Asaf and Sulamif Messerer, the ballet dynasty

by Azary Messerer

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TOURS THAT MADE HISTORY
Asaf and Sulamif Messerer

Asaf Messerer, the great dancer and choreographer with his sister Sulamif became living legends in dance. They both taught ballet in the Bolshoi and many companies around the world for 70 years, and such celebrated artists as Plisetskaya, Ulanova, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Vasiliev, Makarova, Dowell, Guillem took their classes. Sulamith Messerer shared her reminiscences with the author of the article. 

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Messerer family reunion in Germany, 1933

The story of this photograph is astonishing.  I received it on the eve of the year 2000 and decided then and there that it was an omen, and that I was destined to write about it and about Sulamif and Asaf Messerer, my aunt and uncle.  Young and handsome, they form the centrepiece of the photo, surrounded by relatives whom they are seeing for the first time.  These relatives represented two branches of our family that had roots in Germany.  In front sit my grandfather’s brothers — Boris, Lazar and their wives.  Standing are their children and niece Ruth, the youngest, who by some miracle preserved this photo.  It was taken by David Messerer, Sulamif and Asaf’s cousin, in Frankfurt, in 1933, soon after Hitler came to power.  David was still studying physics at the university and was interested in photography.  He not only photographed but developed and printed in his lab at home.  This time he had set the camera on a tripod, ignited the magnesium, and barely managed to join the group.

The shadow of impending tragedy had not yet darkened their faces.  In a few years, most of them would perish in the Holocaust, in Nazi concentration camps.  Two of them, my namesake Azary, a talented linguist, and his lovely sister Dorita (who are standing in the second row, on the left) escaped to Paris with their parents after the pogroms of Kristalnacht.  French collaborators turned them over to the Gestapo one month before France’s liberation, and from Paris they were sent to Auschwitz.  Only four of the youngest were saved.

I am grateful to Sulamif because she put me in contact with Alex Messerer (who is standing to the left of Asaf in the photograph) and through him, I got to know my Israeli relatives.  How did Sulamif ever find them after more than 50 years?

In the early 1980s, she was staging a ballet in Sao-Paulo, Brazil.  After the performance, a rather elderly gentleman came up to her saying that he was the uncle of   Fanny Messerer, Alex’s wife, and wrote down their telephone number in Haifa.  Alex had fought in the British army during World War II and then in Israel’s war of independence.  He and his brother David, both outstanding engineers, recently were in Frankfurt by invitation of the mayor and saw the memorial wall. There, among the thousands of names of Jews, tormented in death camps, they found those of their father, mother, sister and cousins.

Asaf and Sulamif turned up in Germany completely unexpectedly, during the course of their first tours in the West.  These tours made history.  Until then no ballet dancers had left the Soviet Union for the West, and their ‘flight’ to Europe was like a trip to another planet.

 A TELEPHONE CALL TO THE KREMLIN

 On December 30, l932 they left for the Baltic countries.  At that time, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were independent, but still more or less accessible.  In Moscow, there existed the one organization, with the obscure name of “Posredrabis,” that authorized contracts for tours of performers in the Baltic countries.  Asaf had been on tour twice in this area and they knew him. His first tour had been with Viktorina Kriger, the famous ballerina, who had fallen out of favor with the bureaucrats at the Bolshoi for her unauthorized tours there.  When the same impresario invited Asaf again, he decided to take along his sister, who had already danced many leading roles at the Bolshoi.  According to Sulamif, Asaf both asked her and asserted: “Let’s go?!” But just saying ‘let’s go’ was easy.  What they urgently needed was foreign passports and permission to leave, especially for her, since it was her first time.  “If only Enukidze would help,” Asaf said wistfully, suggesting the name of the then curator of the Kremlin’s culture section.  “If you want, I’ll give you his phone number.  It would be great if you reached him…” Although Asaf was heroic on stage, he was shy as a little child and endured real tortures when he had to get through to the authorities.

