Tag Archives: Oksana Mysina

Maya Plisetskaya monument, Moscow

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I will begin this little journey by grumbling. But this time, instead of grumbling at what I’m writing about, I’ll grumble at those who have grumbled at what I’m writing about. In short I think Viktor Mitroshin’s new monument to Maya Plisetskaya on Plisetskaya Square in Moscow is wonderful. I have read all kinds of nonsense about what is wrong with this statue, located between houses 6 and 12 on Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street. It captures the great ballerina during a single, expressive moment in her famous performance of Carmen. I love that choice already. The obvious (read: cliched) choice would have been to put her in a classical tutu and picture her dancing Swan Lake or The Dying Swan. Then she would have looked like all other ballerinas on all their bronze and marble stands all over the world. But in choosing Carmen, Mitroshin emphasized not only Plisetskaya’s physical prowess, grace and beauty, he put a big exclamation point after character! Plistetskaya was a spit-fire right down to the end of her life in 2015 when she died at the age of 89. And she looks it here. This is a woman that’s going to mess with you. Whether you can handle it or not.
Maya Plisetskaya was born November 20, 1925, in Moscow. She died May 2, 2015, in Munich. She had lived in Germany most of the time since the Perestroika era. In fact, she spent several years growing up in Germany (1932-36), where her father worked, first as the head of a Soviet mining company, and then as the General Consul of the Soviet Union. He was arrested in 1937 and shot in 1938; her mother Rakhila Messerer, a silent film actress, was arrested and exiled in 1938. To keep the state from sending Maya to an orphanage for children of enemies of the state, her aunt Sulamif Messerer, a soloist at the Bolshoi Theatre, adopted Maya. The influence of a tight, artistic family would surely have exerted itself on the young girl even without this development, but now the imprint of Sulamif’s profession clearly had every reason to be felt. In fact, Maya debuted as a dancer when she was around 15 or 16. It occurred while she and her family were in the city of Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg today) from 1941 to 1942 during evacuation from Moscow due to the war.  She joined the troupe of the Bolshoi Theater in 1943 and soon was dancing solo parts and taking on the role of prima ballerina.
Hers was an enormous, rich, eventful life, and I won’t even try to dig into that. Suffice it to say that some five years after her retirement from the Bolshoi (at age 65! – absolutely unheard of for a dancer), none less than Maurice Bejart created a show especially for her – Ave Maya – for her 70th birthday. The following year she danced The Dying Swan in St. Petersburg, Moscow and New York.

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I saw Plisetskaya dance in Boston in – I believe it would have been 1987 or 1988. I was (and am) no ballet expert, but during a short stint in Washington, D.C., I frequently saw performances by Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Alexander Godunov and others, so I had a certain grounding for good dance. I remember sitting in the hall at the old Opera House in downtown Boston and thinking that she was doing little more than moving gracefully around the stage – but with what extraordinary grace! The main piece in which she danced that night was in a ballet adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Lapdog,” with music written especially for Plisetskaya by her husband Rodion Shchedrin. I just dug into the net and found a clip of that very performance (not the Boston performance, of course, but of Lapdog). And there she is again, “not dancing,” but performing with astonishing grace, precision and feeling. Give the video a look.
The last time I saw her dance was at a concert on Red Square. It was 1992, at the first Red Square Invites! festival where she performed The Dying Swan. Oksana and I had great seats – fourth row – because I was covering the event for The Moscow Times. Here is a video of what we saw that night. Again, I must say it – what astonishing grace, elegance and precision. This is not anywhere even close to the norm for a dancer of her age. It is virtually unprecedented. Four years later – without me in attendance – she danced that part for the last time in her career.
Several years later I wrote a play and Plisetskaya emerged immediately as an inspiration. The play begins as a mother talks to her daughter about Plisetskaya and it ends as the daughter, alone, remembers her mother talking about Plisetskaya.
Plisetskaya is in no way, shape or form to blame for the fact that I could not stop myself from pointlessly adding still one more play to the world’s endless oceans of plays, but she, for, me, was a tuning fork throughout the writing of Dancing, Not Dead. Enough of that. I allow myself that little bit not to insert myself in this story, but to indicate the power of the effect Plisetskaya had on me.
A few words on the photos and the monument. If you look closely you may see something that looks like defects in the photos – blobs or streaks of white. That is just the way a fairly heavy snowfall was captured by my camera. As for the monument itself – look at those gorgeous arms, hands, legs. Look at the sassy sway of the dress. Look at the dark, hard eyes and the tight, determined mouth. Look at the sway of the back. Look at that crazy flower on her head. Look at how all of it strains upward into the sky. I’m telling you, the whole thing is beautiful.
If I’m going to grumble a bit, I might suggest that the sculptor didn’t spend enough time thinking about the base on which his fabulous Plisetskaya dances. It’s very clunky, a big rock half-hidden by a bronze drape. I give it a minus, but I give such huge pluses to everything else it just doesn’t matter in the end. I also, as a parting comment, want to say that I love the muted colors. First of all, they don’t try to compete with the gorgeous mural that stands beside the monument (I’ll write about that another time), nor do they try to conjure up the fiery red and midnight black that were Plisetskaya’s costume in Carmen. As for Carmen, I won’t bother to link to videos. Just go to YouTube and search “Plisetskaya Carmen.” You won’t get anything done for the next hour or so.

