Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 21


African Dance: Sand, Drum and Shostakovich


A Soviet composer sardonically welcomes us to his own funeral. A familiar start for anyone who has seen Tony Palmer’s Testimony (1987). But this is not Shostakovich. And it is not Testimony. But there is one thing in common: the presence of Solomon Volkov. Perhaps we are entering the age of the consultant as auteur?

Of the famous Soviet composers, Khachaturian comes in third after (however you order them) Shostakovich and Prokofiev, so his life and art have been less investigated that the other two. We still await Khachaturian’s equivalent of Elizabeth Wilson or David Nice, and we have missed the opportunity of a Khentova. In lieu of that genre of book, this film sets out to give a basic biography, inevitably setting it against the political events and using the composer’s own writings to paint a portrait of a man deeply affected by the state’s criticisms and struggling to find his own way to meet them.

Unsurprisingly the film is full of Soviet artists, some perhaps more familiar as names than faces: the composer Arno Babadzhanyan, choreographer Yuri Grigorovich (‘loyal to the Soviet ideal’) and Ivan Kozlovsky, the greatest tenor of his generation, although he was never heard in the West. The tone is set by the preludial funeral: when Khrennikov steps forward to give the eulogy, Eric Bogosian (who provides the composer’s voice) points to the irony that this was a man who thirty years previously had stabbed him in the back. This is a cue to remember some of the others who suffered under the regime.

The film proper starts with an event for the musical elite (or rather several events stitched together in the editing suite). Among the guests are David Oistrakh, Shostakovich and Irina, Kabalevsky, Rostropovich (which is presumably how Britten got in) and of course “my betrayer” Khrennikov, “who in those days was one of us.”

Khachaturian thinks about the early days of the Soviet Union when it was the beacon of world socialism and of how he himself became a proud o fficial. Why was he favoured by Stalin? Was it that he came from common stock rather than the intelligentsia? Or that, like Stalin, he was from the Caucasus, the home of many different ethnicities and thus a microcosm of the USSR? If Khachaturian did ever think this he would have been quickly disabused even in the 1920s, as regional policies, though inconsistently applied over both time and space, were at best ambivalent about the republics. A scene from Spartacus is intercut with people dancing in the street, demonstrating Khachaturian’s norodnost’ as he talks about the importance of folk music, a theme that will return through the film. Over scenes of Tbilisi we hear how his parents initially tried to discourage him from the slightly unrespectable career of music but that his mind was made up by a visit to the opera. Apart from being entranced by the music and spectacle, the young Aram was struck by the presence of the composer. Sadly we don’t learn who the composer was, though it obviously wasn’t his Georgian predecessor Zakharia Paliashvili whose first and most famous opera Abesalom and Eteri only appeared after the Revolution.

With the Revolution, he moved to Moscow and here the film introduces a new element. Up to now it has used archive footage but now we have interviews with the composer’s son and nephew, sharing the name Karen, discussing the importance of this time to the composer. His teacher Myaskovsky comes out as something of a hero, ‘a decent, honest man’, his classes like ‘a religious rite’ in which reminiscences brought his students closer to Rimsky-Korsakov and others. But the revolutionary spirit called and Khachaturian joined a propaganda train (ironically to Georgia).

Like some other composers, his first success came with his first symphony, which nephew Karen describes as “reaching all the way down to his roots.” But Volkov claims that the composer’s Armenian-ness made people uncomfortable and though Tigran Mansourian doesn’t mention this, he does discuss the music’s Armenian nature and improvisatoriness, while Rostropovich enthuses about the Cello Rhapsody and we see a clip of him playing it under the baton of the composer.