As if out of spite, the telephone wasn’t working.  Not burdened by her brother’s timidity, Sulamif went down to a neighbor on the floor below and dialled Enukidze’s personal number.  The most important thing was not to mix up his Georgian name and patronymic.  “Avel’ Safronovich,” she enunciated clearly.  Then it became easier.  “So-and-so is speaking.  We’ve been invited to tour abroad, might you advise us what to do?”  They loved to ‘give advice’ in the Central Committee.  “Well, all right.” Enukidze gave his blessing. “Go ahead and leave.  Here’s the secretary’s number.  He’ll tell you where to go to get a passport.”  And indeed, in the twinkling of an eye, they were given documents for travel abroad, moreover without a time limit for their stay.  There were no forms, no interviews, no instructions — none of the humiliating red tape of a later Soviet period.  A highly placed official could be called at that time simply through the ordinary city phone system.

Two years later, a conversation with Enukidze could become a reason for the arrest.  This former friend of Stalin from his youth, this “joker,” as he was called at the Bolshoi since he quite often invited dancers to the Kremlin on festive occasions, was smeared in the press, and, sometime later, shot as the usual “enemy of the people.”  But 1932 was a year of quiet before the storm, the terror had abated somewhat, and there was talk that after the tragic death of his wife Nadezha Allilueva, Stalin had become less ruthless.

Asaf and Sulamif travelled to Riga as if to paradise, its foliage already surrounding them on board the train.  In Moscow hunger was raging, but here waitresses in white aprons carried around trays heaped with food.  For the first time in many years, Sulamif ate chicken and white bread to her heart’s content.  In Riga, they were met by Tangieva, a well-known ballerina.  It was New Year’s Eve and she invited them to a restaurant to celebrate.  Sulamif had to rush around the Riga boutiques to find a suitable outfit — a long, black dress.  It was her first “shopping” abroad.

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Asaf and Sulamif Messerer

The Christmas ball in the Riga restaurant imprinted itself in her memory with all its rare delicacies, which until then she had only heard about but never tasted.   For their part, the sophisticated Riga audience had a taste of our ballet in all its glory.  Asaf had put together the program.  They opened with a classical pas-de-deux from “Don Quixote,” intending to dazzle the public at once with a technique unprecedented in those times.  Asaf soared upwards in the double tours, each time with an incredible, new finish.  Sulamif executed many fouettes, including 32 doubles!  The audience would say afterwards, as they presented her with flowers in the wings, that it was as if she “had turned into a top.”  Then came the solo numbers.  Sulamif performed in “Dance with a Hoop” to the music of Cherepnin.  An enormous, golden hoop, like today’s hula-hoop, formed a kind of counterpoint to her swift pirouettes.  The older generation seemed to find echoes in this dance of Mikhail Fokine’s choreography, but actually, this was her own staging.

At one of the performances, the hoop flew out of her hands and touched the floodlights over the stage.  By some miracle, she was able to catch it.  The audience rewarded the error with lavish applause and she had to keep it in the dance permanently as a “find.”  For his part, Asaf shone in “Dance with a Ribbon” and “Little Chinese God” from Gliere’s ballet “The Red Poppy.”  They appeared together again in Gluck’s “Melody,” probably the best, most enduring number Asaf staged — it is danced even today in many countries — followed by Johann Strauss’ miniature “Pierrot and Pierrette.”   In Asaf’s choreography, this classic Italian comedy of masks turned into a drama, filled with laughter and tears.  The dejected, eternally pining Pierrot is hopelessly in love with the saucy Pierrette, but she will have nothing to do with him.  Neither Pierrot’s entreaties, nor his genuflection, nor the kisses he blows touch the heart of this reckless girl, devoid of romantic sentiment.  In the end, Pierrot pulls out a red, velvet heart from his bosom and throws it in front of his inaccessible beloved.  Alas, Pierrette crushes the heart with her little feet.  Then she takes Pierrot in her arms, but he is now as if empty, a casing without bones.  The Riga audience clapped their hands off.

The highlight of their triumphant program was the “The Soccer Player,” set by Asaf to the music of Aleksandr Tsfasman, a good friend of his and the most famous Russian jazz musician.  Asaf danced this number alone, but an illusion was created that on stage there were 22 players from two teams and a ball as well.  He reproduced in the dance all the situations of the game: anticipation of a pass, a flying tackle, a kick into the gates, a miss, and finally the magnificent goal, triumphing over all the set-backs and grievances.  A dancer with a fantastic elevation, he literally flew over the stage.  And from the audience flew back bouquets of flowers.

