Anatoliy Shekera, who died five years ago, left a noticeable trace on the development and maturation of the Ukrainian school of choreography. Shekera’s productions combine the romantic-poetic nature of ballet dance. In his performances one finds psychology, energy, imagery, monumentalism, and philosophical depth, all of which gives the audience room for analysis and reflection. The choreographer’s original talent was first realized in Lviv, then in Kharkiv, and from 1966 was associated with Kyiv.
For his debut in the Ukrainian capital he chose Aref Melikov’s Legend of Love, which still ranks with the most sophisticated contemporary ballets. This production did not illustrate the Persian legend, and Shekera brought his new choreography to the Kyiv stage by creating its dancing and notional equivalent, with the music score conveyed through ballet vocabulary. In the Legend of Love, scenes from which were performed during the festival, the choreographer combined various styles-heroic and romantic ballet.
CONTINUITY OF GENERATIONS
For Shekera, ballet was a full- fledged dramatic performance that penetrates the hero’s inner world and understands his psychology and emotions, rather than a refined kind of entertainment — the way ballet was practiced at the time. In the four decades on the stage of the National Opera of Ukraine Shekera’s talent flourished: 16 of his productions were staged, and his Spartacus and Romeo and Juliet are still considered the standard. His performances were marked by prestigious international awards, including the UNESCO Diaghilev and Taras Shevchenko prizes.
“Dancing, as an artistic phenomenon, manifests itself in various forms and on a broad range. Speaking about dancing, I mean above all its academic basis...I have always dreamed and done my best to make our ballet not a collective of ‘individual stars’ but a star team united by inner discipline,” Shekera said in one of his last interviews.
Several generations of dancers have grown up on Shekera’s ballet productions. The distinguished choreographer staged ballets in Poland, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, and Turkey. This year the Shekera Prize for choreographic art was conferred on Tanja Vujsic Todorovska, prima ballerina of the Macedonian Opera and Ballet Theater. She graduated from Kyiv’s College of Choreography and is currently apprenticing with the Ukrainian Dance Academy, where she is a pupil of Eleonora Stebliak, Shekera’s widow. Todorovska may be regarded as one of Shekera’s pupils; she danced in his productions of Rasputin, Legend of Love, and Spartacus.
Today, the repertoire of the National Opera of Ukraine boasts five Shekera productions: Swan Lake, Bolero, Spartacus, Coppelia, and Romeo and Juliet. The gala concert marking the end of the festival starred premier dancers Olena Filipieva, Serhiy Sydorsky, Anastasia and Denys Matviyenko, Tetiana Holiakova, Ihor Bulychov, Natalia Matsak, Viktor Ishchuk, Nina Zmeievets, Ivan Kozlov, Mykola Mikheiev, Yaroslav Salenko, and others. They danced to the accompaniment of the National Opera’s symphony orchestra.
The soiree program may be described as a hymn to the maestro and generational continuity. In addition to Shekera productions, the program also featured works by contemporary choreographers, among them Alla Rubina, Boris Eifman, Elvin Ailey, and Tetiana Ostroverkh. During the first part of the soiree the orchestra was conducted by Allin Vlasenko. The festival ended with Maurice Ravel’s one-act ballet Bolero (orchestra conducted by Volodymyr Kozhukhar; soloists: Tetiana Andreieva, Oksana Huliayeva, and Serhiy Lytvynenko). Incidentally, Anatoliy Shekera and Leonid Soloshyn wrote the libretto, creating a dynamic choreographed short story about the three faces of love, with a philosophical subtext illustrating that flippancy and treachery are unforgivable in the world of true love.
THE MAESTRO ON AND OFF STAGE
Anatoliy Shekera embodied an entire epoch of Ukrainian ballet, so the festival commemorating the legendary choreographer gathered a great many ballet devotees in the National Opera’s audience, including former colleagues and media people. How do people who used to know him well remember him?
