Nijinsky opens ‘Rite of Spring’ at Drury Lane, London

DSCN7240 DSCN7248Isn’t it the way? What the French called scandalous barely caused the Brits to wiggle and waggle their stiff upper lips. We are talking about Vaclav Nijinsky’s famous, legendary, incendiary, monumental ballet choreographed to Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary and seminal 20th-century music – The Rite of Spring. Everybody and their uncle knows of the “riot” that occurred opening night in Paris on May 29, 1913. Whether or not there really was a riot is a different story, and it has been told many a time from many an angle.
Lydia Sokolova, one of the dancers on the stage that night, said the audience came prepared,” the BBC reports. ‘They had got themselves all ready. They didn’t even let the music be played for the overture. As soon as it was known that the conductor was there, the uproar began,’ she said in an interview recorded in 1965.”
Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes, which put on the performance, is said to have been hankering for a scandal. What impresario isn’t? The BBC again: “‘He knew there was going to be trouble,’ said Lydia Sokolova, and there are some signs that he was hoping for a scandal. Announcing the Rite of Spring in the Parisian press, Diaghilev had suggested it would cause ‘impassioned debate.’ In so doing, Esteban Buch suggests, he was setting the scene ‘for maybe not a riot, but at least a controversy.’ He certainly got one.”
Stravinsky is on record as having said that the storm only broke after the overture, “when the curtain opened on the group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down.”
According to a piece in The Arts Desk, “the newspapers dubbed it ‘Le Massacre du printemps.’ Diaghilev’s satisfied comment was, ‘Exactly what I wanted.’”
Whether or not 40 people were arrested that night will probably remain a point of contention at least until someone decides to research the police records for that night in the Champs Elysees precinct.
But let’s now leave Paris to Paris, for today, in fact, we wander the streets of the City of Westminster, where, a month later, the scandalous Rite of Spring was offered to the judgment of London’s theatergoers at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Following the six-day run in Paris in May-June 1913, the four-day London run opened July 11.
Today the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, like so many London houses, hosts one of those abominable, endlessly-running musicals. In this case, it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, about which we couldn’t possibly care less. Do your best, when perusing the photos, to blot the Charlie marquees out in your mind. It will be easier, and more pleasant, to imagine Diaghilev, Sokolova, Nijinsky and company perhaps nervously arriving at the theater and furtively entering by way of the stage door on Russell Street. Imagine crowds of excited ticket holders gathering outside the front of the theater, waiting for the doors to open so that they could take their seats and get a glimpse for themselves of this dastardly ballet…

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Except that it appears London didn’t see anything dastardly at all. Here, as quoted in a book called Confronting Stravinsky: Man, Musician and Modernist, is what Henry Cope Colles, the music critic for The Times of London, had to say:
The functions of the composer and the producer are so balanced that it is possible to see every movement on the stage and at the same time to hear every note of the music. But the fusion goes deeper than this. The combination of the two elements of music and dancing does actually produce a new compound result, expressible in terms of rhythm – much as the combination of oxygen and hydrogen produces a totally different compound, water.”
Damn! “Balanced!” “Fusion!” “New compound result!”
Where are the flying tomatoes? The razzes? The fights and the arrests?
I would like to point out, by the way, that this review appeared in the Times the next morning after the London premiere. That is, Colles winged this – he hurried from the theater to wherever he was wont to write, and he filed this story on short deadline in order to make the morning’s papers. And look at that clarity of thought, the insight, the ability to make sense of what we now know was something absolutely, entirely new. Folks, I’m impressed. My hat’s off to Henry Cope Colles, my new hero.
On the occasion of the work’s 100th anniversary in 2013, James S. Murphy, seeking to debunk the old tale about a riotous premiere, discussed the London premiere  in the Paris Review:
When the Times of London reviewed the British premier (sic), it declared in the first sentence, ‘London takes both its pleasures and its pains more quietly than Paris.’ The review notes that ‘the applause was measured, but so were the cries of disapproval.’ The Rite went off without any major incident, as it had done in the four subsequent performances in Paris after the premiere. This is worth remembering, particularly since the anniversary has provided the occasion for several critics to indulge a nostalgia for the good old days of repression, when art could still shock. An essay in the New York Times this year by the eminent Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin captured this consternation perfectly in its headline: ‘Shocker Cools into a Rite of Passage.’ While several people have pointed to Walt Disney’s cooptation of Stravinsky’s music for Fantasia in 1940 as the moment when the work officially lost its edge, reports on the subsequent performances in Paris and the reviews of the London premiere show that it did not take three decades—or even three years—for audiences to see past the shock and find the beauty in The Rite. It took a few weeks.
Murphy goes on:
“…The extent to which this [Paris first-night] disturbance counts as a riot really is beside the point, as is the question of what actually happened that night. What matters most is that whatever it was, it never happened again. Not once. Some small disturbances were reported at the second performance four days later, but nothing of note occurred at the final two performances of the ballet in Paris. A report on the third performance in London speculated that the English audience ‘is either surprisingly quick or surprisingly careless in accommodating ourselves to new forms of art. The first performance of [The Rite] evoked something like a hostile demonstration from a section of the audience. The third and last performance [my understanding is that there were four] was received with scarcely a sign of opposition.’ That the scandal of France could be accommodated so quickly by an English audience bewildered the reviewer and has continues (sic) to bedevil many lovers of the work.”
Fascinating stuff, I say. If you’re interested in the reasons for, and the background of, this story, start your search with the sources I have quoted. There is good information to be had. But my purpose is not to dot the last “i” in this tale, but rather, simply, to take the time to walk around the walls of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and to take the time to think about what it might have been like that opening night in London in the summer of 1913. How might it have felt, how might it have looked and sounded. Apart from the vile Charlie marquees (and that moronic quote of some critic who shall never deserve to share his profession with H.C. Colles [“Dazzling Charlie is Choc-Full of Delights!!!!!!!”]) this structure affords us a nice opportunity to do that. It appears to have changed little in the 100+ years since Nijinsky, Diaghilev and Stravinsky stormed into London to play The Right of Spring.
One more tidbit: The four London performances were the last ever of the original Nijinsky choreography. Shortly thereafter, Nijinsky ran off and married Romola de Pulszky, infuriating, and breaking the heart of, Diaghilev beyond measure. As such, this theater here marks the end of the “scandalous” first performances of The Rite of Spring, as well as the end of the storied collaboration between Diaghilev and Nijinsky.