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Asaf Messerer

Many years later, Nicholas Beriozoff, “papa Beriozoff,” as he is known in Western ballet circles, approached Sulamif in London and confessed: “Don’t judge me harshly, but I stole this solo from your brother.  I’ve danced it all my life and all my life I’ve made a living from it …”  “It’s unlikely that you were able to dance like Asaf,” she thought, but simply reassured papa Beriozoff, saying that Asaf, alas, hadn’t copyrighted his choreography.

Unfortunately, in the fifties, when I saw Asaf on stage, he no longer was dancing “The Soccer Player.”  However, along with millions of television viewers, I watched a jubilee evening dedicated to his 80th year.  The hit of the evening was “The Soccer Player.” Asaf demonstrated to his favorite pupil, Vladimir Vasiliev, the movements of this number, and Vasiliev interpreted his steps brilliantly.

Describing these tours in his autobiography,* Asaf notes that they performed in beautiful costumes, made according to sketches by the leading Russian artists Fedorovsky, Erdman and Kurilko.  Sulamif especially liked the silky, chiffon fantasy of Sasha Aleksandrov, an outstanding character dancer of the Bolshoi, who was also a costume designer of rare taste and resourcefulness.  Pierrot’s white costume and Pierrette’s black and white tutu were his inventions.

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Sulamif Messerer

In Riga, their off-stage life was just as exciting.  A particular meeting was especially important.  Michael Chekhov was there, the nephew of Anton Chekhov, who was out of favor with Stalin and had been practically driven out of the Soviet Union.  Now Russian critics write about him as one of the greatest theatrical personages of all time.  During his wanderings in the West, he performed in French theatres, in the famous German theatre of Reinhardt, and then in films in Hollywood, each time in the language of the country.  In America, he is honored as an outstanding teacher, who trained an entire galaxy of famous actors such as Anthony Quinn and Gregory Peck, and as the author of a series of splendid books on the art of the theater.  In the volume of his letters, first published not so long ago in Russia, about ten letters are to Azary Azarin, Asaf and Sulamif’s older brother, whom he considered both a friend and most talented actor.  I remember that in Azary’s apartment hung a portrait of Michael Chekhov with the inscription: “There is wisdom from books –and there is wisdom from talent –and it is for this talent that I love you, my Azarich, and thank you!”

Asaf was the only one to meet with Chekhov in Riga, but Sulamif had already read these letters in the early thirties.  Especially moving was the letter where he writes that in that difficult time when he thought that everyone had forgotten him in his homeland or was afraid to write him abroad, he received a note from Azary, the only one who was not afraid.  Sulamif is sure that Chekhov’s forced emigration and the closing of his beloved Art Theater 2 wounded Azary so deeply that he could not recover.  He died suddenly at the age of 40.

 THE KING REQUESTS AN ENCORE

 When the curtain came down on the tours in the Baltic countries, Sulamif and Asaf received an unexpected invitation to perform at the Stockholm Royal Opera.  They wanted to see them in “Coppelia” and, of course, in the program which had received such enthusiastic reviews in the Riga papers.  When the two mentioned the support of that very same Enukidze, they were given permission from the head of the Bolshoi.  They had barely gotten off the train when they realized that the ballet market was in full swing and they were much in demand.  Stockholm audiences were well acquainted with the best ballet standards.  The last Russian dancers to perform there had been Michel Fokine and Vera Fokina, so that Asaf and Sulamif knew what responsibility they were shouldering: they had to demonstrate that ballet in Russia was alive and flourishing, in spite of everything.

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WATCH  a clip with Asaf Messerer in The Red Poppy – Ribbon Dance, 1940

Judging by the reaction of the Swedish critics, they surpassed all expectations.  “Svenska Dangbladet” wrote on January 26, 1933: “Sulamif’s pirouettes and entrechats were notable for their exceptional elegance. . .  she commands the full, extensive range of the classical school.  It is rare to see a pair that uses aesthetic effects so sparingly, but rather relies on its art, as these young touring Russians.  As a matter of fact, in their performance, the strict school of classical ballet is revealed in all its perfection.”  Another critic wrote in the newspaper “Aftonbladet” on January 30th that “since the time of  Fokine and Fokina we in Stockholm have not seen anything comparable to this performance.  But above all, one must say that even Fokine was incapable of demonstrating anything approaching Asaf Messerer’s fabulous technique.”