“Shekera was not just a choreographer and ballet-master, he was a thinker,” says Anatoliy MOKRENKO, an opera singer and former director-general of the National Opera of Ukraine. “I remember a number of concert tours abroad when we spent months away from home. I was fortunate enough to make friends with Anatoliy Shekera. I knew not only his ballet interests but also what he was concerned about behind the stage. Why did Shekera leave such a gigantic trace on Ukrainian ballet? He was an architect by nature, both in ballet and daily life; he had encyclopedic knowledge. I’m sure that if he hadn’t found his place in ballet, he would have become an excellent architect. He was fond of history, architecture, music, and he was versed in all these fields. His ballet productions are so attractive because every dance number has its own concept. Unfortunately, a lot of modern choreographers don’t bother to put any ideas in their productions, so they turn out to be just so many ballet steps. Shekera knew how to reveal the philosophy of music in his ballet productions, so they are immune to the passage of time; they remain alive and topical.”
“The face of Ukrainian ballet has everything to do with the name of Anatoliy Shekera,” insists Yuriy STANISHEVSKY, theater specialist and president of the Ukrainian Dance Academy. “He staged productions that were marked by great style and range, matching those of Yuriy Grigorovich. Both of these choreographers are masters and ballet trendsetters. What their productions have in common is scope and grandeur. Shekera raised four generations of ballet dancers in Kyiv alone, among them Olena Potapova, Valentyna Kalynovska, Tetiana Tayakina, Valeriy Kovtun, Iraida Lukashova, Valeriy Pasehov, Eleonora Stebliak, Raisa Khylko, Liudmyla Smorhachova, Mykola Priadchenko, and other excellent dancers. Thanks to Shekera’s productions, they could reveal absolutely new facets of their talent. Kalynovska, for example, danced her best part as Mekhmene-banu in the Legend of Love. Scenes from this wonderful ballet were performed during the gala concert by the National Opera’s current troupe. I think this production will be returned to the company’s repertoire because this ballet marks the summits of choreographic accomplishment. The Legend determined the Kyiv Opera’s style. The festival included the performance of the legendary ballet Spartacus, a heroic dance-poem, and the emotionally overwhelming Romeo and Juliet.
“Coppelia, a fairy-tale ballet, was Shekera’s last production. The plot appears quite simple, based on Hoffmann’s The Sandman, but it turns out to be a story about man’s diversified inner world subtly conveyed by the language of dance. This ballet awakens one’s dreams about the ideal; a doll cannot become human, no matter how hard you try to animate it, but true love can work miracles.
“Bolero is a case study in musicality, symphony, and keen insight into choreography. It should be noted that Shekera’s ballet productions are still alive thanks to his wife Eleonora Stebliak, who is preserving her late husband’s legacy while raising a new generation of talented dancers at the National Opera. She is thus passing on his creative baton. Shekera’s ballet productions mark the highest level in Ukrainian and world ballet; he ranks with the top five choreographers of the 20th century.”
Former ballet dancer Larysa STUPKA says: “I first met Anatoliy Shekera in 1963. I had just graduated from the choreography college and joined the Lviv Opera and Ballet Theater’s troupe. Shekera added me to the cast rehearsing his productions. I danced my first part in Bolero. We girls descended to the stage from high above, from the gridiron. It was very spectacular, so very unusual. Shekera always proceeded from the music, and this ballet was also very impassioned and temperamental. I danced in his other well- known productions, including Lileya, Cinderella, Legend of Love, Spartacus, and Predawn Lights.
“The cast always looked forward to rehearsals. Anatoliy Shekera always appeared with a ready plan of action. He thought over the whole performance, carefully planning every mise en scene. Stepping into the rehearsal room, he was ready to offer his views on the performance. During rehearsals he was a tough taskmaster, demanding that every dancer display a filigreed technique. If we had problems, he showed us. Unfortunately, he passed away early. He was a man of great talent and he could have created a great many things.
“That his productions are still on stage should largely be credited to the dedicated effort of his wife Eleonora Stebliak, a former ballet dancer, who is a coach with the National Opera. She is carrying the baton. After all, the dancers on whom Anatoliy Shekera counted in his productions retired long ago, whereas in ballet, experience is shared on a “leg to leg” basis. You know, I started crying watching scenes from the Legend of Love. There are many personal memories associated with this ballet. I first danced in it when I was a student at the Baku College of Choreography (the ballet was staged by Yuriy Grigorovich).