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Dostoevsky at Haymarket, London

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I have a soft spot for things that are that aren’t. To wit, Fyodor Dostoevsky and the Haymarket district in London. Whatever Dostoevsky saw here in the first half of July, 1862, is gone, utterly gone, now. Here is a little of what he writes in his essay, “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions”:
Anyone who has been to London has probably visited Haymarket at least once at night. This is a district, where, at night, thousands of prostitutes crowd around on a few streets. The streets are illuminated by gas streams, of which we [Russians] have no conception. Fine coffee houses decked with mirrors and gold are to be found at every step. There are mobs here and there are havens. It’s even rather frightening to enter this mob. And it is strangely composed. There are old woman and there are beauties who will stop you in your tracks. Nowhere in the world is there such a beautiful type of woman as the Englishwoman. Everyone here pushes through these dense, crowded streets with difficulty. The crowd cannot be contained on sidewalks, and it spills over into the street. This mob hungers for spoils and throws itself at the first comer with shameless cynicism. Here you will see shiny and expensive clothes, tattered rags, and a sharp difference in ages, all jumbled together. The drunken tramp and the privileged rich man both come here and tromp through this horrible mob. You can hear the din of curses, quarreling, solicitations and the quiet whisper of the still-timid beauty. And sometimes what a beauty it is! Truly keepsake faces [Dostoevsky writes the word “keepsake” in Cyrillic in his Russian text]. I recall going into a casino one time. Music blared, people danced, there was an abyss of humanity crammed in there. The decoration was magnificent. But the grim nature of the British never leaves them even when they are enjoying themselves: they are serious, even gloomy, as they dance, as if each step they dance is done so out of obligation…”
I can’t help but point to the phrase, “I recall going into a casino one time.” The implication is that Dostoevsky came here more than once, although he was in London just for eight days, having arrived in the city July 9, 1862. The place obviously made an impression on him, a very strong one, whether good or bad. It is often written that Dostoevsky was horrified by Haymarket, by the goings-on there, and by London in general. And it is clear from this text that some things did horrify him. But it is just as clear that he was thrilled by much as well – not the least of which was female beauty. He also seemed well capable of admiring finely-appointed interiors, whether it be coffee houses or dance halls. Of course, let us not forget that beauty, particularly female beauty, was a test for Dostoevsky, or, at least, for some of his most complex characters. Which leads me to quote this little bit from Sarah J. Young’s nice blog on the topic of Dostoevsky in London: “[Dostoevsky] seems more sorrowful than shocked at the sight of ‘mothers who were bringing their young daughters into the business [of prostitution]. Little girls around twelve years of age take you by the hand and ask you to go with them’. Prostitution becomes a significant theme in the works Dostoevsky wrote in the next few years, in particular Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, and it seems quite likely that what he had seen at the Haymarket had some influence on that.”
One is intrigued (or amused) at Dostoevsky’s declaration that he heard the “din of curses” on the streets of Haymarket, when, as Kyril FitzLyon writes in the introduction to his translation of “Winter Notes,” the great Russian writer did not know English. “It is clear, of course,” the scholar writes, “that Dostoevsky did not form his impressions of England unaided. A week’s stay in London could not have either supplied him with the necessary material or given him a sufficient insight into the British character, particularly as he knew no English. (He admits to his ignorance of the language in one passage of the book, yet in another he claims to base certain of his conclusions on English newspaper reports.)
Then there is Dostoevsky’s curious use of the English “keepsake” in reference to unforgettably beautiful English women. This sounds like one of those instances of a writer picking up a local word somewhere, understanding it as best he could, and sticking it into a piece of his prose in order to give it a feel of authenticity. I’m not criticizing him for doing it, I like the phrase. But I do think it is another small detail that suggests Dostoevsky was out of place as he wandered the streets of London.