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Asaf and Sulamif Messerer

         At one of the performances, Asaf and Sulamif noticed a very tall old man with a back as straight as a ballet dancer, surrounded by his retinue, in the box of the Stockholm Royal Opera House.  It was King Gustavus V.  The audience was carried away, but after “The Soccer Player,” there was a true explosion of applause.  The house went wild for about ten minutes.  At this point, Asaf should have performed an encore, but that was against his rules.  He never gave an encore, believing that repetition destroys the overall impression.  All of a sudden the manager appeared in front of the curtain:  “His Majesty requests that Asaf Messerer repeat this number,” he announced.  This was the first time that Asaf betrayed his principles.  The first, but not the only time.  The audience was so carried away that poor Asaf had to give an encore — three times!

After almost 70 years, in 2001, Sulamif was invited to Stockholm to teach and coach by the then director of the Swedish Royal Ballet, Peter Jakobssen.  Preparations were underway there for a production of “Swan Lake” in the version of Sir Peter Wright, an old friend of Sulamif and Director Emeritus of the London Royal Ballet Sadlers Wells.

The Swedish troupe had arranged a meeting with Sulamif and The Association of Friends of the House.  Around one hundred fifty people attended.  The hall was decorated with huge photographs — Sulamif and Asaf dancing in Stockholm in 1933 — several of the shots Sulamif saw for the first time.  In the theatre’s museum, where the meeting took place, there was also preserved a book with reviews of those performances. In the course of two hours, Sulamif gave a master-class, carefully demonstrating how to correctly execute each movement.  Many students succeeded with the steps, which they had not been able to master.  One ecstatic student said to her, “Madam, how sorry I am that I didn’t see you on the Stockholm stage 70 years ago!” And Sulamif replied:  Thank you, young lady, but, you know, at that time even your mother wasn’t born yet!”

                                  THE REICHSTAG IS BURNING

After their engagements in Sweden and Denmark, Sulamif and Asaf arrived in Berlin, where their concert had been announced with a great flourish and had the honor of taking place in the Kurfyurstendam Theater on May 18, 1933.

Hitler had just come to power and his hysterical cries could be heard ceaselessly on the radio.  Brown columns of storm troupers goose-stepped out along the asphalt.  The pogroms had not yet begun, but in the squares, thugs were already building bonfires out of the books of Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Lion Feuchtwanger and other Jewish authors and those the Nazis had no use for.  Asaf and Sulamif became witnesses to one of the darkest moments of German history: agents provocateurs had set fire to the Reichstag.

“I can compare this shock to what I experienced on September 11, 2001, when I saw the towers of the New York Trade Center collapse on the television screen,” Sulamif recalls.  “The trauma has stayed with me.  When I was in Berlin in 2001, and the light, crystal dome of the Reichstag rose up before me, I remembered the thick haze of smoke that blanketed the sky in 1933.”

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French flier (1933)

But a contract is a contract, although both the Germans from the Society of Friends of Soviet Russia and the staff of the Soviet Embassy tried to convince them in one voice: we are not interested in concerts now, you could not have picked a worse time.  One fine morning they arrived at the theater for a rehearsal and the accompanist was nowhere to be found.  He was frightened of recriminations for working with Soviets.

Fortunately, they received an invitation to perform in Paris on March 15th in the Theater on the Champs-Elysees and they jumped at the chance to get away, if only for a few days, from the fumes of Berlin.  Before their departure, a letter from the older brother Azary was delivered to their Berlin hotel which at least somehow lifted their spirits with lines such as: “I must say your successes make not only us in your household happy –the whole Moscow theater world is ooing and ahing from them.  To corroborate this I’m enclosing a clipping from “Evening Moscow.”  There wouldn’t be space here for greetings from friends and admirers so I’ll give them to you all in a bunch …”

The train to Paris went through Frankfurt and they decided that they had to meet with their relatives — their father wouldn’t have forgiven them if they let slip such an opportunity.  He sorely missed his brothers, whom he had not seen for 20 years.  It was an extremely risky undertaking, but it was still possible in 1933.  In a few years, no one in Russia would dare to mention a meeting with relatives abroad.  However, even then it was necessary to confirm permission at the Soviet Embassy.  They were allowed to go with an escort.