Lenin’s death brings not only the memorial ode but, in the commentary, an expression of enthusiasm for the leader and his glorious plans which were twisted by Stalin. At that time Khachaturian worked enthusiastically for the state and thought that artists who stumbled would merely be ‘reeducated’ and returned to work. Thus, though it didn’t touch him directly, Pravda’s review of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was a huge shock. Interestingly the film says only that it was inspired by Stalin, whereas Volkov’s new book (Shostakovich and Stalin, Knopf, 2004) which post-dates the film, goes further, implying a much both claim that Stalin micromanaged cultural policy. Volkov claims Khachaturian found the term Socialist Realism incomprehensible and irritating and shows its idiocy by saying that at different times the composer was described as a leading Formalist and a leading Socialist Realist. But this is not necessarily illogical. At different times in his career, depending on his own developing style and what Socialist Realism meant politically, Khachaturian could logically have been described in both ways. If the a rgument is that ‘Socialist Realism’ and ‘Formalist’ are simply politicised aesthetic terms, synonyms for ‘ acceptable’ and ‘not acceptable’ then, just as composers and works can go in and out of fashion for aesthetic reasons, so they can be recategorised as Formalist or Socialist Realist. More telling (though not mentioned in the film) is the fact that Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was described as a Socialist Realist work before its condemnation, showing that in relation to a particular work the term had changed its meaning for political-artistic reasons.

Khachaturian immersed himself in work and his recent happy marriage to Nina Makarova; he was inspired to write his Piano Concerto, a piece that was an international breakthrough for him. Constantine Orbelian speculates that it benefited from friendly USUSSR relations although its infectious melodiousness was surely just as important. When it is counterpointed with images of soldiers marching in time to the music a strange feeling of over-politicisation overtakes the film. During the war composers wrote music that “declared Soviet Victory even in the jaws of defeat” and Khachaturian’s contribution was the ballet Gayaneh. But just before the premiere it was realised that one last number was needed. “Khachaturian”’s irritated fingers tap out rhythms. Mansourian talks about the balance between rhythm, and melody: composers tend to be of one type of the other. He talks about second, spiritual homes: Prokofiev’s was France, while Shostakovich continued the line of Austro-German music, particularly Mahler. Unlike many composers Khachaturian managed to find a balance between melody and rhythm that is characteristic of the music of America, and in particular of jazz. As evidence he cites the saxophone countermelody in the Sabre Dance, which is of course the ‘one piece’ that Khachaturian wrote just before the ballet’s premiere.

As for the post-war disappearances and repressions, Karen thinks that his father felt they were justified by the larger purpose, whereas the narration is more circumspect, perhaps using later texts. And then: 1948. The story of Kabalevsky getting himself off the condemned list at the expense of Popov is repeated. Khachaturian may have thought this, and may at some point have privately written it, but it is now known to be untrue – difficult then to justify its presence here without an authorial voice to point out that this old myth is now discredited. Khrennikov is interviewed and, as he has before, a rgues that he had no choice but to go along with what he was told to do and that reading the declaration was the greatest tragedy of his life. But for the film “it all came from Stalin”, and this enabled Khrennikov to build his career. However, if Stalin was the obsessive micromanager, what was Khrennikov to do? Was his career built not deliberately but as an accidental byproduct of simple self-defence? Still, his argument that the 1948 decree was a reaction to the Iron Curtain (and therefore of the West?) is a tortuous piece of logic, proposing ‘Formalist’ composers as pro-West at the same time as their being propaganda weapons for the Soviet Union. There certainly was an ironic disjunction between their treatment on the two sides of the Curtain, but it’s not clear what Khrennikov thinks the USSR hoped to gain in the West by punishing composers at home.

Khachaturian took the conference’s criticism particularly badly because, until recently, he had been a member of the leadership. Yet his nephew the conductor Emin thinks he got off more lightly than some because of the obvious folk base of much of his music. All the same, where Shostakovich continued to compose, Khachaturian was at a loss as to what to do.

This was his lowest moment; in contrast to Shostakovich’s professionalism, or Myaskovsky’s simple refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the criticisms, Khachaturian was cast adrift, uncertain as to how to proceed. He was sent to the Caucasus for re-education and although he was ‘at home’ was still unhappy.