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Young also talks about two other locations that Dostoevsky probably visited – Whitechapel and the famous Crystal Palace (which makes a substantial appearance in Notes from Underground). The Crystal Palace was a “futuristic” structure of iron and glass built in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and moved in 1854 to Sydenham Hill, which is where Dostoevsky would have encountered it. (Pyotr Tchaikovsky was also a visitor.) “The Crystal Palace epitomizes the ‘proud and dismal spirit’ (p. 42) of materialism, and Dostoevsky perceives this same spirit in the two other places he describes: the Haymarket and Whitechapel,” writes Young. I briefly bring the Crystal Palace into this discussion because of a wonderful bit of serendipity that visited me when I, myself, was in the Haymarket district. I happened to look up and see that a bus passing me by was headed for, of all places, the Crystal Palace neighborhood, which is where the relocated Crystal Palace stood until it burned down in 1936. (See first photo immediately following.) In a place that, as I say, has very little left to connect a visitor to what Dostoevsky would have encountered, this provided an extra little tweak of connection. If you’re interested in more about Dostoevsky and the Crystal Palace, I suggest you see another of Sarah J. Young’s blogs on that precise topic.
Some of the buildings represented in my photos would probably have been standing when Dostoevsky was there. Take a look at the top photo above, for example. That lion with frame (with plaque missing) below the word “Haymarket” surely would have been witnesses to the venerable, surely dazzled, if not befuddled, Dostoevsky making his rounds here. There are still coffee shops and cafes here, which, while having absolutely nothing to do with anything that would have been here 150 years ago, do indicate that the tradition of informal eateries in this location remains.
I almost chose not to come here and photograph because my advance research suggested so unequivocally that today’s Haymarket and the Haymarket of the 1860s are virtually two different places. Fortunately, however, I overcame my instinct to save myself the time and labor. In part because of the almost magical Crystal Palace bus, in part because of the few walls and decorations that surely remain from that time, and in part because of the way that places and our thoughts about them are capable of acquiring unexpected meaning and substance, this turned out to be a memorable visit. Dostoevsky is long gone from this place. But in some intangible way I brought him back with my thoughts, jumbled and vague as they were. It was a genuine encounter.

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Tchaikovsky and the Dieudonne Hotel, London

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This moderately attractive brick structure in  in the City of Westminster, London, is presently the home of Christie’s auction house. It used to be, however, a French-run hotel called the Dieudonné (the God-Given, no less), and this is where, according to a letter Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote to the London-based Russian singer Alexandra Svyatlovskaya on April 13,  1893,  the great composer “usually” stayed when in London. Here is what he wrote specifically: “I usually stop in London at the Hotel Dieudonné somewhere near St. James Hall, although I simply can’t remember the street.” We can tell you it was Ryder Street and that the address was No. 9. Actually, another letter written a month or so later throws some confusion into things, but it would appear that it is a matter of the composer’s confusion. In any case, Tchaikovsky wrote to his friend and confidant, the pianist Alexander Ziloti that he was staying at the Dieudonné and gave the address as “Redgent Street.” To my knowledge there is only, and has only been, a “Regent” Street in London. And, in any case, all sources provide Ryder Street as the location of the Dieudonné. I think we can conclude that Tchaikovsky, although a flawless master of musical notes, was less than flawless when it came to other manners of signs and markers. One of the reasons why Tchaikovsky seemed unable to properly remember the address of his favorite hotel might have been that he, apparently, did not think much of London. In that same letter to Ziloti, he wrote, “I travel to London and Cambridge with uncommon aversion.” (Please note that the English translation that Wikipedia offers of this sentence is incorrect.) A brief check of various contradictory – as usual – sources indicates that Tchaikovsky stayed here at least in 1888 and 1893. He may have stayed here one other time as well.
Peter Gordon’s book Musical Visitors to Britain has the following to say about Tchaikovsky’s 1888 sojourn:
He left Paris in a snowstorm on 19 April 1888 for the Channel Crossing from Calais and boasted that he was the only passenger who was not sea-sick. For his five-day stay in London, Tchaikovsky chose the luxurious Hotel Dieudonné in Ryder St., off Piccadilly,  and within walking distance of the St. James Hall where he was to conduct. The two rehearsals had proved to be difficult, partly because of language problems, as Tchaikovsky spoke little English, and partly due to his less than perfect conducting technique… He wrote to his brother Modest two days later: ‘The concert was a brilliant success.’ He was called back three times after performing the Serenade, and London audiences acknowledged the presence of a gifted musician in their midst.”
Gordon offers up several quotes reminding us of the low esteem in which Tchaikovsky held London. On May 29, 1893, he wrote to his nephew of once again being in “this quite horrible city” where he could “never find anything” – “no men’s lavatories, no money exchange offices; it was with difficulty that I found a hat to fit my head.” Gordon also quotes a long letter that Tchaikovsky wrote describing the unrelenting, nasty fog that made him feel as if he were “sitting in a dismal underground dungeon.”
“Even without the fog, I find London very antipathetic,” Gordon quotes him as writing.