David Messerer,  Sulamif and Asaf’ cousin, wrote me the following in 2003:

“Sulamif and Asaf arrived by train from Berlin and stayed with us a whole day since the train to Paris left in the evening.  As they had spent their childhood and youth in Vilna, my father and uncle could speak with them in Russian.  My father had even been in the Russian army and escaped Russia not long before the Russo-Japanese war in 1904.  After long wanderings, he turned up at the University of Frankfurt, where he studied mathematics and later taught in a gymnasium.  We, the children, unfortunately, didn’t understand Russian.  Aunt Olga, my mother’s younger sister, (on the photo she’s standing on the top row) also spoke Russian fluently.  She convinced the escort, whom we suspected of being an agent of the Soviet secret service, to go across town and look at the famous cathedral where all the German emperors were crowned.  Evidently, her beauty and charm worked their magic.  He agreed, and my parents began to question Sulamif and Asaf excitedly about their brother, whom they had not seen since the First World War, and about the whole family.  Mama, who came from Latvia, was fluent in several languages, including Russian, and she interpreted briefly for us the answers of our Moscow cousins into German.  Sulamif and Asaf made an indelible impression.  Alas, the next time I saw Sulamif was only after 60 years in London.”

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A German postcard (1933)

 AN INVITATION FROM KSHESSINSKA

  Several world famous artists, including Chaliapin, Rachmaninoff, and Spesivtseva, performed in Paris in the spring of 1933.  Nevertheless, Asaf and Sulamif’s concert in the Theater on the Champs Elysees caused a sensation.  Among the many ecstatic reviews, the most significant was an article by Prince Sergei Volkonsky, appearing in the May issue of the Russian language newspaper “Latest News,” which regularly printed such authors as Bunin and Nabokov.  The great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva wrote that Sergei Volkonsky’s prose rhythm was “natural” and if someone has visited there, it must have been just one — God!”  She had in mind his celebrated memoirs.  But I think what he wrote about the Messerers’ performance was equally “inspired”:

“…there is no end to the surprise, even amazement.  From the very first moments of “Don Quixote,” (adagio, two variations, coda) the audience simply gasped in astonishment. The height of Messerer’s jumps, the breadth with which in a few circles he flew around the stage, the number of consecutive pirouettes (even pirouettes en l’ air) and the sudden suspension in his stops put the audience increasingly in his thrall.  One must count among his special qualities an excellent sense of rhythm.  It is not only clear that the dance itself follows the musical design, but such scenes as, for example, Pierrot and Pierette’s entrance, announcing the prelude and fermata so picturesquely and with such assurance, are deeply satisfying.”

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Asaf and Sulamif Messerer

 When I read the article to Sulamif, in August 2003, she responded, “Many thanks to his Highness for such words. True, he criticized us slightly for the fact that at times, carried away by ‘virtuosity’, we lessened the ‘spirituality of the dance.’  I heeded his criticism.  We were young and fascinated by technical innovation. With the years, I came to understand more and more that virtuosity must be an accessory of true artistry and that the ‘spirituality of the dance’ was the most important thing.  Unfortunately, I didn’t chat with him when he came backstage because I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Kshessinska, Preobrajenska and Egorova who appeared with him.”

It’s curious that Volkonsky was accompanied by Kshessinska, since they had had a falling-out.  It was because of her that he had retired from his post as director of the Imperial theaters because she, the favorite of the Tsar’s family, wasn’t about to follow his directions and in fact dictated her own terms in the theater.  However, at that time, Mathilda Kshessinska, who had eventually gotten married abroad to the Great Duke  Romanov, was past 60, and Volkonsky, most likely, had long since made peace with her.  As, by the way, had Preobrajenska, who had tried unsuccessfully at the beginning of the century to dislodge Mathilda from her throne.  Sulamif recalls:

