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Shostakovich pro-Soviet ballet triumphs at the Bolshoi Theater

It was supposed to be a ballet fit for a party boss: Winsome maids from the local collective farm prance around the stage carrying five-foot long potatoes, while happy Soviet farmers celebrate yet another bountiful harvest.

But communist dictator Joseph Stalin gave Dmitri Shostakovich's ballet "The Bright Stream" a thumbs down when it premiered in 1935 - it seemed too frivolous for the New Soviet Man.

After seven decades of oblivion, the ballet has completed its rehabilitation in the canon of musical masterpieces: This month, Alexei Ratmansky, artistic director of Moscow's Bolshoi Theater, won a prestigious award for his 2003 revival of the work.

Fittingly, the prize is named after Shostakovich himself.

Stalin commissioned "The Bright Stream" to combat rumors, which were true, of a government-instigated famine in Ukraine that killed millions. It was a smash hit, but Stalin hated it and his bad review forced "The Bright Stream" to abruptly close.

"The Bolshoi restored historical justice," Ratmansky said accepting the award, established in 1994 by renowned violist Yuri Bashmet.

The Bright Stream was part of the Communist Party effort to promote farm collectivization and obliterate the memory of a devastating famine engineered by Moscow as part of a forced collectivization drive.

The famine - which killed millions of Ukrainians in 1993-34 and reduced some of the starving to cannibalism - was a state secret, spoken of only in whispers. To combat these rumors, Stalin mobilized media and artists to laud the improvements of rustic life.

Party bosses told Shostakovich, already renowned for his symphonies and theater music, to write a happy-go-lucky account of life on a collective farm whose denizens, inspired by the teachings of Marx, enthusiastically pitch in to build the new Communist utopia.

Shostakovich and choreographer Fyodor Lopukhov borrowed some scenes and choreography from The Bolt, a forgotten ballet that mocked saboteurs of Socialist labor.

The result was a hybrid the composer called a "choreographed comedy." It was infused with vaudeville gags, drag acts and hummable tunes - one of which later became the leitmotif of Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick's last film.

The play features kaleidoscopic scenes with comic capers, a mock duel and Shostakovich's trademark hidden irony. But it lacked a consistent plot, and the grandeur for which most classical ballets strive.

Critics and public alike went crazy over "The Bright Stream" when it opened. Then Stalin showed up for a performance.

The Great Helmsman was not amused. An article titled "The Ballet Hypocrisy" in the newspaper Pravda, a mouthpiece for the Communist Party, icily reprimanded Shostakovich and Lopukhov for a "concocted and impudent" show.

"It was banned because it parodied life on collective farms," the composer's widow, Irina Shostakovich, told the AP.

The year following "The Bright Stream's" closure, Stalin instigated an angry media campaign against Shostakovich, especially for the "vulgar" eroticism of his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The 29 year-old composer was excoriated for straying from the path of socialist realism.

Shostakovich repented, confessed his ideological sins and came up with the relatively conservative Fifth Symphony. He also turned to chamber music, which allowed experiments unacceptable in his more public symphonic pieces.

"He never wrote another ballet," Irina Shostakovich said.

A second denunciation followed in 1948, when most of his music was banned. Expecting to be arrested any moment, he sat every night by the door to his apartment so that when authorities came to haul him away it wouldn't disturb his family.

In the 1949 cantata "Song of the Forests" Shostakovich praised Stalin as the "great gardener." But it wasn't until after the dictator's death in 1953 that the composer was completely rehabilitated.

But "The Bright Stream" remained a banned work.

In 1960, Shostakovich joined the Communist Party - a move seen variously as patriotic and craven - and continued to compose until his death in 1975, despite ill health aggravated by drinking and smoking.

In 2003, director Gennady Rozhdestvensky, a longtime advocate of Shostakovich's works, asked Irina Shostakovich to reassemble the musical score of the banned ballet. He chose Alexei Ratmansky, a dancer and choreographer, to direct a new version.

"It's a brand new ballet," he told the AP. "I did not remake the original choreography, though I kept the libretto and tried to follow the style of those times."

During the overture, a banner hangs across the stage emblazoned with a hammer and sickle, Soviet slogans and newspaper headlines denouncing Shostakovich, including "Muddle Instead of Music."

Surrounded by sheaves of golden wheat and other symbols of Soviet socialism, two ballet dancers are dispatched to the Bright Stream collective farm, where they find love, lust and envy. The ballet ends with a duel, the defeat of Death and a cavalcade of huge, collectively-grown vegetables.

"There is incredible romanticism of the time when hearts were filled with belief in forthcoming Communism," Ratmansky said.

His choreography earned critical accolades, a string of awards and helped revive the Bolshoi - which critics said was mired in its devotion to obsolete productions.

In 2006, Russia lavishly celebrated Shostakovich's centennial with festivals and concerts throughout the country.

UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, named Shostakovich the most played composer of the 20th century. Today "The Bright Stream" flows again.

"Finally, the ballet is back to life," Irina Shostakovich said.

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