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Mikhail Ugarov’s Moscow Debut

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A few thoughts today on what is gone, what is lost, and what suits my present frame of mind (I suspect not only mine). Not long ago I walked past this spot next to Pushkin Square. It’s nothing at all. Less than nothing now. What once was here is long gone. What once provided me a reason to be here has long disappeared. Nothing is the same that once was here, just as no one is the same who was once here with me. All these “nothings” bring to mind one of my favorite songs by a Nobel Prize winner. The song is only partly about what I plan to print below, but it does connect well with the frame of mind that I currently find myself in (see my previous post if you can’t guess the reason for that): “Now, too much of nothing,” writes Bob Dylan,

Can make a man feel ill at ease
One man’s temper might rise
While another man’s temper might freeze
In the day of confession
We cannot mock a soul
Oh, when there’s too much of nothing
No one has control.

You see the wooden cover over what used to be (may still be underneath) stair steps? There was a bar down those steps. I spent a few hours there one evening, that’s it. Later they moved out the bar and moved in a shopping center. Then they moved out the shopping center and boarded things up. That’s called “business” – big and small – in Russia these days.
Anyway, that bar you can’t see because it isn’t there once hosted a small group of quiet revelers. There were five of us. The date was June 11, 1997. The occasion, now that I think about it, was no small thing. It was the Moscow debut of playwright Mikhail Ugarov. These days Misha Ugarov is one of the most famous theater makers in Moscow. He’s so famous, in fact, that the Russian government refused to let him travel to Berlin a few weeks ago to accompany a production he had directed. They claimed it was because he owed back fees on an old apartment. But if you look at his Facebook page the night before he was turned away at passport control at Sheremetyevo airport, you’ll see that he had some sharp words for the FSB (that’s the present-day KGB for those of you who don’t keep up with things Russian). Coincidence? Maybe.
Misha Ugarov and his wife Yelena Gremina are the founders of what is surely Russia’s feistiest, bravest, most honest theater. It’s called Teatr.doc and it has become world famous not only because the authorities have persecuted it repeatedly over the last few years, but because they have produced some of the most important theater productions of their time; they have midwifed some of the most powerful writers of their time; they have given kick-starts to some of the most talented directors of their age; and they have schooled many of the top young actors in today’s Russia.
I trust you get my drift. Misha Ugarov and Lena Gremina are national treasures, especially at a time when their nation rarely treasures anyone but bootlickers.
Well, there was a time when Misha Ugarov was no regular guest in the Moscow theater world. By the mid-to-late ’90s he had written a half-dozen plays that many admired, and a few had been produced in other cities (St. Petersburg, especially). But he was anything but recognized. The change from a man looking in from the outside to one of the most active and respected theater practitioners of his day came only over the course of many years. When Misha’s first play was produced in Moscow, there was hardly anyone there to see it (the house held a grand total of 40 people). The play, a kind of ironic fragment knocked off of Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, was the gentle, but acerbic, tale of three monks getting in for more than they had planned. It was called Doves, both ironically and not, and it was staged by the bad-boy director of the moment, Vladimir Mirzoyev, at the Stanislavsky Drama Theater, a place, perhaps bizarrely, where I now work (although it’s called the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre these days).
Mirzoyev had just opened another show days or weeks before and he was stretching himself a bit thin. I happen to know a bit about it because my wife Oksana Mysina was a performer in the other show, a play called That, This Other World, written by our friend Alexei Kazantsev. I heard plenty of tales. Still, Doves premiered on time as planned, while Other World struggled to get itself going.
Oksana and I were big fans, I would even flatter myself to say friends, of Ugarov’s and Gremina’s. We had known them a long time, having watched Gremina’s plays make their way onto some of the smallest and biggest stages in the nation’s capital – all at a time when playwrights in Russia got no respect at all from theaters, directors, actors, critics, even the doormen and women at stage door entrances. We were thrilled to see Misha finally making his Moscow debut and were among the first people to take our seats in the hall. But that was just the beginning of the night that ended at that now non-existent bar below the editorial offices of Izvestia newspaper, across from Pushkin Square. Also long gone are the productions of Doves and That, This Other World. Mirzoyev no longer works at the Stanislavsky, but I do. Gone are the days that Misha was unproduced in Moscow. Gone is Kazantsev, one of Ugarov’s mentors, he died a decade ago. Gone are the days when you could not hear yourself think in a Moscow cafe because the music was so loud. Gone are the days when bars and restaurants were opening up like crazy; these days they’re closing down with almost the same ferocity. And yet, when I recently stood before that wooden cover over stairs that once took me down into a dark, rather cheap, entirely empty bar on June 11, 1997, I had a moment when I felt like I was existing in two planes of time at once. And it was then I remembered that I had probably written something about this evening in a diary that I kept from about 1990 into the early 2000s.
Today, with Bob Dylan ringing in my ears, I went back into an old hard drive to find my old diaries and sure enough, there it was. In this entry made June 13, 1997, the second half rather matter-of-factly tells a brief story about Mikhail Ugarov’s Moscow debut. You can read it below the photos (note that I refer to Oksana Mysina as “O”).