“Mathilda Kshessinska, despite her age, looked rather youthful and exuded the triumph of success.  Beautifully dressed, radiant, with an intelligent twinkle in her eyes – that’s how she appeared to me in her role of empress of the Petersburg ballet.  It was she who danced Odette-Odile for Petipa.  Although Olga Preobrajenska was a contemporary of Kshessinska, she had no such halo of contentment.  She seemed old and stooped to me. And was this the same Preobrajenska for whom Fokine staged the prelude in “Chopiniana?”  Lubov Egorova was younger than her companions by about ten years.  She stayed in my memory that evening for her enormous height.  However could she dance being so tall, and with whom?  Of course, now I wouldn’t be surprised:  tall, long-legged ballerinas have become the fashion.  Egorova was famous not only in the Maryinsky, but also as the prima-ballerina of Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet, and many ballerinas from the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo studied with her.  All three invited us to observe their classes.

It was a great temptation, and the very next day Asaf and I appeared at Kshessinska’s.  The so-called studio turned out to be a rather cramped, little hall. Kshessinska was giving a ballet lesson in a simple, wide, brightly-coloured dress with tiny flowers.  It was a motley group.  Children stood side by side with big-boned girls, I would say, of varying abilities.  Their attitude also varied — some made an effort, others just gazed.

‘You must understand me,’ as if apologizing, Kshessinska whispered in my ear.  She gave off an air of grand imperiousness, which had struck me the night before. ‘Anyone who turns up can study here.  Some are professional, some right off the street.  Take that one, for example,’ Kshessinska nodded in the direction of a rather plump student. ‘She came and asked me to teach her how to do 32 fouettes.   She pays, I show her.  But, alas, she doesn’t get it.’

I would come to understand Kshessinska’s words only in 1980, when, after my defection to the West, I myself ended up in her situation. That was before I was invited to teach at The Royal Ballet.

Mathilda’s lesson left a gloomy impression.  The combinations were made up out of thin air.  There was no famous Petersburg school whatsoever; it lacked logic.

Asaf could barely hold back his disappointment.  For such a fervent enthusiast of the School as my brother, Kshessinska’s class was an insult to his best feelings.  But we parted on a mutually respectful note.

Preobrajenska was a much better teacher.  You could feel her trying to get results.  It was not without reason that Vaganova named Preobrajenska as one of her favorite mentors.  It’s another matter that she also didn’t have much to work with.  It just didn’t stick.  The combined, jumbled-up class, students at various stages of ability, didn’t allow the pedagogue in her to come through.  Sometimes she assigned very difficult things, let’s say, battus in the middle of the room.  Some could do it, others not; there was absolutely no discipline in the group.  Nevertheless, Preobrajenska rushed about the studio, raising someone’s heel, adjusting another’s wrist.  She would switch from French to Russian to English.

But more than anything else in Paris, I liked the lessons which I could take in the studio of Alisiya Vronskaya, a former ballerina at the Maryinsky theatre.  Later on, she was famous as ‘the last living imperial ballerina.’  My good friend Aleksandre Vassiliev, the renowned stage designer, visited her in Lausanne in 1991, when she was 95, and gave her my greetings.  She and I kept up a long correspondence.  Indeed, the ballet is the patron of the long-lived.  At Vronskaya’s, I studied with Ivan Khlustin, once a dancer with the Imperial Bolshoi Theater, known simply in Paris émigré circles as ‘Uncle Vanya’.  He rehearsed with me a variation, which he had once choreographed for Anna Pavlova.  I guard with trepidation the deep feeling of reverence I experienced at that time.  To touch the choreography created for a goddess of the ballet, and under the eye of her personal mentor, was like putting on Pavlova’s ballet shoes… Incidentally, earlier, during his second tour in Riga, Asaf received an invitation to dance as Anna Pavlova’s partner providing he would sign a contract for tours around the world for three years. Of course, they wouldn’t have let him out for three years!  Pavlova died suddenly not long after this.”

