The story of the creation of the ballet Shurale dates back to the 1930s. At that time in the USSR, a new national policy was beginning to emerge. Each of the happy and free peoples of the Soviet Union were now obliged to have their own national culture to the utmost degree, constructed in the Moscow fashion. The mandatory set included classical music, opera and ballet. Special commissions were despatched to the republics – to select talents for whom Moscow and Leningrad academic institutions arranged national studios. By the late 30s, their graduates had travelled far to establish new companies. And to stage productions there, ballet-masters from the capitals were sent off: Fyodor Lopukhov, Kasian Goleizovsky, Vakhtang Chabukiani, Alexei Yermolaev... And Leonid Yakobson. All these choreographers were students of the classical school of the Imperial Ballet, they had gone through the trials and the experiments of the 20s. But the 20s they were forced to forget: now, in the USSR, a completely new art form was emerging, new grand ballet, in no sense Imperial, but fully imperialistic. And the classical language in it was general, like the party line.
At the time, Yakobson was also working in this dominant style – and yet he differed from the others. He was a secret admirer of Fokine, and it was not at all the Constructivism of the 20s that formed his youthful Weltanschauung. He was enthused by something else: the liberation of dance, the bright decorativeness, the expression of free movement, the unexpected and stunning verisimilitude inside conditionality and – of course! – other worlds, other cultures. Like Fokine himself, he was drawn first and foremost to visual imagery (and only secondly to musical structures), and like Fokine, he esteemed museums and found inspiration in them. And he was also a secret naturalist – in the sense that he knew how to imbue dance with something that he had perspicaciously seen in nature and in life.
The glory of empire, apart from anything else, was embodied in the ten-day arts festivals of the Soviet peoples in Moscow. At these grandiose displays and reports, new works were to be performed, “national in form and socialist in content”, where possible by representatives of the peoples themselves. In 1934 a decree was passed on the establishment of an opera and ballet theatre in Kazan. Immediately, the Tatar Opera Studio began work at the Moscow Conservatoire, including student composers – among them the twenty-year-old Farid Yarullin, who would go on two write Shurale. When they returned to their native land, the Tatar State Theatre of Opera and Ballet was opened (1939). The Principal Ballet Master was Gai Tagirov, who had trained in Moscow, and the Head of the Literature Department was the poet Musa Dzhalil. It is worth remembering the enthusiasm and pride that filled the new workforce of new national culture through the construction of this theatre and the first performances it gave! What now seems to us a normal campaign, a typical series of Stalinist propaganda, for them was the exultation of emergent hopes and the foundation for the emergence and elevation of a nation.
Back in Moscow, Farid Yarullin had begun work on themes from fairytales and poems by Gabdulla Tukai (1886–1913), the foremost national poet, whose significance for the Tatars may be compared to that of Pushkin for the Russians. Shurale, the woodgoblin of Tatar folklore and a character in Tukai’s fairytale poem, formed the core of the libretto, written for Yarullin by the young man of letters Ahmed Faizi. Soon the ballet Shurale was included in the repertoire plan of the new theatre – the more so as the festival of Tatar art was already planned: for August 1941. As soon as these dates were set, people from Leningrad were sent to Kazan: Pyotr Gusev was appointed Principal Choreographer of the festival and the Stage Director of the first national ballet was Leonid Yakobson.
Once in Kazan, Yakobson, temperamental and implacable, first of all fell upon the libretto. Turning to a Tatar theme opened up to him the door of Fokine’s way of thinking about an exotic and ancient culture; it was this, and not the staging of specific fairytales, that was his task – Yakobson thought in categories that were much greater. And he authoritatively sewed together the fabric conceived by Ahmed Faizi. Disregarding secondary plot lines, he focused on and heightened the main one, he dramatised the conflict, he rounded out the images of the main characters, and the title role, which with Tukai was a somewhat silly creature, he adorned with ominous, demonic traits. And Yakobson, abandoning the details so dear to the author in the original source, brought the libretto into a state of theatrical believability and ballet’s traditions. For Yarullin, there transmutations signified a new twist in the work: quickly he had to process what had been written and complete many new sections. The tales were retained, even though for the purpose of completing his work he was locked in a room in the Soviet Hotel, which he fled by shinning down a drainpipe! At last the manuscript score was complete – but it was now June 1941. In the future, the destinies of the young representatives of Tatar culture working on the production of Shurale would no longer be linked with the ballet. The composer Farid Yarullin died at the Front in October 1943. And Head of Literature Musa Dzhalil was executed in a Berlin prison in 1944.
With regard to the ballet, it was nonetheless rehearsed and performed in March 1945. Yarullin’s manuscript was orchestrated by Moscow composer Vitachek, and the dances staged by Zhukov, a fellow Muscovite, together with Tagirov.
However, Shurale had another, broader destiny, and this was linked not to the Kazan theatre but to Leonid Yakobson. The possibility of completing work already begun came to Yakobson in 1950, when it was decided to stage Shurale in Leningrad. For the Kirov Theatre (originally and once again the Mariinsky) a new version of the ballet was created: the libretto was completely reworked, and the score totally re-orchestrated (by Vladimir Vlasov and Vladimir Fere). Now the music went far beyond the creator’s original idea, while at the same time coming much closer to the choreographer’s plan: everyday life ceded to a heroically romantic feel, and the Tatar folklore appeared more generalised and poeticised. As a result, in the Leningrad production instead of the touching folk openness we see monumentality, and instead of local significance it is on the scale of the capital and the scale of Art. And the new name – Ali-Batyr – after the Russified name of the hero. However, the original name was soon restored to the Tatar ballet: at the insistence of Faizi and Yarullin’s widow.
And so Shurale became a full, “grand ballet” that answered the call of the time and the social demands. Apropos, it had something that differentiated it from other works of a similar kind – and here it is not so much the specific nature of the material as it is the particular detail of Yakobson’s choreographic thinking. The main quality of Yakobson’s vision is the sharpness, the main quality of Yakobson’s dance material the intense inner energy, the inexhaustible inner pressure and tense nerve. In terms of his temperament, Yakobson was frenzied, “wild” – in the sense that French Fauvist artists called themselves “wild”. And at the same time he was extremely artistic as well as extremely refined and sophisticated. Only he can interpret classical pas with such stunning explicitness, not giving in, moreover, to illustrativeness. Only he can thus poeticise a folkloric ritual, while not becoming and ethnographic historian. Only he can thus lay open the characters, while not ruining the sheer dance fabric. Only he, ultimately, can be so wonderfully and so convincingly animalistic. His Shurale is a thin, long, slippery animal; his bird-maidens are not a metaphor as they are in Swan Lake, but real, small and swift birds, with fluttering wings – while the plastique theme of the arms, as we learn in the next act, is taken from a folkloric dance. We should also add that in Shurale we can already make out the form of the choreographic miniature which Yakobson would later go on to develop more fully: the dances of the gossips (later Yakobson would stage a separate dance number under this name), the matchmaking men and women, and Shurale himself, so full of weight, so voluminous, so exhausting that he could truly be sufficient in himself.
One year after the Leningrad premiere, Yakobson’s ballet received the State Prize, and five years after that it was transferred to the Bolshoi Theatre. In other cities and in productions by other choreographers, the ballet was staged over twenty times from the 50s to the 70s, but in the history of ballet it has gone down first and foremost as a work by Yakobson.