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David Brown’s Tchaikovsky: The Man and his Music tells a similar story about the composer’s 1888 stay in London, concluding with this: “In London he had been spared the social round that had been forced on him in France, but instead found himself often bored, and London itself cheerless.” This is despite the fact that the promoters who had brought Tchaikovsky to London were so pleased with the results that they voluntarily increased the agreed-upon honorarium from £20 to £25. Writes Brown: “Though [Tchaikovsky] had conducted in only one concert, he would find that his popularity had become greater in Britain than in any other foreign country than the United States.”
The importance of Tchaikovsky’s personal presence in London to his international reputation is borne out in Gareth James Thomas’s PhD dissertation, The Impact of Russian Music in England, 1893-1929. Thomas writes:
“The first Russian composer to enter the broader English public’s consciousness was Tchaikovsky but the appreciation of his music was initially hampered by the somewhat sporadic presentation of each new work. The first major work to be heard in England was the First Piano Concerto (1874-75) in 1876, to be followed by the fantasy overture Romeo & Juliet (1869-70) and the Violin Concerto (1878) presented to London on 4 November 1876 and 8 May 1882 respectively, but neither appears to have attracted much attention. The publication of a number of piano pieces in 1883 (including Chant sans paroles Op. 2 No. 3, the first in England) and in July 1886 the 12 Morceaux Op. 40 and his most famous song, None but the lonely heart (Op. 6 No. 6), no doubt marked Tchaikovsky’s entrance into the wider conscience of the English musical public and by the end of the decade a nascent interest in his music is apparent, to which the Philharmonic Society responded by inviting Tchaikovsky to London. On 22 March 1888 Tchaikovsky made his first professional visit to London to conduct a concert at the Philharmonic Society. Despite his questionable celebrity his music was an immediate success with audience and musicians alike. The new works presented were the Serenade for Strings (1880) and the Theme and Variations Finale from the Third Suite (1884). Tchaikovsky’s rise was regarded alongside the more general interest that had developed in Slavonic music, as Joseph Bennett observed: ‘Nothing in the musical world is more interesting than the achievements and promise of the Sclavonic [sic] peoples, who only within a recent period have attracted notice to themselves in any special degree. That they are now closely watched by amateurs of thoughtful and far-seeing minds is due to the appearance among them of unusual talent, and to the steady manner in which Sclavonic compositions are making progress.'”
It was in and around these walls at Ryder Street that Tchaikovsky took significant steps in making the transition from obscure foreign visitor in London to one of the most popular composers of his, or any other, age.

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Alexander Pushkin at Nashchokin’s, Moscow

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I have so many photographs of plaques and busts and monuments of Alexander Pushkin’s presence in Russia that I could almost – almost – get away with doing a blog devoted just to him. This location today has two plaques commemorating the fact that Alex used to hang out here with his friend Pavel Nashchokin in 1831-32.  Actually one plaque (see above) declares what I have just stated; a second, the more generic kind of plaque (that you see immediately below) claims that Pushkin “lived here with his friend P.V. Nashchokin” in 1831. The two apparently made an excellent pair. Pushkin “loved life,” as the saying goes, and Nashchokin appears to have loved it no less. When his mother died she left all her considerable properties to Pavel’s older brother and sister because she knew her youngest son would squander it in no time. Here is what one  Russian history  website writes about Pavel Nashchokin: “Nashchokin was a cheerful, extravagant, reckless man who was quick to lend money and quick to forget to demand payment of the debt, never abandoned the homeless and unsettled, was a peacemaker who shared the last coin he had. He would become fabulously rich, winning cards or receiving an unexpected inheritance, after which he would throw Lucullean feasts for his friends…” The obvious next step of that phrase is he could just as easily lose everything he had. He was up to his neck in debt within months of his mother’s death in 1828.
In the early 1830s Nashchokin moved often, residing at five different addresses in the first half of the decade. It’s a boon for Pushkin fans, for it assured us a spate of plaques going up a few hundred years later to commemorate all these meeting places.
The structure we peruse today is 4/2 at the corner of Gagarinsky Lane and Nashchokin Lane. It’s a lovely early 19th-century building, one of those low, two-story, stand-alone buildings, painted in that powdery yellow I so love (the photos here distort it some, itlooks duller than in real life). I have no idea what color it was 185 years ago, of course.
The same site I quoted earlier adds this lovely tidbit about Pushkin coming into Moscow from his home in St. Petersburg and telling cabbies to take him to Nashchokin’s: “When he was in Moscow, Pushkin always stayed with Voinych [that was Nashchokin’s patronymic]. He was always as amused as a child when the cabbies would faultlessly find the road to the home of his friend who often changed apartments.”
In other words, of course, Nashchokin’s was a place many a cabbie had driven to.
Russian Wikipedia tells us that by 1831, Nashchokin had two children, a boy and a girl, by a Gypsy singer whose name was Olga Soldatova. Pushkin became the girl’s God father, just as Nashchokin was God father to Pushkin’s first son, Alexander. Pushkin asked Pavel to be God father to his second son, but Nashchokin was ill at the time and could not make the trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