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June 13, 1997
…The night before we attended the premiere of Vladimir Mirzoyev’s production of Mikhail Ugarov’s Doves. I had forgotten this, but it was the first professional production of an Ugarov play in Moscow. He’s been staged all over Russia and in many theaters in Germany, but nobody in Moscow had got around to him until now. The production is quite nice, small and intimate like the play itself. Mirzoyev backed off his usual heavy-handed approach, leaving the text and characters almost exactly as written. The few directorial touches which he did add – such as one of the characters walking around flapping his arms and cooing like a dove – were on the money. There was some feeling that the show came off a bit too understated, but that’s only if we’re getting picky.
Much worse was the treatment Ugarov got from the theater. By the time he and his wife Lena Gremina came into the hall (which only seats about 40), all the seats were full. Nobody lifted a finger to do anything about it. The theater’s literary director (whose job it is to deal with authors) sat in her chair and looked off in the other direction. Misha and Lena finally left. He went to the actors’ dressing rooms and apologized, “Sorry guys, but I won’t be able to watch today. They don’t have a seat for me.” Mirzoyev heard what was going on and he finally asked someone to sit on the floor to give Misha and Lena seats.
The same kind of treatment continued after the show. Mirzoyev pulled Misha up on stage for the bows, but it ended there. Nobody had arranged any banquet of any kind. Everybody moved off into their own groups, leaving Misha and Lena standing there alone. I found them standing on the street by themselves, while Mirzoyev was surrounded by a bunch of actors. It was pathetic. I went up to Misha and Lena and asked if there was going to be a banquet. They said no, and asked me if I would photograph them next to the poster. I did so and went back into the theater looking for O. But even before I found her, I realized things couldn’t just end like that. So I turned around and went back out on the street. Misha and Lena were still standing there forlornly. I said I had no money, but I had a credit card, so let’s go someplace and celebrate. They happily accepted. I ran back inside, found O and invited Masha Kivva, one of O’s partners in That, This Other World, to come along. We headed out to look for a place to park ourselves.
That is no longer a problem in the new Moscow. There are restaurants and bars on every corner. But, as luck would have it, every one we stopped at was full. We did find one place with nice soft seats in the back, but no sooner did we sit down than the waitress came up, plopped a menu down in front of us, pointed to some lettering and left without a word. We read there that we were to be charged $6 a head for a cover charge for a musical program that was to begin soon. I figured, to hell with the cover charge, but if the music was going to be loud, what would be the point of staying? So I got up, found the waitress and said, “Uh, is your music loud? Because we came in here to talk.” She looked at me for a second trying to decide if I was a moron or not and said, “Our music is VERY loud.” I thanked her and we left.
We passed up another place or two because they were all full, but finally, I think it was nearly an hour later, we found a bar with NOBODY in it. Normally, that would be a bad sign, but after our sojourn, we were delighted. Actually, Masha Kivva thought maybe we ought to keep trying to find a better place, but Lena reminded her that, with our luck, the next step would probably be buying a bottle of port and huddling together on a park bench. We stayed and had a very nice evening.

Hardly an earth-shattering story. But one whose muted tones suit these photos and my prevailing mood. I usually don’t let others’ words draw conclusions for me, but I’m okay with Bob doing it this time, with the chorus from “Too Much of Nothing”:

Say hello to Valerie
Say hello to Vivian
Send them all my salary
On the waters of oblivion.

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Fyodor Dostoevsky Bust, Wiesbaden, Germany

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Today we break the rules a bit, always an occasion for celebration. This is my 270th entry on this site and it will be the first time I will write about photos taken by another. It has always been my rule to use only photos that I take of places I have been myself and seen with my own eyes. But when my wife Oksana Mysina told me she was going to be performing on tour in Wiesbaden with her theater company, all the little rules in my head broke down. Wiesbaden! Dostoevsky was in Wiesbaden! Dostoevsky lost “all his money” (or so they say) in Wiesbaden! Dostoevsky wrote his novel The Gambler about the last time he ever played there, thus getting out from under a terrible contract with a nasty publisher, while finding a good wife and, even, perhaps, some happiness, into the bargain. Wiesbaden! Oksana, my own wife, almost my own flesh and blood, would be right there at the casino (her hotel and theater were located right across the street from it)! How could I justify not taking advantage of this? I could not. And I would not. That became even clearer when I did some armchair research and learned that a bust of Dostoevsky by the Russian emigre sculptor Gavriil (a/k/a Gabriel) Glikman was erected right there beside the casino on February 3, 1997. As it happened, Oksana’s hotel was located directly across the street from the bust – Oksana could just walk out the door, cross the street, and spend time with Fyodor Mikhailovich, if she chose.
Of course, to put this into perspective, you have to know a little about Oksana, whose most famous performance (running now for 22 years) is a one-woman show based on the character of Katerina Ivanovna (Marmeladov’s wife) from Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. Staged by the great Kama Ginkas in 1994, K.I. from ‘Crime’ is one of the key landmarks of Russian theater of the last three decades, and it continues to play to full houses today. As such, there are not many on this planet who have spent more time in an intimate, artistic embrace with the great writer than Oksana. Figure that my friend Oliver Ready recently spent a couple of years translating Crime and Punishment for Penguin books. Okay, a couple of years of intimacy. Oksana has been inside Dostoevsky’s head, and has carried him around in hers, for over 22 years… Shall we talk about accomplishments?
In fact, while Oksana was walking around the bust photographing it, she called Ginkas on the phone to tell him where she was. As such, the photos you see here bring together Ginkas, Oksana and Dostoevsky all in a single breath or two. Moments like that are what give life its sheen, you know.

