Alexander Shiriaev: The Hidden Genius of Ballet and Film

March 26, 2009

Have you ever heard of Alexander Shiriaev? I hadn’t either, until Dance on Camera showed a film about him called A Belated Premiere a couple years ago. Last week, Barnard College showed them again as part of its “Celebrating the Ballets Russes” series at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.


The man’s work in dance animation and preservation is astounding. And it all happened between 1906 and 1908, at the dawn of filmmaking, at the dawn of dance notation, and well, at the dawn of the 20th century.


Shiriaev invented a way to preserve choreography that has to be the most labor-intensive ever. Along the way, he happened to invent film animation too. He was Petipa’s choreographic assistant and the second ballet master at the Maryinsky Theatre. But he was denied access to the dancers for his memory/preservation project. So he made 8-inch-high puppets out of paper-maché and wires and put them in positions to replicate the choreography. He wore the floorboards down going back and forth setting up the puppets, taking the shot, and setting up another position, more than 7,000 times for a single ballet.


The results are totally absorbing. As the narrator says of this documentary says, his work “erased the border between the living and the lifeless.” In an animated skit called something like “Pierrots as Artists,” two identical clown figures draw a house on the backdrop while carrying on various antics. Suddenly the door of the house opens and a lovely girl puppet comes out. And this was wayyyyy before Harold and the Purple Crayon! (Click here.)


Some of the footage has real dancers. In one sketch, again with a Pierrot figure, a dancer alternates with a dummy, turns into a sack of laundry, or is taken apart and put into a suitcase, then the live dancer-clown battles his way out of the suitcase (click here). I learned that Shiriaev was one of Fokine’s teachers, and it’s plausible that, with films like these, he influenced Fokine’s character of Petrouchka.


Shiriaev was both a classic and a character dancer; he had an amazing memory for movement and started teaching when he was 24. Even before the puppets, he made drawings on strips that could be played on home cinema projectors (though it’s not clear if they ever were). He staged his own lead part in the “buffoon” dance, or hoop dance, in the original Nutcracker in 1892, and preserved the choreography later through these drawings. This documentary film, made by filmmaker Viktor Bocharov in 1995, sets it to music, and voilà, there is the Candy Cane dance we see in Balanchine’s Nutcracker! As Lynn Garafola, the esteemed dance historian who is on Barnard’s faculty, said (with excitement in her voice), here is a tangible link to dance of 100 years ago (click here to see it).


As we look back 100 years to Diaghilev, let’s not forget artists who were forerunners of Diaghilev. Shiriaev not only invented a form of dance notation and preservation—and a form of film animation—but he was also an artist who created pieces that are fascinating to see today.