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Pushkin (1799-1837) and Nashchokin (1801-1854) first met when the two were kids at the Tsarskoe Selo college in 1814-15. Nashchokin spent time as an officer in the Tsar’s army, but retired for “domestic reasons” in 1823 at the age of 22. The two grew close after Pushkin spent time in exile after the Decembrist Uprising in 1825. Nashchokin never did anything that would have caused anyone other than direct descendants to remember him, but his friendship with Pushkin made him something of a folk figure, and even a relatively frequent object of serious study. It is the reality of Pushkin in Russia that anything or anyone he ever touched or even cast an eye on became an object of considerable historical interest. The Pushkin scholar Mikhail Gershenzon wrote a 70-page essay in 1912 entitled “Pushkin’s Friend Nashchokin,” which considers not only the retired officer’s relationship with Pushkin, but also with Nikolai Gogol. Be forewarned: This is what happens when you hang out with a famous person and then a scholar comes along to comment:
Nashchokin interests Pushkin clearly for his purely artistic features: the attractive expressiveness of his personality and life,
the harmonic play between his relatively large spiritual powers and his typical love of domestic life. Pushkin primarily admires Nashchokin unselfishly as a luxurious object of attention, then studies him, reflecting on the mechanics of this phenomenon, seeking in his actions general psychological and historical laws. It is impossible to deny that Gogol, too, was attracted by Nashchokin’s picturesque qualities; but he [Gogol] consciously neglects this aspect of the matter and hastens to transform this vivid image, which Pushkin appreciated as a poetic jewel, into an instrument of practical use, a tool for the structuring of society. Pushkin could be fascinated by Nashchokin for the very process of his turbulent emotions, whether full of drama or typically common; for Gogol his manifestations of sinfulness and social malignancy were repulsive...”
Gershenzon notwithstanding, Nashchokin, during his life, was one of the liveliest figures, not an object of study, at the center of Russian cultural life. Aside from Pushkin, the crown jewel, to be sure, Nashchokin counted among his friends the poets Vasily Zhukovsky, Yevgeny Baratynsky, Denis Davydov, Nikolai Yazykov, the novelist Mikhail Zagoskin, the philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev, the painters Karl Bryullov and Vasily Tropinin, the composer Alexei Verstovsky, the actor Mikhail Shchepkin and the critic Vissarion Belinsky.
Belinsky called Nashchokin “a kind and splendid person.”

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Alexander Timofeevsky home, Moscow

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I am pleased to be able to say this right off the bat: Alexander Timofeevsky is one of my small household’s best friends. That happened thanks to another great friend of ours, the poet and playwright Viktor Korkia. My wife Oksana Mysina staged a couple of Vitya’s plays (Quixote and Sancho, and Ariston), and Vitya invited his friend Alexander to one of them. Sasha, as we have known him ever since, hung around for an after-party – it was Oksana’s birthday – and he almost immediately began doing one of the things he is famous for: spouting off impromptu poems.
Sasha is something like the Improviser in Pushkin’s “The Egyptian Nights,” he unloads pithy, funny, and/or meaningful short poems on the spot. He may declare he is ready to improvise something, or someone may egg him on – “Come on, Sasha! Give us a poem!” – and he will respond. People know this about him, so there is always at least one person hanging around with pencil and paper at the ready. There are hundreds of Timofeevsky poems out there that continue to exist beyond the moment of their generation thanks entirely to prepared fans. Sasha himself, though he’s happy to date and autograph scraps of paper in order to authenticate them, makes no effort to preserve these impromptu pearls. We have six such scraps of paper lodged in between the pages of Timofeevsky’s books. One of them Oksana jotted down immediately after Timofeevsky unloaded a quatrain on her over the telephone:

On a Whitsunday week
We once shared a popover
Since then you’ve gone batty:
You now love another!

These things are fine around here. Here’s another Sasha wrote on Dec. 4, 2011:

Oksana, dear Oksana,
I’m Cyrano, you’re Roxanna!
Cupid’s arrow took me down,
I don’t even see that you’re with John!

Timofeevsky’s reputation as a wit runs long and deep. For many years when he was unable to publish his serious poetry he made a living writing humorous poems and songs for popular Soviet cartoons. His biggest “claim to fame” (and please note that that is in quotation marks) is a song that virtually every single Russian knows. Literally, every single Russian. Because this is a ditty that has turned into Russia’s birthday song. We in the U.S. sing “Happy Birthday” (Russians do too on occasion), but the song everybody knows in Russian starts with the words,

So what if pedestrians run plopping through puddles?
And water swarms over the road like a sea?
And nobody knows why, in this wacky weather,
I am as happy as I can possibly be?

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But, okay, we’ve had our fun. And, as you might imagine, the whole fame thing associated with the birthday song is rather like a fish bone gone sideways in Timofeevsky’s throat. The fact of the matter is that this man, born in Moscow in 1933, is one of the finest poets of his age. It just took a very long time for others to make that distinction. What happened is that some of Timofeevsky’s poetry appeared in the infamous samizdat miscellany Sintaksis in 1959/60. From there on, Timofeevsky was one of those awful Soviet beasts – the unpublished and unpublishable poet. For the next 30+ years, he wrote “for the desk drawer,” as the Soviet-era saying goes. He would write a poem and file it in his desk, perhaps showing it to a few friends, but rarely more than that. It was not until 1992 that Timofeevsky, then 59 years old, published his first slim collection called To Wintering Birds. His first relatively large collection, Song for the Mournful of Soul, was published in 1998, while his second, bearing the honest and wry title of The Too-Late Shooter, came out in 2003, timed to coincide with his 70th birthday.
These and many other collections that have appeared since are modest in volume, and rich in quality. Arguably, Timofeevsky’s most prodigious achievement to date is his long narrative poem, Tramcar No. 37. It is a sweeping, subtle, fragmentary, yet fully coherent, look at the Russia we live in today as it emerged from the Russia of yesterday. The tramcar number is a clear reference to the fateful year in Soviet history of 1937, one of the bloodiest in all of Russia’s many such years. I quoted a tiny excerpt from the poem in another blog last year, but I see no reason not to repeat that here. These two poetic phrases are, for me, the perfect picture of the Russia I now live in:

Russia was pilfered by aliens.
In five minutes they beamed her up,
Squashed her down, and stuck her in a trunk.
Meanwhile, as you and I were busy dreaming,
Somebody replaced her with a counterfeit.