He later returned to Moscow to write Spartacus, which would turn out to be his spiritual and artistic salvation. But initially he was repeatedly blocked, only getting permission to write it when he showed Khrennikov that Marx had been a great admirer of the Roman slave. Vladimir Vasiliev, who created the role of Spartacus, describes the hero as the composer’s alter-ego, reflecting his struggle to overcome his own shortcomings, at the same time being an Aesopian comment on the Soviet state with the work, and ultimately becoming the composer’s own requiem.

In contrast Khachaturian’s son sees it as a mirror of his life in that the hero ends up alone, and that the insistence on pain, tears and the anticipation of tragedy, inevitably culminating in a sad ending makes him a truly Russian composer. But despite these reflections on the late disappointments in the composer’s life, the film takes Vasiliev’s view that in Spartacus Khachaturian managed to overcome himself to create a true masterpiece that reflected both his own concerns and those of the wider community. So the film manages to finish on a redemptive tone, the composer saying that if he has spoken with the language of his ancestors, his music will live forever.

The film is full of fascinating archive material (can the footage of Stalin’s funeral really be in colour or merely colourised?) and avoids scenes too often seen, while the newly shot footage is evocative of the warm Caucasus. The interviews vary in technical quality implying that not all were shot for the film, but in terms of content, both politically and musically, the most interesting is Mansourian’s.

The script uses Khachaturian’s writings but we are not told in detail which ones or from when the various quotes date, and the tone veers from what sounds like official pronouncements to deeply disenchanted private diary entries, sometimes within a single section. Together these make it difficult to know to what extent we are seeing the composer’s public and private faces, and what weight to give the various statements. To those familiar with the background, the filmmakers’ agenda is clear but the same arguments can be levelled at this film as have been at Testimony, and the same defences made. To simplify massively: the politically inspired manipulation of evidence makes it hard to endorse fully the film, even though there may be corroborating evidence. But it is a popular rather than an ‘academic’ work and the larger truth justifies the possible editorialising of the material.

Khachaturian is one of those composers who have been cursed by the popularity of a few pieces: the Sabre Dance and the Adagio from Spartacus have become ubiquitous, distorting his profile. While Shostakovich certainly  has his ‘hits’, we have a broader knowledge of his work, enabling us to see these pieces in a wider context and thus to understand each individual work more deeply. Conversely Khachaturian is easier to ‘place’. His reputation as a composer of colourful, ‘ ethnically- tinged’ music which is not too agonised has played against him in a West which sometimes sees a direct relationship between a Soviet artist’s greatness and the degree of their suffering under the regime.

But for Khachaturian this may be changing; the complete ballets are being staged and recorded more in the West, and ASV’s series of recordings under Tjeknavorian (though uneven) held some revelations. These make up a large part of the soundtrack: symphonies and concertos, ballet suites, the Ode to Joy, the Ode in Memory of Lenin and the Dance Suite, film scores Pepo, Prisoner ( better translated and Girl or even Person) No. 217, Admiral Ushakov and Undying Flame, piano music and the Chanson-Poeme. There is also a generous selection of footage of the composer himself on the rostrum.

Hopefully this film will stir interest in the composer and help popularise these rarer works although, with an ironic sting in the tail, the credits run over the Adagio from Spartacus and in a postcredits sequence Khachaturian himself bashes out the Sabre Dance on the piano. His spiritual self-portrait, and the piece for which he is best known.

John Riley

African Dance: Sand, Drum and Shostakovich
A documentary by Ken Glazebrook and Alla Kovgan, 2002.

Kinodance. VHS videocassette (NTSC only). 70 min.
Available from Documentary Educational Resources, 101 Morse Street, Watertown, MA02472, USA; 1-800-569-6621 or +1-617-926-0491.