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A bit about the bust itself. Gavriil Glikman created it in 1994 as you can see by the inscription on the back of the neck in the photo immediately above. The plaque on the front of the pedestal indicates that Glikman gifted the sculpture to the casino in 1996, which may well be true. But it would appear that the actual installation and unveiling of the bust took place on February 3, 1997. Glikman is an interesting figure. He was born in in 1913 in the Vitebsk region (that is, not far from Marc Chagall’s home turf), and Russian Wikipedia tells us that, as a child, he would go to Chagall’s workshop in Vitebsk and watch the great painter work. When he was in his ‘teens his family moved to Leningrad, which is where he spent the greater part of his life. Known primarily as a sculptor, many of his closest friends – Dmitry Shostakovich, Yevgeny Mravinsky – knew that he also painted. However, because his personal style did not fit with the demands of Soviet art, he rarely if ever showed this work. We are told he made an attempt to exhibit his paintings in 1968 and ran into trouble serious enough that his career was threatened. Glikman emigrated to Germany in 1980, settling in Munich in 1982. He lived in Munich until his death in 2003.
The story of how exactly this bust ended up where it did has eluded me. Why 1997? (The 225 years since Dostoevsky’s birth mentioned on the plaque seems a kind of far-fetched date to me.) Why Wiesbaden (the fact Dostoevsky lost tons of money here hardly seems the proper reason to commemorate the great writer)? One Russian blog site puts forth the conjecture that Glikman ran up a bigger bill than he could pay to the casino and the two sides agreed to write the debt off for a sculpture in exchange. It’s an attractive explanation, but I see absolutely no corroboration anywhere in any other sources. One Russian-language travel site suggests that a visit to Wiesbaden by Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1990s is the impulse that set things going. A journalist who had been with Gorbachev told Glikman about Dostoevsky’s Wiesbaden connections, etc. That sounds thin and unconvincing – at least on the level that the story is told. Would Glikman, who had painted and sculpted Dostoevsky many times before, really not have known about the Weisbaden connection?
Whatever the backstory may be, the bust is a powerful piece of work. It is incredibly, I would say, aggressively, and, of course, entirely purposefully, crude. Bits and pieces of face, along with bits and pieces of bronze, pile up in the wrong places, out of line, and out of whack. Eyes are crooked, as is the nose and mouth. The ears are big chunks slapped on the side of the head. The haircut is almost humorous to me, rather like Dostoevsky’s mother put a bowl over his head and cut off everything that stuck out below it. All taken together this image epitomizes the power of character, a vessel of suffering and deep-seated intelligence. It all adds up to Dostoevsky as we rather expect he was.
One thing surprises me greatly, however. Look at the second photo below, particularly, and you will see how beautifully and how naturally this Dostoevsky melts into the surrounding ecology, the trees, the leaves, the bushes, the sky. Dostoevsky, in this setting, is just another element of nature. And that is what is so unexpected. This is a writer who rarely wasted his powers of description or observation on nature. Dostoevsky never gives us those convoluted, head-spinning descriptions of fields and forests that Tolstoy and Turgenev are so famous for. Dostoevsky is always rummaging around in the heads of his characters (rather like Oksana rummages around inside his in order to play K.I. from ‘Crime’). He never – or almost never – has the time or inclination to notice flowers blooming or trees growing. There is, of course, that famous exception in The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan exclaims to his brother Alyosha, “Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky…” Konstantin Mochulsky, in Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, wrote that, “Leaves, ‘little sticky green leaves,’ are a favorite symbol of Dostoevsky’s. For him all the beauty of God’s world is contained in this humble image. A little green leaf is to his heroes the most irrefutable proof of the existence of God and the coming transfiguration.” But you see how it works in Dostoevsky – he comes back to this one image, never feeling the need to expand it. In fact, even in The Karamazovs he trots out his beloved sticky, green leaves, jumps to a generic declaration of love for the blue sky, and then leaps back into people, their deeds and what their enigmatic hearts hold.
So it is that the image of Dostoevsky blending so organically and naturally into the green world around him in the park behind the casino at Wiesbaden is a revelation. For Dostoevsky, indeed, was a work of nature himself. A huge, powerful, moving, exciting, irritating, thrilling piece of nature. Look how beautifully he blends in with the flowers – the flowers! – in the last photo below. He stands virtually unseen at the far right and there is something wonderful and right in that. Then watch the video at the end that Oksana made so I could feel as though I had actually been there. Instinctively (they have been inside each others’ heads for over 22 years!) she spins around him, ending by spiraling up and directing our sight at the sticky green leaves of a tree canopy above, and on through them into the blue sky that Dostoevsky claimed so to love.
In short, don’t tell me I haven’t been here! Thank you, Oksana, for the virtual trip.

