Cultivating Soviet Ballet: The Red Poppy at the Bolshoi Theater, 1927-1960
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Cultivating Soviet Ballet: The Red Poppy at the Bolshoi Theater, 1927-1960

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This dissertation illuminates the Sovietization and popularization of ballet in the 1920s through the 1950s. Through examination of ballet libretti, photographs, and film fragments, I analyze three versions of the ballet The Red Poppy (1927, 1949, 1957) at the State Academic Bolshoi Theater of the Soviet Union to show how the ballet repertoire from one of the former Imperial Theaters of Opera and Ballet changed as artists and administrators made ballet "Soviet." The Soviet government and Communist Party invested significant human, financial, and other material resources in artistic production for the purposes of politically educating and enlightening mass audiences. This pedagogical imperative brought about the conditions of possibility for Soviet artists and administrators to create out of their imperial inheritance a form of popular culture. I argue that Soviet ballet's accessibility and popularity were the result of a combination of audience development strategies that engaged working-class audiences and changes in ballet repertoire. This project interrogates the complex dynamics among state sponsorship, ideological oversight, and artistic practice. I examine archival institutional records, including contemporary discussions about ballet and ballet production processes. These sources reveal that ballet production was highly collaborative, and dancers (including women) were vocal participants in the processes. I argue that the Bolshoi artists of this period were committed to the pedagogical mandate for Soviet arts, and they used their professional expertise to develop genre-specific strategies to make ballet more accessible to mass audiences. Combining serious subject matter, well-developed characters, strong plotlines, and storytelling through dance, I contend that Soviet ballets of this period paved the way for productions of even greater psychological complexity: the through-danced ballets of the Thaw era and beyond. In this way, the most restrictive decades of socialist realism proved generative for the genre of ballet. This dissertation contributes deeper understandings of artists' integration into the Soviet cultural project, creative responses to socialist realism, collaborative creativity, dancers' agency and women's agency in ballet production, change over time in ballet's methods of corporeal storytelling, and the construction of twentieth-century popular culture.

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