This documentary presents eight modern African dance companies that participated in the 1999 Montreal Festival International de Nouvelle Danse. But for its intriguing title, it would have escaped the attention of the DSCH Journal. Indeed, given that any Shostakovich content is restricted to the eighth segment of the film, director Ken Glazebrook was asked why the composer’s name features so prominently in the title.

Sand and drum are obvious but Shostakovich adds an element of mystery maybe, the meaning of which only becomes apparent at the end. Some people have asked what Shostakovich has to do with it and I’ve said they will find out when they watch it.”

21_AfricanBefore the Shostakovich connection is revealed in the final dance, the viewer is treated to excerpts of seven widely divergent numbers that depart radically from traditional African dance. While one could argue that divorcing African dance from its social context and presenting it onstage is inauthentic, this criticism does not apply to the work of these avant-garde companies. As described in the accompanying interviews, their productions explore decidedly contemporary themes, such as feminism, the relationship between tradition and modernity, and alienation of the individual. The companies hail from Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Mali, Cape Verde, Congo, South Africa and Senegal, but they are permeable to global culture, and several of their dancers have trained and worked in Europe or North America. Nevertheless, their kinetic range and fluidity remain unmistakably African.

Shostakovich is not the only European to contribute to the dance production Le Coq Est Mort (The Cockerel is Dead). The dance is performed by Jant-Bi, a company that emerged from the International Centre for Traditional and Contemporary African Dances in Senegal. Jant-Bi’s Senegalese artistic director, Germaine Acogny, founded the Centre to protect the roots of African dance while providing a place for choreographic training and exchanges between Africa, its Diaspora and the wider world. Acogny invited German choreographer Susanne Linke to create a piece for Jant-Bi, and with the collaboration of Israeli choreographer and dancer Avi Kaiser, Le Coq Est Mort is the result.

Without the interpolated interviews, it would be impossible to interpret the nine and a half minutes excerpted from Le Coq Est Mort, a 70-minute-long production. According to Kaiser, the piece echoes the influence of nature on everyday life in Africa, recreating the heat and dust of Senegal with bright lights and sand. Linke adds that the cock in the title of this piece signifies both masculine energy and the Gallic cock of France. Its death symbolises Africa’s shaking off of colonialism.

Kaiser explains that music, particularly percussion, is part of daily activity in Africa, and as people who work in Europe, he and Linke thought that classical music could play a role in this piece, not for any intellectual meaning, but as sound to mate with the percussion.

“Maybe it sounds a little bit naïve, but we heard music of Shostakovich – a string quartet – and it fitted totally like Shostakovich somehow went quite naturally in the sand. And for the African people it was wonderful; they heard this music, they had no problem.”

And indeed, Shostakovich does not seem at all out of place here. In the first excerpt, eight men in dark Western business suits swagger across a stage covered in sand, accompanied by raucous metallic percussion. One dancer leaves to return with a tray of wine glasses; his entry is heralded by the first 19 bars of the Allegretto of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet. A pregnant silence ensues, during which the men wordlessly toast each other, then the audience (evoking a wave of chuckles). In the next episode, the former waiter enacts a robotic dance in which he gleefully stacks suitcases, obviously laden with money. His jerky motions are mated to a frenetic soundtrack by ambient instrumental composer Etienne Schwarcz. After this, we see all eight men, now topless, alternately writhing in the sand and jumping, kicking up dust, to the bone-dry, dissonant opening strains of the Recitative of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 11. The menacing Allegro molto of String Quartet No. 8 crashes in as the men continue to dance violently. Percussion and human cries interject as the music plays. Shostakovich does not appear in the final scene, in which the dancers, now devolved into apes (apparently to imply that the macho businessman is not far removed from chest-beating simians), are cut down by machine gun fire.

Without question, this is one of the most unusual uses to which Shostakovich’s work has ever been adapted. Its appearance in the documentary is probably too brief to warrant acquiring the film if you do not also have a strong interest in modern dance or African culture. If you do, however, the documentary as a whole should be appealing, especially since the cinematography is of high quality.

W. Mark Roberts