mass exodus of leading figures of the stage, but also defend against grassroots Communist voices that decried ballet as an artificial, frivolous art form, a decadent playground for grand dukes hopelessly out of touch with reality. Yet gradually, government policy opened the former bastions of imperial high culture to the masses, making ballet performances available to a wider audience by distributing free or subsidized tickets. Under constant threat of closure, it was Yekaterina Geltzer, among others, who “helped preserve and pass on the classical technique and repertory of the Imperial Russian Ballet after the 1917 Revolution.

Reinhold Glière

Reinhold Glière

Reinhold Glière: The Red Poppy Suite, Op. 70
In order to secure the survival of the Russian ballet tradition, repertoire needed to radically reflect the spirit of the revolution. In 1925, the Bolshoi was holding a contest for the best modern ballet, and Reinhold Glière—inspired by Geltzer’s phenomenal performances—decided to join the competition. He initially searched hard and wide for a suitable subject, but nothing came to mind. By pure chance, he stumbled across a story published in Pravda, telling the saga about a Soviet ship with food supplies impounded in China. Glière engaged the librettist Mikhail Kurilko to write a scenario within the aesthetic constraints of socialist realism. Set in a port in Kuomintang China in the 1920’s, The Red Poppy eventually became the first truly Soviet ballet. The story tells of the love between a Soviet sailor and a Chinese girl, who is eventually killed by the sailor’s capitalist rival. The tyrannical British imperialist commander of the port sanctions her murder, as Tao-Hoa tries to escape her homeland on board a Soviet ship. As she falls dying, she gives her compatriots a red poppy as an emblem in their fight for freedom. (She had previously given a red poppy to the Soviet Captain as a symbol of her love). Tellingly, the Soviet authorities changed the name of the ballet to The Red Flower” in 1949, hoping to avoid any mistaken association with the opium trade.

Yekaterina Geltzer

Yekaterina Geltzer

The ballet premiered at the Bolshoi on 14 June 1927 and was an overwhelming success. Geltzer’s performance as the Chinese girl Tao-Hoa was judged to have been extraordinary, and she was eventually awarded the Stalin Prize, the Order of Lenin and the Order of the Red Banner of Labor. Glière was named a People’s Artist of the Soviet Union and never had problems with Soviet authorities. Politically neutral, his conservative style of music, often based on folk styles of the various Soviet republics, was perfectly in keeping with Soviet aesthetics. Glière eventually extracted an orchestral suite, and the concluding “Russian Sailors Dance” is probably his best-know musical composition. This robust and satisfying dance is based on a Russian folk-tune and provides a number of variations, ranging from serious to frantic!

Yekaterina Gletzer and Vasiliy Tokhomirov

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