Just for fun, I pulled out, almost at random, a poem published in the collection Answer of a Roman Friend (2011). It is called “Es War einmal ein Konig” and it is dated as having been written between the years of 1990 and 2010.

Once upon a time there lived a king.
A royal jester,
A minister and a guard
All once lived here too.
They did so pointlessly and senselessly
Just one time only.
I, too, lived here, though not for long,
Faster than an eye can blink.
Es war einmal ein Konig
Es war einmal and I…
German captures well
The instantaneousness of being –
Not much, not half of it,
Just one brief flash in time.
You’d like it to last longer?
You must be crazy, then!

Today while thinking about Sasha we have offered up a few photos of the home in which he lives near the Arbat. The address is 3/5 Bolshoi Lyovshinsky Lane. If you’re interested in reading a little more about him, you can go to a blog I wrote for The Moscow Times about one of his poetry recitals in 2014.

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Marina Tsvetaeva statue, Moscow

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Monuments and statues are often a compromise. By which I mean to say that we, as consumers of them, end up making compromises in order to live with them. The ideal, of course, is the brilliant work that you not only embrace, but are thrilled to encounter. Something that continues to inspire you long after you have walked away from it. I would argue that Leonty Usov’s monument to Anton Chekhov in Tomsk is one of those – a model for what a genuine monument is all about. (Keep in mind that many wanted Usov’s head for what he did to Chekhov, but this is my space here, not theirs. If you’re interested in what I’m talking about, look to your left and click either on the name Leonty Usov or Anton Chekhov.) The absolute nadir is the monument that you just cannot bring yourself to look at . Or, one that is so banal that you really don’t care if you look at it or not – it really doesn’t exist in your line of sight. (I guess I’d put Yury Dines’s statue of Pushkin in that category – again, find Dines on this site to see what I mean.)
Today we’re dealing with something in between. Call it a victory (the word ‘triumph’ would be too strong) of compromise. This is a statue of Marina Tsvetaeva created by Nina Matveeva for a small square next to 9 Borisoglebsky Lane in the general Arbat region of Moscow. It was unveiled Oct. 8, 2007, on the 115th anniversary of the poet’s birth. It stands directly across from the home in which Tsevetaeva lived at 6 Borisoglebsky Lane from 1914 to 1922. That home is now the Tsvetaeva Museum, and is an active cultural center which hosts, poetry readings, art exhibits and concerts. More about that another time.

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The truth of the matter is that you are most likely to be disappointed when you encounter this likeness of Tsvetaeva. It’s not bad or off-putting in any way – it just… it just has something missing. It’s a big enough work in a relatively small city space, but it has no sense of volume or presence. The little square itself is rather haphazardly done, leaving the impression that maybe someone will come along some day and improve the environs. Or maybe the sculpture will be buried in the context of a redesigned square. That could happen, too.
The image of the poet pining while lost in her private thoughts, half-defending herself from our gaze with both of her hands, seems dismayingly cliched. Tsvetaeva had plenty of reasons to give herself over to melancholy. But as a poet she was muscular, bold and inventive. The words ‘cliche’ and ‘Tsvetaeva’ cannot possibly be used in the same phrase unless it is one like this – one that proclaims the impossibility of those notions standing side by side. As interesting and as compelling as Tsvetaeva’s difficulties may have been – she ultimately committed suicide at the age of 49 in 1941 – it is her extraordinary writing that makes her one of the leading figures of Russian literature of any era.
I don’t see any hints of the extraordinary in this sculpture. You get the draped clothing (although this can be justified historically, there was a period when Tsvetaeva was partial to floor-length dresses), that allows the sculptor not to have to create any complex detail. You get the pillar that just happens to be standing there, thus justifying the awkward positions of the arms. But most importantly, I find no passion, no real point of view in this work. It feels like the sculptor didn’t really care. There’s no humor, there’s no irony, there’s no attachment, there’s no pain; there’s virtually nothing that suggests we ought to care about the person depicted here, or that the person sculpting her cared.
The sculpture has a mute, vague resemblance to Tsvetaeva’s face, although I see this rendition as more generic than well-sculpted. The hair seems to get it right, that kind of pageboy cut was a style Tsvetaeva came back to often enough. The hair, which is a prominent aspect of this sculpture, is sufficient to tell us this is Tsvetaeva, but it is hardly enough to make us fall in love with Matveeva’s work.
As I have said, the predominant feeling one has is disappointment. You experience joy the first moment you realize you have come upon Tsvetaeva, but your excitement is quickly deflated when you realize that no real encounter has taken place.