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Chekhov’s Little “House,” Melikhovo

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This wonderfully funny little structure is ground zero for modern drama. It is the place on Anton Chekhov’s country estate in the village of Melikhovo where the dramatist wrote The Seagull, the first of his four major plays. The plaque on the front wall quotes Chekhov himself from the back of a photo that he sent to his future wife Olga Knipper on May 5, 1999. Chekhov’s original jottings say, “The outbuilding at Melikhovo. My house where The Seagull was written. With good memories to Olga Leonardovna Knipper.” The plaque reprints just the middle phrase.
We can “observe” the last few days of Chekhov’s work on the play by perusing his letters.
On November 14, 1895, he wrote to Dmitry Garin-Vinding, an actor and playwright then based at the Maly Theater in Moscow, “I have almost finished a play. There are about two days of work left. A comedy in four acts. It is called: The Seagull.
In fact, four days later, November 18, he writes to the singer and writer Yelena Shavrova-Yust, “I finished a play. It is called: The Seagull. It didn’t come out so hot. Speaking in general: I’m not much of a playwright.”
Three days hence, on November 21, he wrote to his friend the famed lawyer and literary dabbler Alexander Urusov: “Incidentally, yesterday I finished a new play that bears an avian name: The Seagull. A comedy in four acts. I will be in Moscow in December (the Grand Moscow Hotel) and, should you wish it, I will send you or bring you this play. I would be very, very happy if you would take upon yourself the labor of reading it. This labor will be somewhat eased because the play will be printed* and you will not need to make out my scribbly writing.” The asterisk to “will be printed” leads to Chekhov’s clarification below that the printing will be done “on a Remington.”
It was not until March 15, 1896, that Chekhov officially sent The Seagull to the authorities (the censor) in order to receive permission for his play to be performed on the imperial stages. Here is that formal request in full:

15 March 1896. Melikhovo.
To the Director of the Imperial theaters. 
A Petition
Of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov 

Presenting herewith a play of my composition under the title of The Seagull, in four acts, in two copies, I have the most humble honor of asking that it be submitted to the Theatrical-Literary Committee for permission to present it in the Imperial theaters. 

Anton Chekhov.
15 March 1896.
Lopasnya, Moscow Province.

Such is the modest, yet insistent beginning of a play that would change the way drama in the western world would be written, staged, acted and perceived for well over a century. Actually, for that hefty influence among playwrights let us add the name of Henrik Ibsen, whose plays, most written prior to Chekhov’s major works, were no less groundbreaking. But it has fallen to Chekhov, in part because of the impending partnership with Konstantin Stanislavsky, to be considered the founder of 20th century drama and theater.
The Seagull premiered at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on October 17, 1896. This outing was a fiasco, however, with some members of the audience heaping vocal abuse on the actors, and ending with Chekhov famously skedaddling out of town before anyone could see or talk to him.
The renowned Russian film director Vitaly Melnikov made a wonderful, sensitive film about Chekhov in 2012 that includes numerous references to The Seagull. It’s called The Admirer. The first frames (and later ones too) show Stanislavsky rehearsing the play in the late 1890s, while the whole disaster at the Alexandrinsky is shown in detail later in the film. (In Melnikov’s interpretation a dastardly critic encourages a plant to begin the audience rebellion.) You can watch a decent online version on the Big Cinema site.  The scenes showing the first performance of The Seagull begin at approximately 1:01:00. (Unfortunately, this copy of the film does not include the English subtitles that I created for the director, but it does include the performance of my wife Oksana Mysina as an eccentric and haughty society lady who considers it her right to hound Mr. Chekhov.)
To round out the historical aspect of this post let me add that Stanislavsky’s rendition of The Seagull premiered in Moscow December 17, 1898. This was a production of the Moscow Art Theater, but it was not performed on the stage that the whole world now knows as the Art Theater. Stanislavsky’s homeless troupe performed on the stage of the Hermitage Theater in the Hermitage Garden for the first three years of its existence.

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The outbuilding in Melikhovo consists of just 20 square meters and two rooms, plus a mudroom or entryway. Chekhov kept his doctor’s medicines in this abbreviated front area and on days when he treated the local peasants (always for free), he ran a small red flag up the flag pole in front of the structure. (See photo immediately above.) A miniature widow’s walk, or balcony, was constructed over this part of the house, and it gave a nice three-way view of the surrounding territory. The building is located towards the back (the north end) of the Melikhovo property and is separated from the main house by a large garden, a grove and two lovely walkways. (See one of those in the following block of photos below.) The actual distance between the two houses is not large, but because of the layout of the land the writer’s retreat has a marvelous sense of seclusion to it – especially when the plants and trees are in full bloom.
Only rarely can visitors get inside the outbuilding any more, but I was fortunate a decade ago to spend quite a bit of time in there while making a small documentary film about Chekhov. The main part of the house is split into two narrow rooms. In the first there is just enough room for a large writing table and one chair on either side. In the second there is just enough room for a small single bed that stands along the back wall and runs almost the full length of the room. There is a night table next to the bed and a single functional wooden chair – to help you get your socks off or toss your shirt and pants over the back. Knowing a little about the way writing works, I suspect much of The Seagull was at least imagined, if not jotted down, here while Chekhov napped or rested between writing bouts.
A place like this always makes us answer hard questions. Is it capable of bringing up the ghost of him that made it famous? I won’t lie: the answer for me wavers between yes and no. When I stood before the desk and looked at the blotter and ink well, I didn’t see any letters from The Seagull, or any of the many other works he wrote here, rising into the air as smoke. In the little bedroom the clean white linens did not aid me in believing that I could see Chekhov’s long, hairy legs disappearing beneath them for a nap. But taken as a whole, this is a quite extraordinary little location on the map. The detail that went into the building of it (see the lacy carved wood in many of the photos), the modesty of the place, the comfortably cramped quarters, the presence of Dr. Chekhov’s glass vials still standing on two shelves in the entryway, the sense of isolation and retreat that everything here represents, combined with the richness and the beauty of the nature surrounding it all (even in the “dead” season) all adds up to more than a few tingles running down the spine.
There are a few places in Russia where I love to just stand and stare as my thoughts go where they will. This is one of them.

