Music scholar pursues research from Russia to the barre

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- Faculty member Simon Morrison is willing to suffer for his scholarship. The assistant professor of music has spent hours in the dead of winter in an unheated library in St. Petersburg, on the trail of a lost choreography for his research on Russian ballet music. Despite being a self-proclaimed "klutz," he has taken ballet lessons on two continents to improve his understanding of the art.

Simon Morrison, an assistant professor of music

Simon Morrison, an assistant professor of music at Princeton, has conducted research in St. Petersburg and taken ballet lessons on two continents in pursuit of his work in Russian music.

Morrison's perseverance in his research is what sets him apart as a scholar, according to colleagues -- and what carries him through some difficult situations.

Living in St. Petersburg, where he spent four months last winter doing research, "was literally like living in the twilight zone because there were six hours of light a day," Morrison said. And his living conditions were quite rugged. "That's Russia -- the rough before the diamonds. But I got hooked on tracking down these lost choreographies. It became an obsession."

There are only a handful of Russian music experts in North America, most of whom are a good deal older than Morrison, who earned his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1997.

"Simon is a trailblazer," said Scott Burnham, chair of the music department. "He's out there where few have dared to tread. He's like a great surfer on a big wave, and he's got the energy and the persistence to stay with it."

Morrison is drawn to topics that few other scholars have pursued. His first book, "Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement," published by the University of California Press in 2002, explores the occult fascination of Russian artists in the Silver Age, which spans 1890 to 1917. The symbolist movement has gotten little attention from scholars because it was suppressed during the Soviet regime.

Morrison's current book project deals with the lost choreographies of six major ballets. The study of ballet music long has been neglected, he said, because "there was an inherent bias in the scholarship that somehow ballet music was inferior. Ballet dancers did not have the gravitas of opera singers."

Reconstructing those choreographies helps music scholars like Morrison understand the scores more fully because "composers wrote the music with specific choreographies in mind," he said. Morrison's book project explores the notion that because there was no highly detailed system of notating ballets until the mid-20th century, "wasn't it the case that the people who were creating them had to know that their artworks were very transient? What I began to realize is that a lot of these ballets are meditations on ephemerality."

A passion for Russian music

Morrison began studying Russian music while working on his master's degree at McGill University, but the subject truly became his passion when he went to live in Russia in 1992 as the Soviet Union was dissolving.

"I went there and lived in a tenement on the edge of Moscow. Despite the country's latest 'time of troubles,' it was the happiest time in my life," said Morrison, who has been on the Princeton faculty since 1998.

Last year, Morrison went back to Russia in search of the lost choreography for Maurice Ravel's acclaimed 1912 ballet, "Daphnis and Chloe."

He went to the Russian State Historical Archive in St. Petersburg to examine the original manuscripts, looking for notes on the choreography. It was winter, and there was no heat in the building.

  Morrison located 28 photographs in a Russian archive that illustrate parts of the choreography for the 1912 ballet "Daphnis and Chloe." In this photograph, choreographer Mikhail Fokine and his wife, Vera, appear to demonstrate how the goathered Chloe positions herself as she succumbs to the pirates who take her prisoner.

"They said, 'If you work here, wear your mittens,'" he recalled. "I sat in a frozen room. It was impossible to write. I was thinking, 'Thank goodness there's not much here.'"

A notation mentioned that another copy of the scenario was housed in the archive of the State Theatre Library. He went to that archive and found some detailed descriptions of the ballet's choreography, but still was not satisfied. He was sure there was more, even though choreographies were not typically written down in that period and are usually lost to time.

Morrison befriended an archivist named Tatiana. He learned that she had a passion for the ballet's choreographer, Mikhail Fokine, and after weeks of repeated visits to the archive and friendly conversations with Tatiana, Morrison found himself in possession of a bundle of uncataloged photographs -- the treasure he was pursuing.

"Tatiana brought out 28 moldy photographs," Morrison said. "That was the great find." There were photos of Fokine and his wife working out dance steps in his studio; there were shots of the choreographer with his dancers; and there was a photograph of a performance taken from the back corner of the stage, a rare discovery.

With little information surviving on choreography from that period, the photographs are an invaluable source of information.

Immersing himself in the subject

Early on in this project, Morrison decided that to more fully understand the music he was studying he needed to do something radical: take ballet lessons.

"In working on this, I realized that to have a sense of integrity, I needed to learn some ballet," said Morrison, who approached an instructor at the Laban School in London with some trepidation. (Morrison was in England for the summer.) "I said, 'Look, I'm a music historian from Princeton, I'm awkward and a klutz, I'll stand in the back, let me just do this.' And she let me. I came home broken every day, but it was a great experience."

He continued his lessons last fall at the Princeton Ballet School. "It was, to say the least, unsophisticated," he said, "but they respected the shamelessness of it."

Putting scholarship into action

After spending so much of his time hunting for lost choreographies, Morrison is taking the next step: He has orchestrated a plan to put on one of the great lost ballets, "Pas D'Acier," or "The Steel Step," by Sergei Prokofiev and Georgii Yakulov. The ballet was conceived as a dramatic tale about factory life after the Russian Revolution; a magnificent set was designed as well. But budget constraints and a change in choreographers led to a scaled-down version being performed in Paris in 1927.

Morrison is hoping to recreate the ballet as its authors originally conceived it. He has enlisted the help of the Department of Music and the Program in Theater and Dance. Students will create and perform the choreography, accompanied by the University Orchestra. Renowned ballet reconstructionist Millicent Hodson is scheduled to come to campus to co-teach an advanced modern dance class; the students in that class will be the dancers in "Pas D'Acier." Scholar Lesley-Anne Sayers, who has spent 10 years working on a reconstruction of the elaborate set, will lend her expertise. "Pas D'Acier" is scheduled to be performed at the Berlind Theatre during the last week of April 2005.

Ze'eva Cohen, a professor of the Council of the Humanities and the coordinator of undergraduate dance studies, is delighted to be collaborating with Morrison. "For me, it is a missing part of a puzzle that I was eager for for many years: creating a better connection with the music department," she said. Cohen also will participate in a conference on the interaction between music and dance in ballet, to be held in conjunction with the performance.

But before the ballet comes to life, Morrison has to raise the funds. He currently is approaching grant-giving organizations to ask for support. "I've met with people and they've said, 'You're a dreamer.'" But Morrison, who has spent countless hours searching for lost choreographies in a frigid library and nursing sore feet, is undaunted: "I've been dealing with the impossible for a long time."


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