Russian Orientalism

Envisioning the East

Russian Orientalism and the Ballet Russe

By Laurel Victoria Gray

Many of the twentieth century’s notions about Eastern dance came not from the Arab world, but from Russia. The most notable and successful exporter of pseudo-oriental dance was the Ballet Russe, the legendary company that enchanted the world with its portrayals of forbidden harems and provocative temptresses. Included in the ensemble’s repertoire were the so-called “oriental ballets:” Scheherazade, Cleopatra, Thamar, Le Dieu Bleu, Les Orientales and the Polovestian Dances from Prince Igor. Here the genius of Russian composers, dancers, choreographers, and theatrical designers merged to create a dazzling vision of the exotic East, a vision so powerful that it continues to shape popular notions about Eastern dance to the present day.1

The roots of the Ballet Russe must be sought in the Orientalist vein, which ran through Russian literature and music of the nineteenth century, as well as in the historical experience of the Russian people themselves. Geographical proximity had always given the Russians exposure to Eastern peoples, although this contact was sometimes unwilling, as in the case of the thirteenth century Mongol invasion. As a result of the centuries spent under the Tatar yoke, Russia was often viewed by the West as more Asiatic than European. The proverb “scratch a Russian and find a Tatar” insinuated that beneath the Western facade lurked an Oriental character. Clearly traditional kaftan worn by Russian noblemen and the opulent splendor of the Kremlin interior reflected Asiatic style.

Russian literature of the early nineteenth century mirrored currents in European writing of the period, including Romanticism. The emergence of Romanticism brought exotic settings into vogue and “The East” became a popular choice with many writers, artists, and musicians. But while the English and French looked to faraway lands, such as India, Turkey, Egypt and North Africa, Russians found inspiration quite literally in their own backyard. The East was not a distant place, but contiguous with Russian territory. Indeed, descendants of the Mongol hordes can be found all around, even in the best of Russian families. Tsarist military ambitions of the early 1800s brought Russians face to face with the fierce tribesmen of the Caucasus. Russian conquest of Central Asia in the mid-nineteenth century added Turkestan to the empire, along the wild nomads of the Asiatic steppe.

While the Orientalism of Western Europe often contained fantastic, invented elements and described an East which existed only in the imagination, Russians writers could use their first hand knowledge of the regions they described to provide authentic detail. Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Lermontov all spent time in the East, specifically the Caucasus. While convinced that theirs was the superior culture, these writers admitted much that was praiseworthy of the Asiatic peoples and admired the freedom native tribesmen — a freedom denied to Russian intellectuals by their own repressive government.

A group of talented composers known as the moguchaia kuchka or “mighty handful” explored Eastern coloring in their works. One trait that distinguished Russian Orientalism in music was a sense of identification with the East. Composers felt that to be Russian was somehow to be “Eastern” as well, and included this in their attempt to express the Russian national character. Not surprisingly, they attempted to capture Turkic, Persian, and Caucasian elements in their music. The element vostochnyi—or “Eastern element”—was first apparent in the compositions of Mikhail Glinka and was identified by critic and scholar Vladimir Stasov. Both Stasov and Glinka attributed this trend to the historical and cultural influences of the East on Russia’s past. Stasov pointed to the impact of the Orient: “So much of the East has always entered into the formulation of Russian life and all its form and has given a peculiar, characteristic coloring.”2 Glinka felt that traces of this influence could be distinguished in the melancholy nature of the Russian folk song, which had somehow been transmitted though the inhabitants of the East and their plaintive songs. As Glinka’s friend, Ivan Ekimovch Kolmakov, noted: “Listen to the coachman along the Volga; his song is mournful, one can hear in it the dominion of the Tatars…”3

Decades later, the Russian Orientalism of earlier generations would find new interpretations on the concert stage. Between 1909 and 1912, the Ballet Russe premiered six “Oriental” ballets in Paris: Polovestian Dances, Cleopatra, Scheherazade, Les Orientales, Le Dieu Bleu, and Thamar. These pieces depicted a wild and erotic East — passionate, sensuous, and violent. The impact of the Eastern ballets on the Parisian public swept waves of Orientalism throughout the world of fashion and art.

Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Fokine in Fokine’s Cléopâtra, I909

Guided by the genius of Sergei Diaghilev, the “Oriental” choreographies of the Ballet Russe enjoyed tremendous success. With an “unparalleled ability to orchestrate the talents of others,” Diaghilev — though neither an accomplished artist nor dancer himself — drew the leading figures of the art world to his banner.4 Under his direction, musicians like Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel, dancers like Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova, and designers like Leon Bakst and Alexander Benois, all combined their skills to create productions of singular beauty and imagination. Not surprisingly, the music for these pieces came from the nineteenth century Orientalist works created by composers such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, and Mily Balakirev. Even an Orientalist literary work, Thamar by Mikhail Lermontov, became a spectacular vehicle for a Ballet Russe choreography.

