Solving the Beriozka mystery

In the 1980s I paid Moscow a couple of visits. It was still part of the Soviet Union — communist to the core and sometimes quite scary. Here’s one example of what things were like at the time. There were few things to buy, and malls — well, the one mall, called GUM — were fairly empty of actual products. But there was culture everywhere, and visiting the Bolshoi or other theatres was quite inexpensive. And you got world class performances. So I went there a lot, caught ballet, opera and the rousing Don Cossacks.

The Red Square mall GUM in the 1980s — lots of shoppers, hardly anything to buy.

One evening my host took me to see the Beriozka dance group. The what? Beriozka (or Beryozka) was a familiar name I knew — Soviet duty-free shops where foreigners and rich Russians could buy Western goods for Western currency. But a dance group? Some kind of ballet? I was definitely interested.

So off we went to the Moscow opera and ballet theatre. The evening started with a few high-kicking routines like this one (the picture is from the official Opera and Ballet site), all very nice, very impressive. But they were merely pre-shows for what was coming. And that was a performance that stuck in my mind for years.

It was delivered by the academic choreographic ensemble “Beriozka” (the name translates to “the little birch tree”), founded in 1948 by one of the most famous choreographers of the 20th century. The above site has a biography: “Nadezhda Sergeyevna imparted poetry of an ancient round dance to the classical dance, connecting the past to the present. The maiden round dance, composed by her to the sound of the Russian national song «Vo pole beryozka stoyala» («In the field the Birch stood») has been bewitching the audience by the exotic, «floating» step…”

When the Beriozka dancers appeared I was stunned. Take a deep breath and start the following video, recorded during a modern-day performance:

If this video gets taken down, simply search YouTube for “Beriozka” — there is plenty of material there.

In the Moscow theatre I had a place in the front row — having offered to take the cost, around $10, for it myself. At the start of the above video you can see what I mean by “front row” — I could lean forward and touch the stage. Which I did, because the impossible physics of what these ladies are doing — nobody can glide around like that — immediately suggests a trick. A fake floor or something. But that was clearly not the case. Were they on roller skates? Maybe with one foot on on a small skateboard, I speculated, while the other was used to push them forward. But the longer I looked the more implausible it became. Check the video yourself, in full screen, watch the faces and the upper torsos, and tell me if there is a better explanation.

I didn’t sleep well that night, the mystery was too puzzling. One theory I came up with, years later, was that they were using hoverboards. The only problem was that hoverboards would only be invented decades after the performance I had witnessed. Today we could do a wonderful fake performance of Beriozka with self balancing unicycles. Memo to self: find a way of organizing such a performance!

I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out Beriozka, even discussed it in forums — some of the theories others came up with, like “Iron-soled shoes coated with Teflon, with moving magnets under the stage,” were outlandish and unconvincing. I studied a number of videos, of less virtuoso performers, and gained an inkling of how it is done. In this video (at around 15 seconds and later) you can clearly see the footwork, since the dancers are wearing lights under their dresses, or here, starting at around 30 seconds. But compare them to the original Beriozkas in the second half of the second video — they are definitely not as good. Here’s a full explanation of the technique, given by a professional teacher — brush up your Russian to follow it. Unfortunately most of what you hear from the original Beriozka group is that it all comes out of the heart, or the soul, or some other I’m-not-telling-you place.

My conclusion: it is actually done with normal steps, little ones, and rigorous, almost super-human control of the upper body while taking them. Years of practice and discipline lead to the perfection I witnessed. So hats off to these remarkable ladies!

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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