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Tamara Toumanova grave site, Los Angeles

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I’m tempted to just quote Jack Anderson’s New York Times May 31, 1996, obituary for Tamara Toumanova (1919-1996) in full. I won’t. But I’m sorely tempted. It’s chock full of the kind of information I love. Let me provide some snippets:
Tamara Toumanova, a child-prodigy ballerina of the 1930’s who became familiar to American audiences as one of the most glamorous stars of 20th-century dance, died on Wednesday at the Santa Monica Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. She was 77 and lived in Beverly Hills…
“By the time she was 13, Miss Toumanova was internationally acclaimed as one of the three so-called baby ballerinas of Col. W. de Basil’s Ballets Russes. She and two other phenomenally gifted daughters of Russian emigres — Irina Baronova and Tatiana Riabouchinska — were discovered in Parisian ballet studios by George Balanchine…
“Adoring fans nicknamed Miss Toumanova ‘the black pearl of the Russian ballet.’ Even as a teen-ager, her beauty was as remarkable as her technique…
“A founding member of the de Basil Ballets Russes in 1932, Miss Toumanova inspired two of this century’s greatest choreographers. She created roles in Balanchine’s Cotillon and Concurrence and in Leonide Massine’s Jeux d’Enfants with the company…
“Miss Toumanova was born on March 2, 1919, in a boxcar in Siberia. She was the daughter of a czarist army colonel and his wife, who were fleeing the Bolsheviks. The couple settled in Paris, where their daughter became a pupil of Olga Preobrajenska, a Russian-born teacher…
And on it goes. Wow. Born in a train car in Siberia (just outside the city of Tyumen, for those who like details), fleeing revolution… Does that sound iconic, or what? With a beginning like that, Toumanova simply had to become a Hollywood star. Hollywood exists to capitalize precisely on such extraordinary biographies.
I mean, look at this little story that Wikipedia carries:
In 1936, while Toumanova was performing ballet in Chicago, an 18-year-old boy named Burr Tillstrom came to see her perform. Following the ballet, Burr went backstage to meet her. As they talked, Toumanova and Tillstrom became friends. Some time later, Tillstrom showed her a favorite puppet he had made and she, surprised by his revelation, exclaimed, “Kukla” (Russian for ‘puppet’). Burr Tillstrom went on to create a very early (1947) television show for children, titled, Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
Now, how many of us who grew up watching Kukla, Fran and Ollie had any idea that Kukla was a Russian word (I only made the connection just now, having read this blurb) and that it had been suggested by the great Toumanova, who was all of 17 at that point?
She began studying with the great Preobrazhenskaya when she was still nearly an infant. She made her first memorable appearance at the grand age of six, chosen out of a group to perform by the great Anna Pavlova. She broke in with the world-class emigres Balanchine and Massine (Myasin, in its Russian form) when she was not yet a teenager (she was 12). Throughout the core of her career she dazzled audiences in Paris, London, New York, Monte Carlo, Milan, while touring to Central American, Canada, Spain and Cuba. She made her film debut in 1944 in a picture, Days of Glory, that featured Gregory Peck making his own debut. Through 1970 she played in five more films, always playing a dancer. Everything about Toumanova sounds like a fairy-tale.
Virtually nothing tied the dancer-actor to Russia itself. I don’t know how long she remained within Russian/Soviet borders after her birth, but it may have been only weeks, it may have been months. It doesn’t appear to have been a year. And yet, before she died, she donated what costumes she had in her possession to the Vaganova Choreographic Museum in St. Petersburg.

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Ethnically, Toumanova was her own personal melting pot. Or so it would seem. You can find references to her alleged Georgian, Armenian, Polish, Ukrainian and Russian roots. The name Toumanova derived from her mother’s maiden name, Tumanishivili, which is a prominent Georgian name. There have been several great Georgian directors with that name. I don’t know if there is a relation or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find there is. On the other hand, one of Toumanova’s best friends apparently claimed she did not have a drop of Georgian blood in her. Sounds rather impossible with such a name, but I don’t make up the news here, I just report it. Her father’s name is usually given as Vladimir Khassidovitch. In a semi-backstage editing-war report at Wikipedia, you can read the following, which indicates how difficult it is to determine Toumanova’s blood heritage: “…She is of Polish/Ukrainian and Georgian descent, not just Georgian (or Armenian), her father was Khazidowich-Boretski, a Pole from Ukraine. Secondly, Tamara herself, her mother and her family and friends have stated that her mother is Georgian. These are primary sources and should be taken as facts, the rest is speculation and rumours.” I will add, as someone else does elsewhere in the long, often contentious report, that the name Khassidovitch or Khazidowich, might also indicate Jewish connections.
Whatever the sources that went into the making of this extraordinary woman, they worked.  As the British ballet critic A.V. Coton is reported to have said, “she was the loveliest creature in the history of the ballet.”
Toumanova is buried next to her mother Yevgenia (Eugenie) Dmitrievna Toumanova, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. Eugenie was her daughter’s constant companion, manager, make-up woman, costume-lady and what-all throughout the younger woman’s career.
I will tell you that Toumanova’s grave is located at Section 8, Lot 111, grave 7 in the Garden of Legends section of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, although that will hardly help you find it. I walked back and forth on the little hillside overlooking an artificial pond, not far from Fyodor Ozep’s grave, for well over a half an hour before finding the site. I hate to say it, but all of those graves begin looking the same at a certain point. Most are not like the Johnny Ramone memorial (straight across the pond from Toumanova), with a cheap look-alike statue and a guitar. If you make the trek yourself, look out for Toumanova’s whispering cherub. That’s what will help you find her.