Sulamif and Asaf arrived in Paris a few years after Diaghilev’s company had fallen apart with the impresario’s death, but many of its stars were still dancing there.  For example, they were able to see Serge Lifar in Paris Opera at the premiere of “Chopiniana,” in a new production by that very Ivan Khlustin.  Lifar’s famous partner, Aleksandra Danilova, wrote in her memoirs that he “couldn’t dance in a purely classical style.” Since Diaghilev insisted that he dance all the main roles, “Balanchine created for him what we now call the neoclassical style.” ** Sulamif found Danilova’s comment strange:

“First of all, Balanchine by no means created his famous ‘neoclassical style’ just for Lifar.  Secondly, Lifar made a very strong impression on me.  He had a magnificent stage presence, just like a classical dancer: ideal figure, soft jumps, and the expressiveness of his arms can be compared with the arms of Dowell, the best English dancer. He had totally mastered the Petersburg school.  I also admire Lifar because, just like Asaf, having come to ballet very late, in the difficult years of the Civil War, he made up for lost time, working with incredible persistence.  True, as far as virtuosity goes, he yielded to Asaf.  We were told that Lifar was at our performance and spoke highly of it, but we were unable to meet him, since we had received a telegram that the concert in “Kurfyursterdam,” unfortunately, hadn’t been cancelled and was already sold out.”

They really did not want to leave Paris, a city that had welcomed them, for Nazi Berlin.  And besides, it was rather terrifying.  By the entrance to the Kurfyursterdam were stationed trucks with soldiers.  In the theater had gathered Berlin high society in bow ties and fur wraps. Maybe they were functionaries of Hitler’s National Socialist party.  Or highly-placed managers of Krupp and Messershmidt?  Of course, Sulamif and Asaf didn’t suspect at the time that in eight years these names would be engraved in their memory as fragments of bombs, which killed their brother Emmanuel, my father, and the son of Aleksandr, another brother of Sulamif and Asaf.  Meanwhile, the audience applauded.  The propagators of the superior Aryan race did not renounce the pleasure of considering themselves connoisseurs of high art.  The next day Sulamif and Asaf received glowing reviews.

It’s curious that under the best of these notices was the signature J. Levitan, the same name as the famous Soviet announcer, whom Hitler promised to hang right after Stalin on Red Square in 1941.  Obviously, in 1933, Jews could still write in the Berlin press, but these were not German Jews.  In this instance, Levitan, a correspondent for the American magazine “Dancing Times,” was writing for the Berlin publication in English.  He draws an interesting conclusion from the content of their program, in which classical dance was set next to Asaf’s choreographic compositions that were innovative for those days.

“For Germany and all Central Europe, the Messerers should be more than a casual, if wonderful episode; their tour should affirm the knowledge that the future of the dance points to this path.  The past and future of the art of the dance belong together, a contrast between ballet and the modern dance is ridiculous and the much praised new discoveries of modernism can also be found in a ballet work as long as this is fully alive.”***

Levitan turned out to be much more discerning than those adherents of the academic canon at the Bolshoi who later reproached Asaf more than once for “modernism,” that is actually for his striving to find new expressive means, closer in spirit to the present.

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Asaf Messerer

           Probably Levitan’s article had its echoes in America.  After Berlin, Sulamif and Asaf again performed in Paris, and then and there three American impresarios, including the by then renowned Sol Hurok, wanted to contract with them.  One of them turned out to be so enterprising that he insisted on tours in the United States during that very season.  He took many photos of the dancers for posters and printed the draft of the program.  But even a four-month outing abroad in 1933, when everything was under close surveillance, was too much.  Moreover, Asaf let slip the possibility of American tours in letters to his wife, Anel Sudakevich who at that time was a star of silent films.  The letter was read in the proper quarters.  Right away Asaf’s friend Michael Gabovich sent him the instructions of the Party committee: “Return immediately or you will be considered defectors.”  But Asaf received at the same time joyous news.  Anel had telegraphed: “You have a son, a sweet, fair little one.”  Boris Messerer, the future famous artist and stage designer, had come into the world.

Sulamif and Asaf returned to a country where The Great terror was tightening its grip.  It would be many years before their next tours abroad, and then they would appear only as teachers and choreographers.  Sadly, they did not perform together again in the West.


  • Asaf Messerer “Tanets Misl Vremia” (“Dance Ideas Time”), Iskusstvo Publishing House, 1979, p 95.
  • Alexandra Danilova “Choura The Memoirs of Alexandra Danilova, Dance Books, London, 1987, p.97.
  • Levitan, “Messerer in Berlin”, ”Der Tantz”, #4, Berlin,1933, pp. 11-12.

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