Music from Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor inspired the “Polovestian Dances.” The scenario for the original opera had been provided by Vladimir Statsov in 1869.5 Borodin “imitated the folk music of the Polovstsy after studying the Gunvalfi collection of their tunes.”6 (In the twentieth century, Borodin’s melodies would be used as the basis for the Orientalist musical Kismet.)

The Bakst costumes for the Polovestian Dances featured harem pants and a nearly bare upper torso, covered only by strategically placed, pearl encrusted hemispheres. (This was hardly the traditional clothing of nomadic tribes of the Eurasian steppes.) Mikhail Fokine created a vivid spectacle with his choreography. He borrowed from the dances of the Caucasus, placing long veils on the heads of female dancers.

First the oriental slave girls undulate with their crimson and purple veils to the languid, voluptuous tune…. After a quicker dance of wild tribesmen, pounding timpani bring on the Khan’s warriors…who charge and leap, brandishing their bow…The slave girls hover and at the end of their number the warriors fling them over their shoulders.7

Cleopatra premiered in Paris on June 2, 1909, with the title role played by Ida Rubinstein. (An earlier version had been presented at St Petersburg’s Maryinsky Theater in 1908 with different music and set design.) Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina were cast as Cleopatra’s slaves. Mikhail Fokine and Anna Pavlova were the requisite doomed lovers — an all too ubiquitous theme in these oriental ballets. The score combined works by various 19th century Russian composers: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mikhail Glinka, Sergei Taneyev, Nikolai Cherepnin, Modest Moussorgsky, and Aleksandr Glazunov.

The staging was nothing less than spectacular, summoning the opulence and pomp which audiences associated with the East:

A messenger announces the approach of Cleopatra. To a triumphant burst of music a glittering procession winds to the stage. The rear is brought up by a painted sarcophagus, borne by bearded men…The sarcophagus is opened to reveal a mummy-case, and from it is lifted the swathed body of Cleopatra. Twelve veils of different colours [sic] are ceremoniously unwound from her body and the queen with a sweeping gesture throws off the last. The imperious beauty of Ida Rubinstein is revealed…her pallid features framed by a turquoise blue stylized wig, bound with gold and jewels. Nijinsky darts forward crouching, and she supports herself with one hand on his head as she moves slowly to a couch. Her court gathers around her and tall fans begin to wave.8

Cleopatra’s magnetic beauty wins the attention of Pavlova’s fickle lover, Amun. He begs for a night of passion with the queen. She grants his wish and invites him to her couch on the condition that he drink poison in the morning. In order to depict the forbidden ecstasies of the lovers, a wild bacchanal number ensues, complete with nymphs and satyrs. Their lascivious poses shocked even the French although, to be fair to Fokine, he forbade the dance pairs in the scene from both lying down simultaneously, suggesting instead that they “do body massage.”9

Elaborating on the veil element introduced with Cleopatra‘s entrance, Nijinsky danced with a brief duet with the ballerina Karsavina, performing with a huge golden veil. As he lifted his partner from side to side, the veil described “a loop or arch in the air.” Karsavina then dragged it and “flung it over herself when she spun.”10 The effectiveness of this moment reinforced the association of veil dance with the East.

Perhaps the most influential of the Oriental ballets was the 1910 production of Scheherazade. Ironically, the courageous and witty storyteller Scheherazade, who risked her life in a valiant attempt to rehabilitate her serial murderer husband, is not the heroine of this ballet that bears her name. The literary Scheherazade arrived on Western shores much earlier when Antoine Gallard’s first French translation came out in 1704. Newly published English versions were printed in the Antheaeum as early 1838.11 Edward Lane explained that it was Scheherazade’s mind which gave her power among Arab audiences: “Eloquence, wit, is lawful magic: it exercises over their minds an irresistible influence.”12

Fatefully for the Western perception of Eastern women, the Ballet Russe version of Scheherazade dispensed with the intellectual heroine. It took its thematic content from the opening story of A Thousand and One Nights. The action involves Shah Shahriar who pretends to leave his palace on a hunting trip in order to test the fidelity of his concubines in his absence. No sooner does he depart, but his harem favorite, Zobeide, obtains the keys to unlock the slave’s quarters. The result is a riotous orgy depicted in abandoned dance. The Shah unexpectedly returns to kill the faithless concubines and slaves, but spares Zobeide, who takes her own life when her favorite slave is murdered before her eyes.

