A Synthesis of Ephemeral Forms: Soviet Camera Enthusiasm on the Margins of the Performing Arts

Maria Vinogradova is a Visiting Scholar at Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia (NYU), Visiting Assistant Professor at Pratt Institute, and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema (Brooklyn College, CUNY). She is a film and media historian specializing in the study of Soviet film culture, in particular, nonfiction and amateur films.

During the renaissance that was the post-Stalin Thaw period, camera enthusiasm became a notable aspect of Soviet sixties culture. The film clubs opening in various parts of the country were both evidence of and catalyst for a growing cinephilia. At the same time, new domestic production of 16- and 8mm equipment produced growing numbers of people wishing to try their hand at making films.

Advocates of amateur filmmaking championed the idea of making the camera part of one’s everyday life, thus contributing to a “film chronicle of our times” [kinoletopis’ nashikh dnei]. The chief coordinator of these efforts was film director Grigorii Roshal’, while the likes of Lev Kuleshov, Roman Karmen, or Yakov Tolchan, a renowned documentary cinematographer whose career had begun with Vertov’s Kino-Pravda, taught workshops and wrote books for aspiring amateur nonprofessional filmmakers. 

In an effort to promote this activity, its advocates publicized the filmmaking of various celebrities, including musicians and performing artists. Prominent stage artists’ turn to filmmaking was often linked to their privilege of traveling abroad. In 1957, for instance, the first festival of amateur film in Moscow highlighted two 16mm films by the Bolshoi Theatre ballet soloist Stanislav Vlasov (1933 – 2017), Bolshoi Theatre Ballet in London and Across Sweden and Norway (each 45 minutes long). Also featured was 8mm footage by the violinist Igor’ Bezrodny, shot on his trips to Mexico, South America, and Japan.

Vlasov, who had bought his camera just a year earlier, was also a keen observer of daily life in his theatre. His footage of the company’s legendary prima, Galina Ulanova, was subsequently reused in professional documentary films, commonly without crediting the source. Vlasov was featured in Ia – kinoliubitel,‘ a 1964 documentary by Tsentrnauchfilm. Upon showing fragments of his footage, shot during Bolshoi’s tour in New York — views of the city, ballet fans queueing for tickets, dancers stitching their pointe shoes between performances — the sequence cuts to shots of Vlasov and his first wife and partner, Liudmila Vlasova, in their apartment with a curtain made of strips of 16mm film. As they pack for another trip, the narrator notes that the “film amateur’s soul” manifests itself in the decision to pack the film camera, alongside a supply of raw footage, before ballet accessories. 

Unmentioned in film periodicals — but apparently well-known in the ballet world at the time — is Vlasov’s footage of ABT’s performances of Michel Fokine’s Firebird and Bluebeard, secretly shot during Bolshoi’s tour in New York in 1960. Fokine, who had moved to Sweden in 1918 and shortly thereafter immigrated to the US, had been viewed as a traitor. His name was therefore largely erased from the history of Soviet ballet for about four decades. In her memoir, ballet historian Nataliia Sheremetievskaia notes that Vlasov’s footage, along with Stravinsky’s score, was used for Bolshoi’s reconstruction of Firebird in 1962.

Both Vlasov and Bezrodny, along with a host of other celebrities including singer Leonid Utesov and theatre director Mikhail Kedrov, belonged to the film section of the Moscow Actors House. Presiding over the section was circus performer Leonid Masliukov (1913-1992), for whom filmmaking was but one element in the vast arsenal of technical tricks he employed in complex estrada performances. According to the memoirs of his colleagues and collaborators, Masliukov had already owned an expensive Bolex 16mm camera in the 1940s.

A fixture in the cultural groups that accompanied Soviet diplomatic missions, such as the one to Tehran in 1943, he used these opportunities to practice his filmmaking craft. In the early 1960s, Masliukov, together with his wife and stage partner Tamara Ptitsyna, created the popular program Evening of Film Storytelling [Vecher kinorasskazov]. The program featured the couple performing their acrobatic routines against as their own travel footage played in the background. One of Evening’s highlights was to film the audience at the start of the performance, after which Ptitsyna would rush to the lab to develop the footage during Masliukov’s solo routines. The resulting footage would be screened at the end. Spectators, surprised to see themselves onscreen and impressed by the speed with which the footage had appeared before them, met this clever trick with acclaim.

In the 1970s, Vlasov opened a new chapter in his career by becoming a choreographer at the Moskontsert studio of dance. In 1974, with support from Leonid Masliukov, he created On the Wings of Dance (Na kryliakh tantsa), a dance performance in the genre of estrada that used film footage he had taken throughout the years. He and Lilia Sabitova, his partner and second wife, were this program’s sole performers, dancing against the backdrop of a film projection that fulfilled the role of both stage setting and corps de ballet. Largely forgotten today, the program, as described by Nataliia Sheremetievskaia, allowed Vlasov to showcase what he did best — partner dance and, in particular, his weightless lifts — while also synthesizing his skills as a choreographer with those of a film editor. His use of superimpositions and freeze frames punctuates the viewing experience, directing audience attention from the live performers to the screen, and back again. 

The alliance of amateur filmmaking with estrada presents a synthesis of two ephemeral forms. Estrada’s reliance on the skills and charisma of individual performers prevented it from creating a classical repertoire that could outlive them. Amateur films, even those made by or featuring celebrities, were rarely preserved in formal film archives during the Soviet period, as well as today. While most such audiovisual materials have been lost, a significant number still reside in private collections. The digital age has played a dual role in creating an afterlife for them. On the one hand, our newly developed habit of sharing and watching a wide array of self-shot footage and other nonfictional fragments has generated popular interest in historical films that had not previously enjoyed broad viewerships. On the other hand, the availability of affordable consumer digitization services has prompted many private collectors to discard or neglect their originals, replacing them with inferior-quality digital copies recorded on unstable carriers like DVDs.

Major film archives today give second lives to both landmark and obscure films through state-of-the-art digital restoration, preparing them for new theatrical runs or making them available for preview on their websites and other platforms. In 2008, the premiere at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy of newly restored animated films by Alexander Shiryaev (originally created between 1905 and 1909) created a sensation in the global cinema community. Shiryaev, a character dancer, teacher, and Deputy Ballet Master of the Mariinsky Theatre, pursued filmmaking as an aid to studying dance movement and used the nonprofessional 17.5mm format. His animated films predate those of Ladislaw Starewicz, who is regarded as a pioneer of stop-motion animation. Shiryaev’s oeuvre also includes home movies, trick films, and footage of his colleagues from the world of dance. Viktor Bocharov, the St.Petersburg-based filmmaker and dance historian who discovered the films, stresses that his background in both fields — film and dance — prompted him to embark on the search in the early 1990s. Though interdisciplinary practices like filmmaking on the margins of professional dance frequently remain neglected by researchers and archivists from both fields, in this case, careful attention to the source material allowed for the resurrection of a previously underappreciated set of works.