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Alexander Scriabin house, Moscow

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Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915), the pianist and composer, rented rooms in this house at 11 Bolshoi Nikolopeskovsky Lane, just north of the Arbat, for the last three years of his life. He died on the very day that his rental contract expired. (His landlord was Apollon Grushka, a prominent philologist, a specialist in historical Latin grammar and Roman poetry.) Thanks in large part to the efforts of Scriabin’s common-law widow Tatyana Shlyotser, the building was turned into a museum honoring Scriabin’s memory in 1922 – just as Shlyotser herself died. Today it continues its life as a museum and a cultural center where concerts and other cultural events are often held. The plaque that hangs on the second floor of the building (a rare enough occurrence) is probably one of the oldest in Moscow. It was surely made and first displayed within two or three years of the composer’s death for it uses the pre-revolutionary script, including the so-called hard sign that is added to the end of several of the words. The plaque reads: “Here lived and died Alexander Nikolaevich Scriabin.”
Scriabin’s reputation has gone up and down over time. I doubt that means much; I mention it as a fact. During his life, especially in the later years, Scriabin was hugely famous. More importantly, his influence on other musicians, Russian and otherwise, was significant. As Arnold Schoenberg was developing his form of atonal music in Europe, Scriabin was independently performing similar experiments in Russia. I have never had a close personal connection to his music and so I asked my wife Oksana Mysina, a musician by education, what she might say about him. “He is an elemental storm,” she said. “His music comes crashing at you like a storm at sea. His compositions are for pianists what Paganini’s are for violinists.” Scriabin was and remains an enigmatic figure, a mystic, a symbolist, a Theosophist. A Russian biography site begins with a nice, if somewhat florid, description of the man and musician:
“Scriabin’s works embody ideas of ecstatic aspiration for unknown ‘cosmic’ spheres, as well as the idea of art as a transformative power. His music is characterized by great tension and a range of images from inspired idealism to the expressively heroic. He was a brilliant innovator of musical methods of expression, particularly in the field of harmony. He developed the notion of light music [see below] and was the first to introduce a part for light into musical practice – this in his symphonic poem “Prometheus”…
Alexander was a very suspicious and religious man. His abrupt mood swings frightened his family and friends, as did his views on current events. In addition to his unique music, he was also the first in history to employ and popularize color music. According to doctors, Alexander suffered from schizophrenia…”

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Scriabin’s work with color and light in music is much better known in Russia than in the West. You can find all kinds of writings on the topic in the Russian netsphere (go here, for instance). I did find one source, originally written in Russian, but translated into English, that offers views on some of the complexities of Scriabin’s experiments. This piece, titled “Was Scriabin a Synaesthete?” goes into much detail about topics that are translated variously as “colored hearing”; “color tonal”; “color sound”; “light-music synthesis”; “light-sound synaesthesia” &cetera.
There are geniuses,” the poet Konstantin Balmont wrote, “who are not only brilliant in their artistic achievements, but who are brilliant in their every step, their gait, in every aspect of their personal being. You look at one of these individuals – they are pure spirit, beings of  a complete other kind, from another dimension. Of all the particular people who are no longer entirely human, or who have, at least, gazed deeply and often into the non-human, into whatever is done outside the three dimensions – it was Scriabin who gave me the impression of being the most complete and inexhaustible genius.”
Balmont, incidentally, lived two doors up from the house pictured here. I wrote about it some time ago on this site.
Scriabin himself wrote the following in regards to the “moment of truth” when an individual would awaken to the full potential of the world:

Let’s be born into a whirlwind!
Let’s awaken into the heavens!
Let’s mix feelings in a single wave!
And in the luxurious splendor
Of the final dawn
As we appear to each other
In the naked beauty
Of glittering souls
We shall disappear…
We shall melt…

He was not of this world, either as a man or as a musician,” said Scriabin’s biographer Leonid Sabaneev.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov called Scriabin “a star of the first magnitude.”
Upon hearing one of Scriabin’s piano miniatures, Leo Tolstoy is said to have proclaimed, “Very sincere. Sincerity is valuable. This one piece alone allows us to call him a major artist.

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Alexander Ostrovsky birthplace, Moscow

