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New Life for an Old Idea: The Reappearance of Moscow's Bat

By John Freedman
Soviet and East-European Performance, Vol. 10, No. 2 (1990), 35-40,

Posters in Moscow advertising a new "performance-divertissement", "The Reading of a New Play", state that, "The theater-cabaret Bat, which left Russia in the 1920s to shine in Paris and on Broadway in New York has re-opened in Moscow after an intermission of 69 years." The performance, according to the posters, consists of "political satire, parodies, musical numbers, tragifarcical scenes, dance miniatures and circus sketches." It comprises seven scenes, plus a prologue and an epilogue that are loosely unified by the theme of an imagined reading of a play by the troupe of the original Bat on the eve of their departure for Europe.
The genre of small-form theater first emerged in Europe at the turn of the century, but it was in Russia that it received its fullest expression. Meyerhold's stagings as Doctor Dapertutto and Evreinov's work at the Starinny Theater are two of the best examples of how the Russian tradition absorbed small-form aesthetics while also using it as an inspiration for innovation. Russia's two most important small-form theaters were the Crooked Mirror (Petersburg, 1908-1931) and Nikita Baliev's Bat (founded as an off-shoot of the Moscow Art Theater in 1908, it essentially disbanded in 1920, when Baliev emigrated with half the troupe).
The Bat's performances grew out of that peculiarly Russian phenomenon of the kapustnik--a blend of parody, topical satire, song, improvisation and variety show--that originated as actor-initiated performances for the celebration of holidays. The performance of a kapustnik is still the most common manner of marking notable dates in the Russian theatrical calendar.
During the 1980s, Grigory Gurvich--who studied under Maria Knebbel at GITIS (State Institute of Theater Arts) in the faculty of directing--often staged kapustniki at the Union of Theater Workers (STD) for such occasions, and acquired a reputation as a talented interpreter of this traditional form. One such performance took place at a New Year's celebration in 1984.
"The hall was packed with stars," Gurvich told me recently. "Bella Akhmadulina, Mark Zakharov, Andrei Mironov, Oleg Tabakov, Bulat Okudzhava. We were the only non-famous people there. We had set up a cabaret atmosphere with long tables stretching out from the stage, and we put on this kapustnik-parody. The effect was totally unexpected. Throughout the performance these venerable members of the elite were continuously shouting, whistling, and clamouring. Afterwards, Mark Zakharov approached me and said, 'Listen, you ought to re-open the Bat.'
Gurvich, however, did not take the idea seriously at the time, and despite Zakharov's continued encouragement at chance meetings, he attempted to find a place for himself in the Moscow theater world in more traditional ways. He staged plays at the Yermolova Theater, the Mayakovsky Theater (performances were banned), and Konstantin Raykin's Satirikon, although none of these efforts brought him great satisfaction. More often than not, his temporary alliances lead to conflicts of artistic interest, and in 1988, he begin to consider seriously the idea of opening his own theater.
After doing research into the history and aesthetics of the Bat he became convinced that more than just a clever idea, the notion of re-opening the cabaret was supported by solid aesthetic principles as well.
"When I learned that in addition to kapustnik-type shows and revues, Baliev--and particularly Aleksandr Kugel' at the Crooked Mirror--put on Chekhov, Pushkin, Gogol and the like, I became intrigued. Style, after all, doesn't limit the freedom of art. The important thing is to find your own style. Baliev's audience trusted that his staging of, say, The Queen of Spades, would be done like nowhere else, and it would be a must see."
Moreover, the principles which lay at the heart of Baliev's productions not only corresponded to Gurvich's own conceptions of theater, but to the style of contemporary times as well; the huge influx of information and the rapid change that Soviet society is now undergoing have clear parallels to the situation that existed in Russia between the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and in the immediate post-revolutionary period.
Referring to Eizenstein's formula of the montage-attraction, Gurvich notes that "when a society is inundated by information, and itself begins to resemble a montage-attraction, this notion becomes very timely for its application to theatrical form. Theater cannot lag behind the quantity of mass information entering society. It is no coincidence that the two most popular television shows right now are 'Vzglyad' (View) and 'Do i posle polunochi' (Before and After Midnight). Everything is in flux. A tragic story about the Afghanistan war, a rock video, a meeting with a prostitute, a story about AIDS, music again--everything develops eclecticly. It makes for engrossing viewing. I find that as soon as I've grasped the essence of a story, I want them to get on to the next. As a viewer, if I can guess what they are up to, I get bored. Theater has to be like that, too. You have to keep your audience guessing.
"When I was a student at Baku University in the late 1960s, time simply stood still. I have this impression that I went into a lecture hall, fell asleep, and woke up five years later. Of course there were the occasional challenges, but the overall atmosphere was one of boring, frozen time. And that's how directors staged plays then. Long, drawn-out and boring. But the tempo of the times in which we live make a director's life far more difficult."
