Auguste Vestris


Reflections on old Photographs of
Marina Semionova and Alla Shelest

November 2002

First posted on the

Before proceeding, may I ask readers to open the links below to photographs that appear on Marc Haegeman's Website. You may want to print them out, and keep them in front of you as you read this, after spending some time perusing them.

Semionova in La Source

Shelest in the Bronze Horseman

Shelest in The Stone Flower

The picture of Semionova was probably taken in the early 1930s, and those of Shelest, perhaps in the mid-1950s. Death and destruction, poor and scanty food and still poorer housing, vexation and restraint of every kind, they lived through all that. And yet, these great dancers seem free.

The most striking and beautiful of these portraits is, of course, that of Marina Semionova.

What a contradiction of solidity and lightness ! The rock-like stillness of the supporting leg, the majestical rise towards a broad open torso, that glance fixed on the unseen, and the lifted arm, saluting some far-off horizon. The raised leg is slightly, and tastefully, turned in; the angle between that leg and the supporting leg corresponds to a rest, or silence in music, before moving onto an excellently-judged angle from working leg to raised arm, as the arabesque declines suavely into a mysterious distance.

"Her torso may be a little too long ", or "what a thick neck", or "her legs under that dowdy curtain material look on the chunky side" - are those the thoughts that come to mind ? I think not. You will likely find yourself "memorising" the photograph as a concept, windstorms from the vastness of space, swirling about that grandiose form.

If all that remained of Marina Semionova were that photograph, her greatness would be indisputable.

As an aside, Semionova's feet are not an "aesthetic feature", they are just things to be danced on ! But I'd be very surprised if anyone in Russia at the time, noticed that her feet may have resembled minor shoeboxes.

Now, may I ask y'all to turn to the following Webpage, put up by Jim Fowler, on Sylvie Guillem.

The peculiar features that had just arrested us, have vanished. Leaving off my usual anti-Guillem moaning for five minutes, may I draw to your attention here, that the distance between the raised leg, and nearest arm, is no angle at all. It is simply a vague, collapsed area. An abandoned car park, perhaps, or a patch of wasteland. Or, if you prefer, "a destructured surface". The deadness of the right arm and hand, the exposed, weak inner thigh muscle, victim to the lady's "stretch limousine" technique", the poker-stiff neck with its straining cords, and above all, the rear-train, fallen behind the torso like a load falling off the back of a lorry...This is the woman who famously said that the history of dance was "of no interest". It shows.

We turn now to Alla Shelest, pictured in The Bronze Horseman.

Shelest's jeté appears, tossed like curling seafoam off the crest of a wave.

Looking closer, what do we see ? The angle of Shelest's jump, photographed just beyond its highest point, is narrowed, rather a stride than a grand écart, which is what lends it that spring-like bounce. Again, the left-behind leg is very slightly, elegantly turned in, as one can just see from the turn of the foot. The head rises triumphantly above the fray, it is all the signature of a remarkable human being.

We no longer jump like that. In line with what Bruce Marks calls "the over-energising of dance", grand jeté now is a grand écart en l'air, the splits, in plain English. From Man, to Monkey. And we've long since passed the point that even the splits were enough ! Legs have virtually to swing back upwards ! As a woman, I suffer enough seeing others of my sex doing such violence to their limbs. But to see a man doing it ! One wishes it were physically impossible, but, unfortunately, it ain't.

The third photograph, Shelest in an attitude on pointe from "The Stone Flower", is a real brain-teaser, from the standpoint of today's technique. When people are shewn such old pictures, they ooh and aah, and say things like "a rose swaying on its stem". Well, it DOES look like a rose swaying on its stem. But how did she get there ? How ever did she do it ?

Thinking that I might have "seen that face before somewhere", I rifled through Carlo Blassis' Elementary Theory and Practice of the Art of Dancing (Milan, 1820, in the 1968 Dover paperback Edition. The latter has been reprinted dozens of times, so it may well be the one you've got in your library). On page 21, figure 14, one comes across the identical figure, bearing the legend, "NB: in arabesques and a number of attitudes, the feet should not be fully turned out, as this would rob the poses of their grace". He did not say FOOT, sweet reader, which could have been read to mean supporting leg, he said FEET. And indeed, Figure 14 clearly shews not only the supporting leg, but the raised knee, very slightly, but elegantly, turned in.

That is the secret to the exquisite decline, rushing along from the raised left arm, to the tip of the working leg, and in part, the secret to her poise and strength - note that the hands above the head, are not wrung, but ever-so lightly clasped. The other part, is that she kept those legs DOWN.

Today, we are not only told to grind that working leg outwards till the knee virtually looks upwards, but the attitude would have to be a full ninety degrees at least - though I would add, that what we see in the picture, was no doubt considered, at the time, to be ninety degrees ! What you then get, is not a decline, but a sharp, vice-like angle. Had Shelest raised the working leg a mere ten, let alone fifteen degrees further, the torso would have rotated, yes, but as though in a iron corset. Not very rose-like.

in those starry years at the Paris Opera, when Auguste Vestris led, not the Classe de Perfectionnement, but what we should rather call the Classe des Génies, Blassis was one of Vestris' pupils. And here we have Alla Shelest, a Soviet-era dancer, in an attitude in the late 1950s, exactly as Vestris taught it in the 1810s and 20s.

Would there be anyone so bold as to contend that Marina Semionova, or Alla Shelest, were not technical ? That they could not turn out ? Or that grand jeté was not, at the time, grand écart, because they couldn't be bothered to properly stretch out ?

As a final point, how beautiful are the faces of these women ! Whither that pained, strained, wan look that one associates with our ladies today ? The reason is simple: in those far-off days, it may not have been part of Russian mores for ballet masters to publicly describe theatrical artists as "too bummy and titty", in the words of the tactful Derek Deane. In other words, the ladies were, possibly, allowed to eat.

K.L. Kanter