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The calendar in 1823 had turned to a new day just four hours prior to the appearance in the world of Nikolai and Lyubov Ostrovsky’s latest son. At the time, when Russia was still using the Julian calendar, it was in the wee hours of March 31. In the rest of the world where the Gregorian Calendar was in use (as it has been in Russia since 1918), it was April 12. Thus we now celebrate the birth of Alexander Ostrovsky, one of the greatest figures in Russian theater on this date of April 12.
The house that the family inhabited was relatively new to them. They had just rented it and moved in a short time before. The landlord was a local priest and the house, in fact, stood directly across from a church that was originally built in the 17th century. It looks old to us now; it would have looked old even to the Ostrovsky family.
The address today is 9 Malaya (or, Small) Ordynka Street. It is a short side road stuck neatly in between two major thoroughfares – Pyatnitskaya Street and Bolshaya (or, Big) Ordynka – in the Zamoskvorech’ye neighborhood, so called because it is located “beyond” the Moscow River, south of the Kremlin. I lived a few blocks from Ostrovsky’s home for 17 years until Oksana and I packed up and left the area behind a few weeks ago. We did that for several reasons, one being that a former neighbor was murdered one night a year and a half ago not far away on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge. His name was Boris Nemtsov and he was the leader of Russia’s political opposition. He lived a few blocks from us, quite near to where Ostrovsky was born, even closer to where Leo Tolstoy once lived, and he was on his way home after a late supper when six assassin’s bullets to the back cut him down. Ever since that night the whole area has seemed cursed to us. Out, out, damn spot. It will not come out. The blood on the bridge that led to and from our home became too much to bear. It seemed to spread and seep into our every thought and sensation. It spoiled this beautiful place with so much history and beauty. The beauty and history remain, and they will inspire and please others for as long as Moscow remains standing. But it could not inspire or please us anymore. Our love, our connection, our sense of belonging were cut down together with Boris Nemtsov. Fiends took his life, and extinguished our love.
So it was that on my last day as a resident of Zamoskvorech’ye, as a neighbor in space, if not in time, of one of my most admired historical figures, Alexander Ostrovsky, I decided to take a stroll around the house in which the great writer was born and lived for the first few years of his life.
I also need to say that I had never stopped by to visit Ostrovsky in all my years as a neighbor. I passed his home countless times going to and fro. I always nodded and wished him well, admiring the beautiful old wooden home ensconced among towering, modern buildings. I often stopped to look through the gate at the home’s facade before moving on again. Once, when the territory was closed, I trained my camera on the Ostrovsky monument by the side of the house and hit the zoom lever, but the lighting was so bad, the distance so great, and the surround foliage so rich, that my photos were useless. I never came back to try again. Always in a hurry, always in a hurry. I once attended an exhibit here of photographs by my friend Ken Reynolds, who, in a neighboring building, showed a series of his images of Chekhov productions that he had photographed all over the world. But even for that I just tossed some shoes on bare feet and raced over to look at the photographs and spend a few minutes with Ken, who had flown in that day from the U.K. Then it was back to my own home, back to my work.
Is this what Bob Dylan calls Time out of Mind? A sensation of eternity, of time stopped, even as time ticks down? It never bothered me that I had not stopped in to see Ostrovsky because I could always do that, couldn’t I? That house wasn’t going anywhere, nor was I, was I? We were eternal neighbors; it certainly seemed that way for 17 years. Seventeen long years there was no need for me to hurry over to spend time with Alexander Ostrovsky because I could do it any time. Any time I wanted. Not today, because today I’m busy. Probably not tomorrow. But any other time. Any day, any time. Next week, next month, next year.

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And so on my last day as Alexander Ostrovsky’s neighbor, I paid him a visit. The murder of Nemtsov put the lie to that notion of eternity; his blood washed me out of the neighborhood we all had shared. One day was left. Tomorrow I could not come see Ostrovsky as a neighbor. Tomorrow I would be a “foreigner,” a guest coming from afar, an alien from another borough. I made the short trek and stepped through the wrought iron gate I so often had passed, and through which I often sent vague, warm thoughts.
I was almost immediately transported into another world. Right here in the middle of the city, the city is held at bay. Flower gardens blooming almost madly, thick tree canopies seeming to billow overhead, quaint sandy paths leading around the house, and the simple, but attractive, wooden house itself – they all conspire to erase the 21st century. You take a seat on one of the wooden benches surrounding Ostrovsky’s bust and you realize that Moscow is not at all what you thought it was. At least it was not at one time. This is the countryside! Ostrovsky, the man who almost singlehandedly created the great Russian theater that we know today, the first great Russian playwright, the first great Russian theater manager (he turned the Maly into the institution it is today), the great social activist (he pioneered the notion of social support for actors), was born right here in a sleepy plot, where breezes lap lazily at leaves and the humid air of summer makes you want to wilt and fall asleep every other step you take. A woman sat nearby reading a book. Reading a book?! In the middle of Moscow in the 21st century? Birds twittered. What birds? Where do you see birds besides crows and pigeons in Moscow? Where is this place? Where have I landed?
I had landed in the past. I had entered the last few hours, the last few minutes, of eternity. It was a fine, fitting final day in Zamoskvorech’ye. The past had brought me to Russia in the first place. Tolstoy. Erdman. All the rest. You know the names. You know the alphabet soup. And the past would usher me out of my sad, soured Moscow neighborhood, the place I loved so long but could not bear any longer.
Ostrovsky. He will weather all. When all of it’s gone, when all of them are gone, Ostrovsky will remain. Ostrovsky will reclaim Zamoskvorech’ye. He will redeem it. But that will be done without me. I will welcome it and celebrate it. But I’ll do that from afar, a foreigner again. An alien.