The reliance in small-form theater in Russia--and subsequently the Soviet Union--on parodical, satirical forms and topical thematics for its basis has often caused it to be unfairly accused of being light-weight in substance. In reality, however, some of Russia's best actors--Vladimir Davydov, Vasily Kachalov, Igor Ilinsky--at one time or another worked in small-form theaters, while such playwrights as Nikolai Evreinov, Nikolai Erdman, and Vladimir Mayakovsky used these theaters as workshops for their ideas. Gurvich's philosophy is very much centered in this tradition. While he is unwilling to talk about the production he is now preparing, he said that in the future he would like to stage Twelfth Night. In general, Gurvich sees in the aesthetics of the Renaissance a kind of generalized theatricality which is close to his own concept of theater.
"The Renaissance, and England in particular, developed the notion of play and mystification to an incredibly high degree. Probably only in Renaissance England would a family go to the trouble of building an inn with the express purpose of confusing and frightening their clientele! You don't do something like that just for a Christmas holiday! You've got to devote your whole life to it. For that reason Shakespeare and his time are very near and dear to me."
In regards to his specific ideas for Twelfth Night, Gurvich notes that, "This play has never been staged in a way that an audience could actually believe in the mystification that lies at its heart. No one has ever fooled their audience the way it needs to be done. Why do you always have to pretend that you can't tell two different actors apart? It's got to be staged so that nobody can figure out who any of the players are. Find a pair of twins or doubles to play Viola and Sebastian--I have in mind two sisters I want to invite for these roles. There are lots of things you can do like that. What a great thing it would be to stage Twelfth Night for the first time in history the way it was written! You can't tell these people apart, and that's that."
Playfulness and mystification are central to The Reading of a New Play. Gurvich, the play's author, and director of the revived cabaret, took as his point of departure the last known photo of Baliev's entire troupe that shows the members gathered around an actor perhaps reading from a script. The performance of A New Play begins with a plastic recreation of the photo. This masquerade revives onstage a moment history time that unites the original Bat with the new. It also provides the theme of a play which never was, but which might have been. The result is a sort of "twelve actors in search of a play," if you will, in which the twelve actors of the new Bat slip into and out of various roles, occasionally playing members of the original troupe, occasionally playing characters from the play that never was.
The troupe occasionally relies on the audience to play a part in the development of action onstage. At one point, the actor Aleksandr Razalin saunters out into the audience and asks if anyone can identify Matilda Kshesinskaya. He trades barbs with members of the audience until someone provides the answer that is needed to send the performance into its next episode, "Kshesinskaya's Residence." While most know that she was a famous ballerina, it usually takes awhile before someone recalls that she was the last mistress of Nikolai II. Once this response is achieved, attention is returned to the stage where a ninety year-old Kshesinskaya sits seemingly half-dead, wrapped in shawls, and impervious to the efforts of her bustling servant (performed by Inna Ageeva) to engage her in conversation. But once she is left alone, the old woman transforms into a beautiful young ballerina (performed by Natalya Somonova) who dances out her memories until she is carried away by soldiers of the Red Army.
One of the play's most effective sketches, "Between Earth and Heaven," portrays the fate of Valeria Barsova, one of Baliev's actresses who elected to remain in the Soviet Union and later became a famed opera star and political functionary. This scene, in which Barsova is interpreted beautifully by Natalya Godunova, portrays with humor and lyricism the fate of an actress who essentially stepped on the throat of her own song.
The final episode, "Children of Freedom," is performed as a kind of circus sketch. The actor Igor Ugolnikov, exhibiting an unfailing sense of timing, delivers topical one-liners, punctuating punch lines by kicking balls into the audience, which, in turn, tosses them back onstage. The violation of the "fourth wall" by physical interaction often leads to more substantial interaction, as improvisational exchanges arise between actor and audience. Ugolnikov's mad, clown-like antics form a fitting coda to the play's hodge-podge style.
The entire performance is accompanied by live music provided by seven musicians from the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater, while transitions between scenes are fascilitated by a shadow theater on the back stage-wall, which plays out farcical interludes that often slip into lyrical, and occasionally even tragic vignettes.
Like the formation of a new theater anywhere, the Bat has had its ups and downs financially, although it would appear to have been more fortunate than most of the small theaters which have opened (and just as often, closed) in the last few years in Moscow. After an aborted attempt to work out an affiliation with an established theater, Gurvich took advantage of the new economic atmosphere and found initial private funding in late 1988 from a young man by the name of Aleksey Savchenko-Belsky. With a backing of 80,000 rubles, he spent three months hand-picking his troupe of twelve actors and a support crew of ten. All of the actors--graduates primarily of GITIS and the Moscow Art Theater school who had worked professionally for several years--had participated with Gurvich in the past in his kapustniki at the Theater Union. With these organizational problems solved, his next task was to find a theater in which to perform. Through contacts at GITIS and the Theater Union, he contracted for six performances in May and June 1989 at the GITIS student theater on Bolshoy Gnezdikovsky Lane, in the center of Moscow across the street from the Theater Union. As fate would have it, this was the very theater built expressly for the original Bat in 1915. However, he was told by the theater administration that he could not count on remaining there beyond the six agreed-upon performances.