Astonishingly, this piece lasted only twenty minutes. All of the action took place during just one scene, in a set designed by Leon Bakst to look like an enormous harem decorated with billowing fabrics, pillows and hanging lanterns. Here the European imagination could delight in decadent Eastern luxury at its finest. The designer’s dramatic use of blue and green for the interior design contrasted with the gold, teal and violet of the costume of the Shah.

Schéhérazade created a sensation in the Parisian world of art and fashion. After seeing Leon Bakst’s unusual combination of blue and green in the set design for Schéhérazade , the jeweler Cartier found the inspiration “to set emeralds and sapphires together for the first time in history.”13 Heavy fragrances became the rage, with names that conjured up images of the sensuous East: Nirvana, Kismet, Maharajah and, one still produced today by Guerlain, Shalimar. Oriental motifs in clothing and furnishings also enjoyed popularity. Schéhérazade proved to be so popular that it remained in the repertoire even after the death of Diaghilev in 1929. (Echoes of Bakst’s design for Nijinsky’s role of the Golden Slave, replete with gathered harem pants and bejeweled torso brassiere, can be seen in a costume created for contemporary Oriental dance artist, Horacio Cifuentes.)

Thamar, “the last of the exotics,” premiered in 1912, The ballet was set in the castle of the Queen of Georgia, Thamar, who enticed passing suitors by fluttering her scarf out of the window. (This Thamar, drawn from Lermontov’s eponymous poem, had nothing to do with the wise and capable 12th century Georgian ruler.) The action centered upon one particular Prince, who enters the castle and dances ecstatically for Queen Thamar.

The queen marks with satisfaction his feverish looks, his savage movements. She joins in the dance and their lips meet in a passionate kiss. Then she twists from his grasp and runs through the green door. He follows in pursuit.14

Not surprisingly, the ballet ends violently when the Queen murders her guest, disposes with his body through a trap door and returns to the window, luring new victims with a wave of her scarf.

Thamar was set in Georgia, an ancient nation of the Caucasus that had fallen under Russian rule. Leon Bakst drew on authentic Georgian architecture for inspiration in designing the set for Thamar’s castle. Mikhail Fokine, too, used elements of traditional Georgian dance in the choreography, although the impassioned kiss exchanged by the Prince and Queen clearly violated the rule forbidding men and women from touching during dance. Once again, it was the vision of a decadent and sadistic East that so captivated audiences.

Like an uncontrolled virus, the Ballet Russes’ exotic portrayal of the Orient quickly spread to the New World during the company’s American tour. Film historian Mathew Bernstein, felt that “Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes with its staging of Cleopatra, Thamar, and Scheherazade, which toured in the United States in the teens, contributed decisively to the mise-en-scene of Orientalist cinema.”15 Soon Hollywood sets and costuming imitated the Ballet Russe and, just as the Oriental ballets had garnered popularity, so too did the films of that genre.

Known as “the Queen of Technicolor,” Maria Montez starred in Orientalist films of the forties such as Arabian Nights and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The financial success of these films inspired other studios to imitate them. Harem flicks and Bible epics soon became standard theater fare.

Although these films popularized Eastern themes, they did irreparable damage the image of Eastern dance in the West. According to Moroccan sociologist Fatema Mernissi, the Hollywood harem women tended to “trivialize the belly-dance.”

In the Middle-East and North Africa today, the belly-dance is seldom viewed, at least by women, as the monochromatic, physical agitation of the flesh, divorced from spirituality, that is often portrayed as being in Hollywood films.16

With each imitation, the Russian Orientalist vision became increasingly diluted, until after numerous decades, many had forgotten — if they ever knew — the brilliantly original genius of Leon Bakst’s sets for the Ballet Russe. When performers of Middle Eastern dance in America and Europe compulsively decorate their stages with enormous pillows or tent-like drapery, they quote, perhaps unconsciously, those memorable Ballet Russe designs.

The former Soviets themselves still draw on their Orientalist heritage. Figure skater Oksana Baiul, thanks to her creative Russian coach, presented one her most effective performances wearing Bakst-like gathered purple harem pants and a turban. Her movements included the signature elements form Russian Oriental ballets.

Not only Westerners reach back into the definitive image of the East created by the Ballet Russe; Easterners have done it as well. When one of Turkey’s well known folkloric ensembles staged their chiftitelli number, they did not turn to the traditional garments and rich textiles of authentic Ottoman costumes. Instead, the girls were clad in matching chiffon harem pants and short, skirted tops like members of the corps de ballet. The soloist, wearing a different colored variation of the same outfit, emerged from the group in a manner reminiscent of the “Dance of the Slave Girls” from Prince Igor. Her movements included balletic attitudes and arabesques in her rendition of the chiftitelli. In a word, the Turks chose the Russian vision of the East over their own historic reality.

