Shostakovich: ‘Football is the ballet of the masses’

Missoulian arts columnist Joe Nickell, confounded by the annual set piece that is The Nutcracker, recalls a night in Dec 04 when he attended the ballet instead of watching the NCAA Division I-AA gridiron football championship between Montana and James Madison. “We were the rebels,” he writes in ’04, “we ballet-goers in our slacks and ties.” The denial of the college football game, which felt like “a radical social statement,” prompts comparison between sport and ballet, leading to judgment on the “surface beauty” of each.

Nickell’s reflection reminds us of the 1930 ballet The Golden Age (Op. 22), by Dmitri Shostakovich. The composer takes as a theme a Soviet football team’s visit to the West, to the mythical U-town. In proxy form, Shostakovich represents in music and choreography what biographers describe as his fanaticism for the game, especially for Leningrad Zenith (now league champion Zenit St. Petersburg). Of his zeal, the Observer writes in 2000: “He exchanged detailed analyses of [Zenit] matches with friends and kept notebooks of scores and championship league tables, arranged in pyramids.”

A review, in Ballet.co Magazine, of a Jul 06 performance of The Golden Age by St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre (formerly the Kirov) offers a glimpse into the action on stage. The end of the second act, the review says,

begins with a depiction of a football match—not initially particularly convincing or persuasive. But the stage gradually floods with men, and the music turns more martial, the scoreboard starts to revolve as if with a count of the dead and we are clearly headed off to war.

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