Since it is almost unheard of for young theaters to find such prime locations, and all the moreso because of the historical--one might even say, spiritual--ties in this situation, Gurvich still harbored hopes that he might find a way to remain as a resident in the old theater. Although they only began rehearsing A New Play in March 1989, it was imperative for them to use the offered six performances to make an impact. When the premiere date of May 26 arrived, the troupe still was faced by a host of unsolved problems.
"We simply weren't ready," the 32 year-old Gurivch now reminisces. "The actors were in a trance. They thought I had gone out of my mind. I thought I had gone out of my mind. 'We can't do this,' I thought. 'It's too early.' My set decorator, Boris Krasnov, screamed hysterically that I had ruined everything. He told me, 'You're going to have a full house tonight and they're going to see a piece of crap. In a month no one will remember you.'
"I knew that if we slipped even the slightest, we would be just another in the crowd. Now matter how much I lied to the audience that this was merely a dress rehearsal--that we could change what needs changing--I knew this show would decide our fate. But the response from the audience was incredible. When the performance ended, I heard wild shouting and applause. When they called me out onstage, I thought, 'God, maybe we've pulled it off.'"
In fact, new theater's first outing was an amazing success. The select audience of actors, directors, artists, journalists--not unlike the audiences which attended Baliev's Bat in the early years by invitation only--gave Gurvich and his troupe a welcome he could only have dreamed about. Within days, news about them had spread by word of mouth throughout theater circles. Despite occasional rawness (I attended the second performance at the urging of actor friends), the troupe's inspired theatricality easily overshadowed any shortcomings of a technical nature. And whatever rough edges that existed in those first days have since been smoothed over without any loss in the spontaneity which marks their style; they continue to perform to full houses seven to ten nights a month. They recently were invited to perform at theater festivals in West Germany and Poland, and numerous articles have appeared about them abroad as well as in the Soviet Union.
The success of the first performances made it possible for Gurvich to pressure GITIS officials to allow him to remain in the building for the 1989-1990 season. At present he has an agreement by which he has access to the hall for the indefinite future, although--despite the obvious advantage of the historical connections contained in the present location--he hopes one day to find his own building. The old Bat theater is no longer suitable for the genuine cabaret atmosphere which Gurvich one day hopes to revive.
Aside from the logistical problems the theater faces, it is also confronted by a lack of dramatic texts suitable to its needs. All of theatrical Moscow these days is bemoaning the lack of modern plays, but the unorthodox Bat is, perhaps, even more handicapped than most theaters. Gurvich's dissatisfaction with contemporary playwrights has led him to search for potential authors in filmscript writers and journalists, although intil now, he has found nothing that suits him. Until he does, he will continue to write his own plays or stage classics in his own evolved style.
As regards The Reading of a New Play, Gurvich says, "No one could have written the kind of play I wanted; a sort of psychological happening, if you will. Not that the audience would actually participate in the performance, but that they would be invited to take part in a revelation about a theater that once existed here and then left. I wanted to create a certain mystification. For that reason I come out every night and tell them, 'This theater existed right here.' The audience begins to sense that connection. It begins to grasp our sense of playfulness and they come to exist within it. Each performance is, in effect, a reopening and a rediscovery of the Bat."
In fact, it is much more. It is also one of the most lively and innovative theaters today in Moscow today. There is nothing small-scale in the so-called small-form aesthetics that form its basis. Its theatricality is matched only by a handful of other Moscow theaters, and its manner of responding to the changing world in which it exists is more effective than a hundred new plays on "contemporary themes."
Baliev's Bat--despite its unquestioned popularity among a closed circle of influential admirers, and perhaps because of a historical time which looked with suspicion on its aesthetics--was never more than a star in a firmament of suns. It is true that one play does not make a theater. But assuming that the new incarnation of the Bat is able to develop freely, it has the potential of linking small- and large-form aesthetics in a way that could make a genuine contribution to the development of Russian and Soviet theater.

Until 1987, the All-Russian Theater Society (VTO).

See: Bernard Genies, "Cabaret", Nouvelle Observateur, No. 15 (1989); Natan Aidel'man, "V podvale doma svoego", Moskovskie novosti, No. 26 (1989); Francis Klines, "Russian Life is a Cabaret Again: With New Chums", New York Times (August 16, 1989) (Reprinted as "Glasnost is a Cabaret" in the International Herald Tribune [August 19-20, 1989]); Anatolii Smelianskii, "Cabaret? Kabare!" Moskovskie novosti, No. 33 (1989); Cicilia Bertolde, "Rossiia noch'iu", Amika, No. 39 (1989); "Spustia vosem'desiat odin god", Teatral'naia Moskva, No. 35 (1989); Katia GlYger, "Die Rettung liegt im Lachen", Stern, No. 49 (1989); Aleksandr Minkin, "Kabare", Ogonek, No. 11 (1990).