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Ivan Turgenev visiting place, London

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London gave me my Turgenev comeuppance. Awhile ago I wrote in this space that, for all my respect, Turgenev underwhelms me. Shortly after that I ran into him in Greece, which surprised and pleased me unexpectedly, and recently, when in London, I ran into him all over the place. I even found myself seeking him out. Not him, you obviously understand, but his traces, his places, his ghost. And there are many of those in London. Actually, there are many of them throughout England. I had no idea. How could I possibly have known that Turgenev spent time on the Isle of Wight over a century before Bob Dylan made his famous appearance there with The Band? Or, to be more exact and detailed, that Turgenev began writing his most famous novel, Fathers and Sons, a work that continues to define the Russian psyche today, while living in Ventnor on the south coast of the Isle of Wight? Well, I could have known, of course; you can know anything. And one day we may be able to know everything. I, personally, am not quite there, yet, however. So all this came as a surprise to me. And a pleasant one, at that.
I rather suspect that of all the great Russian writers, Turgenev would have been one of the easiest to sit down with and share a meal or a drink. Don’t you rather imagine Tolstoy or Dostoevsky taking a bite out of you? Each in their own way, of course! Tolstoy would do it without thinking or even noticing. He would be so preoccupied with himself at the time he would probably eat you whole. (Tolstoy once challenged Turgenev to a duel, you know… Turgenev winced and refused.) Dostoevsky would be conducting an experiment of some kind – either on himself or on you… He’d leave part of you unchewed to see what would happen. Or Gogol slinking around darkly and weirdly and then slinking out of the room without saying anything? Or Pushkin brightly playing games with you behind your back and over your head?
Anyway, Turgenev. Turgenev and London. Thanks to a very cool blog by Sarah J. Young, we have a lot of information about Turgenev’s many visits to London, the first coming in July 1847, the last occurring in Oct. 1881. He hung out with Russian emigres, most of them exiles for political reasons, and he hung out with the hoity-toity of literary London. Young writes, “Turgenev cultivated a wide circle of acquaintances among English writers and politicians. In 1857, he met Thomas Carlyle, Lord Macaulay, Benjamin Disraeli, William Thackeray and the philosopher William Whewell…”  One might have added, “in 1957 alone…” Turgenev was a jet-setter long before there were jets. He was all over the place, often chasing after the love of his life, the French opera singer Pauline Viardot (and her husband), but oftentimes not. He was easily the most mobile, cosmopolitan, travel-experienced Russian writer of the 19th century.

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The address we study today is 36 Onslow Square, South Kensington, although, technically speaking, there is no such address today. The numbers at doors of entrance jump from 32 to 38. I didn’t have much doubt that the colonnaded window right next to 38 was the place I was seeking. There is a similar unnumbered window where 34 would be, and then comes 32, with its door. As bad as I am at mathematics, I felt sure I was okay photographing this portal as an entrance that would have existed in the mid-19th century. But it’s one thing to have a good hunch and some good evidence, and it’s another to actually know. So when a mailman walked out of No. 38 I asked him if, indeed, this is where No. 36 would have been. Yes, he said, this building took direct hits during the Nazi bombings in WWII and, when it was reconstructed, the configurations inside, as well as the outside entrances, were redone entirely. They did not renumber anything, but simply omitted those numbers where there were no longer entrances. I didn’t even realize it until I got home, but I caught the mailman in one of my photos – that is he walking past the former No. 36 in the second photo immediately below.
Another reason I felt quite sure I had found my place is a plaque informing us of the fact that William Makepeace Thackeray lived here from 1854 to 1862 (I have seen other dates for his residence, including 1853 to 1861, and 1860 for the end date). The plaque hangs down low, just to the left of the former entrance (see photo immediately below). Here is what Young writes about this address: “…on 9th May [1858], [Turgenev] visited Thackeray at his home at 36 Onslow Square, South Kensington (another address to which he would become a regular visitor), where we have the tantalizing prospect that he may have met Dickens. Thackeray’s diary states that they both called on that date, but there is no information about whether the visits coincided.”
To get a bit of a glimpse of what the property might have looked like when Turgenev was here, you can go to the Victorian Web site, which has a sketch of the building from 1913. Obviously at this time the square was still open to the public. These days it is fenced off and there is no public access.
I have no idea how close Turgenev was to Thackeray. In a link to Leonard Schapiro’s Ivan Turgenev: His Life and Times, the internet coughs up a phrase suggesting that Turgenev “did not much like” Thackeray, but Google will not open that particular page for me, so, until I get around to buying the book for myself, I can’t be sure of what Schapiro actually wrote. I do find the following quote from Alexander Melikhov in Russia Behind the Headlines: when Turgenev told Thackeray that the Russians had a writer named Gogol who was every bit as good as he, “the Englishman laughed. Later, Turgenev would write that ‘the author of Vanity Fair is himself infected with the vice he so mocks.'”

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