So profound was the impact of the Ballet Russe that, after almost one hundred years, it is nearly impossible to dislodge the Russian Orientalist vision of the East from the popular imagination. Even contemporary audiences who have never heard the name Diaghilev will insist that the “authentic” Oriental dance presentations must include veil dancing by girls in harem pants. Few will realize that veil dance was not of Arab in origin but was borrowed by the Russians from the dances of the Caucasus and Transoxiana, where it remained attached to a hat. Unfamiliar with traditional Arabic costume, Westerners will not understand that Bakst elaborated upon the harem pant — originally an undergarment intended to be worn beneath other layers — as a costume design allowing ballerinas the necessary freedom to move their legs.

More sinister is the image of the dancer inherited from the Oriental choreographies of the Ballet Russe. The Eastern dancer was never simply an artist or entertainer; the purpose of her dance was clearly an invitation to a sexual encounter — and ultimately death. She was a promiscuous and dangerous seductress, a vampire sadistically luring men to an unpleasant demise. Along with the beauty and artistic excellence that characterized the Ballet Russe, there remains a legacy of ethnic and sexual stereotypes threaten to stalk the contemporary Oriental dancer into the 21st century.


1 For the purposes of this essay, “Orientalism”— if we use the definition set forth in Edward Said’s seminal work — denotes “a system of knowledge about the Orient, the Orient is less a place than a topos, a set of references.”

2 Vladimir Stasov, “Dvadtsat’ piat’ let russkogo iskusstva,” Izbrannye Sochineniia (Moscow, 1952) p. 527.

3 Kolmakov quoted by Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka, Zapiski i perepsika ego s rodymi i druz’iami (St. Petersburg, 1887), p.87.

4 Jack Anderson, Dance. New York, Newsweek Books, 1974, p. 75.

5 Robert C. Ridenour, Nationalism, Modernism, and Personal Rivalry in Nineteenth-Century Russian Music. Ann Arbor, Michigan, UMI Research Press, 1981, p. 191.

6 Laurel Victoria Gray, The Principle of Nationality and the Development of Russian Classical Music, unpublished manuscript, p.40. Gunvalfi was a Hungarian who traveled among them Polovsty, collecting their songs.

7 Richard Buckle, Nijinsky. Markham, Ontario, Canada; Penguin Books, Ltd, 1971, p.102

8 Buckle, p. 117

9 Adam Lahm, “’Scheherazade’ for Today; A Question of Authenticity,” Arabesque. Volume VI, Number VI, March-April, 1981, p. 77. Buckle, p. 102.

10 Buckle, p.117-118.

11 Muhsin Jassim Ali, Scheherazade in England: A Study of Nineteenth-Century English Criticism of the Arabian Nights. Washington, D.C., Three Continents Press, 1981, p. 4.

12 Ali, p. 131.

13 Buckle, p. 158.

14 Cyril W. Beaumont, Michael Fokine and His Ballets. London, Wyman and Sons, Ltd., 1945, p. 93.

15 Mathew Bernstein and Gaylan Studlar, editors, Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film. Rutgers, N.J., Rutgers University Press, 1997, p. 4

16 Fatema Mernissi, Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems. New York, Washington Square Press, 2001, p. 70.

Portions of this article were presented at the Second International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, May 2001.

Dancer, scholar, choreographer, lecturer, and instructor, Laurel Victoria Gray has traveled to five continents to study, teach, and perform the ethnic dances of the Middle East and Central Asia. She has been to Uzbekistan ten times, training there for two years at the invitation of the State Academic Bolshoi Theater named for Alisher Navoi. She has also studied with the dervishes of Cairo, Egypt. Gray is the recipient of the 1999 International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance Award for Ethnic Dancer.

Ms. Gray’s articles have appeared in many publications including the Oxford University Press International Encyclopedia of Dance, the World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theater, the Encyclopedia of Asia, and numerous dance magazines in the US and abroad. She has lectured for the Middle East Institute, Humanities West, UCLA, the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, and other institutions, as well as presenting papers at both the First and Second International Conferences on Middle Eastern Dance.

Ms. Gray also serves as Artistic Director of the Silk Road Dance Company. On November 10, 2001, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts presented the ensemble in “Remembering the Legends,” with the concept, choreography, and costume design by Laurel Victoria Gray.

In addition to numerous workshops in the US, Europe, and Australia, Ms. Gray has taught for New York’s City Center Theater, George Mason University, and the Iranian Community School of Virginia. She currently teaches eight weekly classes at the Joy of Motion Dance Center in Washington, DC.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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