“Shekera started working on Aref Melikov’s work in Lviv and his version turned out gorgeously, but in Kyiv he came up with a totally new choreographic reading of the music, and the result was overwhelming. You know, I adore Shekera’s Spartacus and Romeo and Juliet. I try to watch them every time I spot them on the billboards. Time has no sway over these productions. In Romeo and Juliet, Anatoliy Shekera managed to combine tragedy and poetry, and convey a harmonious palette of emotions and conflicts. In Spartacus, dancing and music create a polyphony where every gesture, every mise en scene, every step is filled with rhythm and feeling.
“These productions have entered the encyclopedia of ballet. I think the choreographer’s archives should be published; they are a treasure-trove of ideas that Shekera was not destined to realize. A book should be written about him. He was an extraordinary personality and choreographer.”
Yevhen STANKOVYCH: “Anatoliy Shekera was keenly aware of music, so his ballet productions were top-notch dramatic performances. I consider myself fortunate to have known Anatoliy Shekera personally and worked with him. He staged the ballets Olha, Prometheus, and Fern Blossom to my music in Kyiv, and Rasputin in Skople (Macedonia).
“The choreographer’s creative destiny was not always cloudless. We found ourselves branded ‘nationalists’ after Prometheus. I remember how Anatoliy Shekera suffered the closure of his Gogol-based production (he was staging it together with the Veriovka Ensemble, also to my music). He was persecuted by Soviet bureaucrats in charge of culture. That bacchanalia ended only with the start of perestroika... Anatoliy Shekera was a man with a big heart and a God-given choreographer. We are painfully aware of the lack of such personalities today.”
Mykola ZHULYNSKY, president of the National Council on Culture and Spirituality of the President of Ukraine: “I worked for the cabinet in 1992-1999. This was a very difficult period for the Ukrainian arts, particularly for the Kyiv Opera. We often communicated with Anatoliy Shekera (he was then the company’s artistic director and chief choreographer). We tried to figure out how to make the National Opera’s ballet troupe function normally. After all, ballet dancers have a very limited timeframe when they reach their peak of mastery. They must be given time to fully reveal their talent; they must have adequate working conditions and be given a creative impetus so that they can realize their creative egos not only in the home company but elsewhere in the world.
“Shekera staged every ballet with such skill that a number of dancers were able to reveal various facets of their talent. We used his productions to present Ukrainian ballet abroad. And so, despite financial hardships, we organized concert tours abroad. You know, I think there should be only one national opera in a country. In our case, this is the Kyiv Opera. There should also be one national drama company, museum, and university. Otherwise, all concepts are degraded. I remember admiring press reviews of the National Opera’s ballet and choir tours in France, Spain, and Japan.
“It is unfortunate that Anatoliy Shekera died so early, but there is supreme divine justice in the fact that we have our memories, very clear memories that possess the greatest potential-spirituality and generational continuity. People like Anatoliy Shekera are born once in a blue moon, and Ukraine was lucky to have had a choreographer of such caliber. The gala concert demonstrated that Shekera left a great legacy and that his cause is being continued by his pupils. I am proud to say that the National Opera’s ballet troupe is considered one of the best in the world. The high standard set by Anatoliy Shekera is being upheld by those who are dancing in his ballet productions. All the dancers performed brilliantly. They showed true mastery, and we in the audience enjoyed the concert. That spiritual fire ignited by Shekera is burning in the hearts and temperament of his pupils, I am sure.”
Anatoliy Shekera wrote in his diary: “Doing a creative job in this country has always been difficult. Once we had money but no freedom. Now we have a degree of freedom but no money for staging performances. Our nation has never lived in normal historical times. We have always been in crisis. We are in a temporal deadlock and this is very alarming.”
Among Shekera’s creative plans that were never realized is the ballet Paradise Lost, based on a biblical plot. In fact, he considered this ballet the main thing in his creative life. According to Eleonora Stebliak, Paradise Lost was supposed to show that when people lose their faith in higher ideals, they suffer a personal fiasco. Anatoliy Shekera searched painfully for the music; he was convinced that it had to be written by a very talented composer. He wanted to stage a ballet that would be a confession.