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Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Walt Disney, Los Angeles

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Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) were three giants of Russian music in the 20th century. Their lives and professional paths snaked in and around each other in many different ways in many different countries of the world, although none of them ever became particularly close. Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff entered the same alien, but attractive, universe of Hollywood and Los Angeles as a result of Hitler’s rise in Germany. (Their shy dance in space and time began when Rachmaninoff’s family moved to St. Petersburg in 1882, the year of Stravinsky’s birth in that city.) Prokofiev seemed to move in an orbit farther from the other two. In fact, more or less as Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff were settling in Los Angeles, Prokofiev made his last visit there before returning to the Soviet Union. There is, however, one name that brings them all together, albeit briefly and abstractly. Today we look at a place that was a mutual point of interest for all three of the composers: Walt Disney’s home at 4053 Woking Way.
Prokofiev, as it turns out, is the closest of all three to this topic. He met with Disney in 1938 after having seen and loved the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). At this point the great filmmaker was already fast at work on Fantasia (eventually released in 1940), the animated feature film that would set the standard for its genre for decades to come. Prokofiev was one of those whose work he thought might suit his plans. As such, he invited the composer to his house for a chat. According to Harlow Robinson’s book Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians: Biography of an Image, Prokofiev even left us a brief record of that visit:
It’s very warm here,” Prokofiev wrote back to his family in Russia, “I’ve forgotten what an overcoat is. and the trees are covered with oranges and pineapples. Most American films are made in Hollywood and they build whole houses, castles and even cities of cardboard for them. Today I went to a filming session. A big tall warehouse had been turned into the square of an old town and people galloped through it on horses. I have also been to the house of Mickey Mouse’s papa, that is, the man who first thought up the idea of sketching him.”
So there we have it – Prokofiev visiting this house, the home of Mickey Mouse’s father. But, in fact, there is much more to the story and fortunately Disney himself chose to tell some of it. Even though none of Prokofiev’s music made it into Fantasia, Disney was transfixed by one particular work – Peter and the Wolf. He would end up making a film of it in 1946, and it would be nearly as popular and famous as Fantasia. So memorable was the meeting of the two men, that Disney had himself recorded telling the story of how Prokofiev, who spoke no English, came and played for the host, who spoke no Russian. The piano at which Prokofiev sat and performed still remained in Disney’s house at the time of the recording, and the video begins with Disney himself playing a few bars from Peter and the Wolf on the famous keyboard.
I remember how his fingers flew over our battered old piano,” Disney says with a bit of a wistful smile, “how his face glistened with perspiration as he concentrated on the music. And all the time I could see pictures. I could see his lovely fantasy coming to life on the screen.”
It’s a wonderful video. Check it out if you haven’t seen it.
(And, while this has nothing to do with the meetings of these great men, I can’t refuse to direct you to one of my favorite recordings of Peter and the Wolf ever – done by my wife Oksana Mysina with the Russian National Wind Quartet. Consider this a bonus track.)

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So, in regards to Fantasia, Prokofiev fell by the wayside early. One can’t help but wonder if Disney already knew that he wanted to devote an entire film to Peter and the Wolf, choosing not to “dilute” it in a miscellany. Be that as it may, Fantasia was originally intended to include music by both Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky. But the road to success is long and winding. And, in fact, the final cut featured only an abridged version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s The Firebird was also discussed for possible inclusion at some point, but was finally abandoned. Both scenes worked up to Rachmaninoff compositions – “Troika” and Prelude in G Minor – either ended up on the cutting room floor or were set aside at an earlier stage.
If any of this caused any jealousy or friction between the two men, it doesn’t seem to have been recorded anywhere. Stravinsky was usually respectful of Rachmaninoff and his place in history, if also somewhat uninspired by his colleague’s more traditional approach to the art of music. Rachmaninoff over the decades wavered between skepticism and enthusiasm about Stravinsky. According to Keenan Reesor’s paper, “Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky in Los Angeles to 1943,” Rachmaninoff in 1918 “described Stravinsky ‘as a force to be reckoned with,’ noting that the early ballets ‘represented a high order of talent, if not genius.'” Stravinsky seems to have circled coolly around Rachmaninoff’s accomplishments with similar emotional reserve. According to Neeson:
In his only recorded assessment of Rachmaninoff’s music, published almost twenty years after the latter’s death, Stravinsky stopped short agreeing with those who said he didn’t like Rachmaninoff’s music but admitted that ‘it is true we composed very differently.’ Stravinsky described Rachmaninoff’s earliest pieces as ‘watercolors’ but said that ‘at twenty-five he turned to “oils” and became a very old composer. But,’ he continued, ‘do not expect me to denigrate him for that. In fact he was an awesome man, and there are too many others to be denigrated long before him. As I think about him, his silence looms as a noble contrast to the self-approbations that are the only conversation of most musicians. Besides, he was the only pianist I have ever seen who did not grimace when he played. That says a great deal.'”
Whatever the real feelings may have been between the two men, as recalled by Sergei Bertensson in Nicholas Slonimsky’s book Slonimsky’s Book of Musical Anecdotes, Rachmaninoff was an ardent fan of The Firebird.
I recall as we listened to the solemn and triumphant finale of The Firebird Rachmaninoff’s eyes filled with tears, and he exclaimed: ‘Great God! What a work of genius this is! This is true Russia.’ And when he was told that Stravinsky liked honey, he bought a large jar and personally took it in his car to Stravinsky’s house.”
I don’t know it for a fact, but I take pleasure in imagining that Rachmaninoff drove his beloved Cadillac over to Stravinsky’s house at North Wetherly Drive from his own place on Elm Drive. I have written about both of these places elsewhere in this space.
For those who appreciate tangents, playwright Frederick Stroppel wrote a play, Small World, about Stravinsky meeting Disney and hashing out their ideas over Fantasia. You can read about a 2015 production here.

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