Secret Ballet of the Steppes (1974)

Sample Images

Secret Ballet of the Steppes 1aSecret Ballet of the Steppes 1bSecret Ballet of the Steppes 1c

Published: Tammy 14 September 1974 to 30 November 1974

Episodes: 12

Artist: Douglas Perry

Writer: Gerry Finley-Day?

Translations/Reprints: Tammy annual 1981

Plot

A last remnant of Tsarist Russia escaped the Russian Revolution and established itself as a Tsarism kingdom in the Steppes, where everything – including serfdom, salt mines and oppression – runs the way it was pre-1917. It has completely bypassed the Russian Revolution, Communism, Stalin, World War II, the KGB and modernity, and not even modern Russia is aware of its existence. It caters to the whims of Princess Petra, a sickly but tyrannical girl who lives only for ballet. Petra herself is in the grip of her adviser Berova, a female Rasputin type who preys on fear, oppression and superstition to keep everyone in line. Ever since Petra fell into Berova’s power, the peasants, who had enjoyed a more humane rule under Petra’s father, have suffered intolerable lives.

Petra wants to revive the ballets her court enjoyed pre-revolution, but there are no dancers. So Berova dispatches her agents to kidnap an entire British ballet company. But the agents goof up and grab a class of ballet pupils by mistake, who have never so much as danced a ballet. When the mistake is discovered, Berova is not letting the pupils go. Her mandate: perform the ballets and do them well enough to satisfy the princess, or become serfs for life.

Seeing little choice but to go along with it, pupil and main protagonist Judith Green encourages her class to start off with Carnival, as they know some of it. All the same, it is a difficult undertaking, especially as they have no proper instructors or training in organising a ballet. Moreover, they soon learn that the princess demands an exemplary performance in only a few days at the most, and has no regard as to whether they are ready or not. However, they are aided by pianist Nicolas Ikanovitch (who loses his beard very quickly for some reason) and the original choreography still on the scores.

Babs Sinclair and Clarissa Howes have no confidence in meeting the princess’ demands because they the worst dancers in the class. They try to escape but are recaptured. Judith seeks out Petra’s quarters in the hope of mercy. She discovers Petra’s passion for ballet, which Petra tries to do despite weak legs. In the hope of softening Petra she begins to teach her some ballet, which helps to strengthen her legs into the bargain. Berova discovers this and posts guards to keep Judith away from Petra.

Berova grudgingly releases Babs and Clarissa, as their imprisonment is adversely affecting the dancers. Even Babs and Clarissa perform well enough for the opening night of Carnival, which is a success. For now, the slave dancers are in favour with Petra and are safe, but one misstep could make things otherwise.

Judith finds a friend in Princess Petra’s companion, Countess Katrina. Katrina sneaks Judith into Petra’s apartments to teach her more ballet, and they hide her when Berova comes. While in hiding, Judith sees Berova has some sort of Rasputin-like hypnotic hold over Petra, and suspects the key to freedom might be breaking it.

Petra sends Judith a present in gratitude, but this makes Babs and Clarissa so jealous they demand to take the leading roles in the next performance of Carnival. This turns the performance into such a disaster that Petra faints and takes to her bed. The girls have to put on a special dance to restore her strength. Berova gives the girls only three days to prepare and present another ballet. If Petra is not happy with it, it’s the salt mines for them, the stage hands and musicians.

Nicolas advises Coppelia as the quickest to learn. It goes remarkably well all things considered, but Judith collapses from exhaustion at the end of it. Petra is persuaded to give the slave dancers a break and they are taken for a sleigh ride across the Steppes. Along the way the girls see the appalling living conditions of the oppressed serfs and how much they hate royal imperialism.

Meanwhile, there have been hints building up that Nicolas is up to something, and the girls now find out what it is: Nicolas leads them into a trap where they are captured by revolutionaries led by Igor Krof. The Russian Revolution is finally catching up to Petra.

The girls are hostages to force Petra to agree to Igor’s terms; the bargaining chip is not their lives but Petra’s obsession with ballet and Judith being her secret ballet teacher. As time passes, no news arrives and Igor and his revolutionaries vent their frustration by making slaves out of the girls.

Judith resolves to find a way to soften Igor before they are worked to death. Ironically, it’s the same as the princess: dancing. These people really love dancing. Judith conceives a ballet that incorporates the native peasant dances they are picking up and the revolutionaries’ ideals of overthrowing oppression. The revolutionaries love it and want a daily performance.

But then bad news arrives: Petra is sending the army in to crush them. The revolutionaries get ready to fight, which will mean slaughter if the two forces meet. Figuring the answer is to break Berova’s hold over Petra, Judith sets out to escape and make her way back to the palace, braving snow, blizzards and other perils of the Steppes. On the way a helicopter arrives, with a man called Joder in charge. Judith asks them for help but soon realises they are up to no good. They leave her to be torn apart by wolves, but Judith scares them off with her dancing.

