The Unique Culture and Mythology Behind Russia's Famous Berezka Ensemble
Since making their debut in 1948, Russia’s Berezka dancers, officially known as the State Academic Choreographic Ensemble Berezka, have performed enough steps to cover “47,000 dancing kilometers,” which is more than the Earth’s diameter. Yet, despite drawing adoring crowds in over 80 countries for nearly 75 years, crowds that occasionally spilled over in excess into the venues' hallways, not one of these steps has ever been witnessed by an audience.
Beneath the floor length skirts of their sarafans, the traditional dress of the Russian female peasant class well into the 20th century, the dancers’ feet move furiously. Yet, to the viewer, the all-female troupe appears to float along the stage, as if hovering just above it. With their torsos rigid and elongated, and their arms held elegantly aloft, they move as if coaxed by the gentlest breeze, lending credence to their namesake “Berezka,” (and sometimes the more affectionate “Beryozka”,) which means “little white birch tree.”
This mesmerizing, even haunting visual effect comes courtesy of the “floating step,” a somewhat closely guarded secret invented by the troupe’s founder and original choreographer, Nadezhda Nadezhdina (1908 — 1979), who was an alumna of Russia’s famous Bolshoi ballet.
As she explained in a 1972 interview with The New York Times: “You have to move in very small steps on the very low half-toe with the body held in a certain corresponding position.” And though Nadezhdina insisted that “the Beryozka’s dances [were] not folk dances. They [were] dances whose source is the creative work of the people, but composed by” her, the Berezka dance incorporates many elements of the khorovod, an East Slavic circle-and-line folk dance ritual which is over a thousand years old.
In pre-Christian times, it was performed in worship of Yaril, god of the sun. Dancers would form circles as if orbiting around the sun, or move in a line as if following its journey from East to West along the horizon. One can see the khorovod in the Berezka's traditional patterns of circles, quadrilles, rows, figure eights, carousels, and the joining of hands. After the founding of Christianity, the dance was used as an occasion for young people to gather together in the street, and for young women to find marriageable partners.The neighborhood would appoint one woman as the khorovodnitsa to lead the songs and spontaneously invent new patterns for the rest of the group to follow.
It is still widely performed by everyday citizens at festivals and gatherings as well by professionals on the stage, though the latter is differentiated from the specific and specialized Berezka since they are often performed, at least in part, on a flat foot, as opposed to the Berezka who dance on the ball of the foot, and khorovod dancers’ sarafans are often ankle length or above, allowing for all dance steps to remain visible.
These patterns had distinct characteristics that varied by region. In the middle of the country, movements were fast and vigorous with lively clapping. In the South, dance patterns were more intricate and crowded. Arguably, the Berezka style mimics most closely the more calm, composed, staid manner typical of the north of Russia.
There are two types of khorovod, the ornamental type and the game type, both of which are reflected in the dance of the Berezka. Much like those who dance the game khorovod, Berezka dancers are seen holding handkerchiefs, traditional silk whips, which symbolize strength and humility. As befits the ornamental khorovod style, Berezka dancers give a nod to Russian nature, like the tree for which they are named, a tree which is found in abundance across the country’s landscape.
The birch tree is, arguably, the most omnipresent symbol of Russia and Russian culture. To the Slavs, it was, at once, considered both sacred and of use in everyday life. People thatched their roofs with birch, and rings of birches were planted around villages, as a means of keeping bad things out. They appear in countless Russian folk tales, folk songs (Berezka’s first dance was to the tune of the folk song “A Birch Tree Stood in the Meadow”) and paintings.
Moreover, Slavs use the birch to celebrate the first day of spring, as a symbol of renewal and of life. According to the Encyclopedia of Russia and Slavic Myth and Legend (1998) by Mike Dixon-Kennedy, birches were central to the ceremony of Kumstvo, which celebrated fertility and the coming of Spring. The tree would be decorated with ribbons and “stand like a goddess over the coming festivities, which were designed to confirm the unity of the community and reconfirm its link with deceased ancestors.” These celebrations also involved traditional circle-and-line dances. Dixon-Kennedy goes on to say: “Young girls were central to the Kumstvo, and would wear garlands woven from birch twigs, the garlands representing the fertility of maidens, which they would retain, unsullied, until they married.”
Similarly, Slavs used the birch tree as a means to worship the goddess (spirit) Berenginya, who was believed to be “the progenitress of all living things.” A designated birch would be dressed in the traditional women’s clothing, a central point around which round dances would be executed.
As a result, the birch tree has long symbolized beauty, youth, and femininity. Nadezhdina explained, “any of our works...focuses on the poetical image of the young Russian girl.” So, toward the middle of the twentieth century, when the Soviet government was calling for contemporary culture that reflected the nation’s traditions, the beloved birch was a natural choice.
At the time of the troupe’s founding, in the years following the formation of The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, choreographers like Nadezhdina, and her contemporaries like Igor Moiseyev (1906 — 2007), were called upon to create dances that blended ballet and folk dance, as part of a movement away from "‘vulgar’ gypsy dances, waltzes, and tap dances associated with the decadent West and America in particular." Author Daniel Jaffe goes on to explain in his book, Historical Dictionary of Russian Music (2012): “Choreographers were urged to base their ‘new Soviet national dance’ on 'authentically national (narodnye) dances.’”
Nadezhina had music composed specifically for the Berezka, and their first routines included “...choreographic images (of) everyday life and rituals of olden Russian times.” Much like birch trees, which are planted in clusters to achieve uniformity of height, and owe much of their decorativeness to their volume, the effect of the floating step is heightened when performed in unison. This was in line with Soviet principles that emphasized the group, as opposed to, say, the American emphasis on individualism.
Audiences around the world instantly embraced Berezka, and have continued to do so for nearly 75 years. Shortly after their debut, they won the prestigious State Prize of the USSR. They received raves for “...stimulat(ing) good feelings and faith in fraternity among people.” They were even awarded the Joliot-Curie Medal by the World Peace Council.
More recently, in 2006, they were featured as the key component of the cultural program at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg. They continue to draw crowds from over 80 countries around the world under the guidance of Mira Koltsova, a former pupil of Nadezhina who took over as artistic director of the ensemble upon the latter’s death in 1979. Their costumes continue to include the traditional kokoshniks and head scarves, while incorporating more modern visual elements, like sarafans trimmed with LED lights to enhance their signature effect. With performances scheduled for every month of the calendar year, they remain a rigorous element of Russian cultural life.