Judith arrives at the Palace, and discovers Berova contacting Joder via a radio transmitter – modern technology in a place where progress stopped in 1917. She tries to warn Petra and get her to accede to the peasants’ requests, as Petra does not understand the oppression they live under. But all Petra can think of is dancing, and she orders the already-exhausted Judith to dance on and on until she collapses.

When Judith recovers she tries to speak to Petra again about the peasants, but when she speaks ill of Berova, Petra turns against her and faints in shock. Not even Katrina is listening. Judith tries again with a ballet peasant dress and uses a fusion of ballet and national dance she picked up while a hostage to get the message across to Petra that peasants are human beings too, they are being oppressed, and that is why they are rebelling. This time she makes headway.

But enter Berova, who is soon using her weird influence to frighten them all back into her power and convince them it’s all evil and Judith is “possessed by demons”. She has Judith taken away and locked up.

Back in Igor’s stronghold, the men are keyed up for a fight and getting toey and quarrelsome. Nicolas is informed about where Judith has gone and Igor thinks Judith has betrayed them. Everything is on the brink of civil war.

Judith escapes her cell and discovers Berova is planning to steal the palace treasures while everyone’s busy with the civil war. She uses Berova’s radio transmitter to call for help. A radio ham in England picks up the message – and for some reason he seems to know exactly what to do.

On the palace doorstep the soldiers are getting ready to march. Judith distracts them all with dancing. This time everyone is so impressed with Judith’s dancing that they aren’t fooled or intimidated by Berova. Now Berova’s power is finally broken, Petra sends envoys to the rebels, and civil war is averted in the nick of time. Berova tries to flee but is later picked up when help arrives from England; it seems the radio ham originated from the area. A more humane rule is established and Petra resolves to improve her country. A plane arrives to collect the ballet girls. Everyone agrees to let the Tsarist microcosm continue in secrecy from the outside world, with ballet bridging the gap between the two worlds.

Thoughts

Gerry Finley-Day, if it was indeed he who wrote this story, was certainly known for his bizarre slave story ideas. This one is no exception. A serial with slave dancers is hardly a new thing (check out The Bubble Ballerinas from Bunty for example) – but a pocket of Tsarist Russia that escaped the Russian Revolution and all the post-Revolution phases (Stalin, Communism, KGB) that should have destroyed it, and is running pre-1917 Russian oppression without the (then) Soviet Union even realising is mind-boggling.

Normally, girls’ serials, if they touched on Russian oppression, tended to focus more on Communist Russia, the Iron Curtain and the Cold War (e.g. Curtain of Silence from Jinty) than Imperialist Russia. Yet this is not Imperialist Russia; it’s a lost kingdom in Russia trapped in a microcosm that keeps it pre-1917, not only in terms of government and oppression but also in terms of development. This makes the story all the more disturbing than if it had been set in the real Imperialist Russia.

The story focuses heavily on the evils of the Tsarist oppression and the right of the peasants to rebel. For example, in one scene we see masses of starving peasants begging for food stores to be opened up to them, but the soldiers’ only answer is to open fire on them while the girls watch in horror and Berova like a vulture. A massacre in cold blood, and on hapless, starving women and children sure is disturbing, strong stuff to show in a girls’ comic. During the sleigh ride, the girls see the hovels the peasants have to live in while the princess lives in luxury.

Perhaps it is this focus on the cruelties of Berova’s regime on the peasants that keeps the story from going over the top in its cruelties to the girls. We don’t see sadistic tortures inflicted on them, particularly on the rebellious protagonist, as we see so often in other slave serials. The demands on the girls are huge and unfair e.g. being expected to piece together a ballet in five minutes flat or everyone suffers. However, it serves the purpose of the slavers to keep the girls in reasonably good nick if they are to dance for Petra. Moreover, Judith the main protagonist does not openly rebel against their situation and incur mean punishments on herself as other protagonists in similar serials have done. She sees that (for the time being) it is no use escaping because they are lost in the Steppes in the middle of deep winter. Their best bet is to do what they are told – for the time being. In so doing, they incur less harshness from their slavers than if they had openly rebelled. However, Judith is not giving up or resigning herself to her fate; she taking more of a “bide your time” sort of approach until she can figure something out – which of course she does.

Although the story does not hesitate to depict the evils of Tsarist Russia and sympathy for the revolutionaries, we don’t get a hint of Communism itself. And it’s not because the story can’t depict Communism in a sympathetic light. It’s because Communism is not the answer to ending oppression. After all, it didn’t end oppression in Russia or any other Communist country. It is not likely to have ended oppression in this Tsarist kingdom either, even if it had overthrown Berova and Petra. In fact, the story makes a strong point that rebellion and revolution are not guaranteed to free people from oppression.

If the civil war had proceeded, the rebels would most certainly have been wiped out by the army and things gotten worse than ever for the people. Simply getting rid of Berova would not help that much either. The answer is to both break Berova’s hold over Petra and for Petra to realise peasants are people too and understand it is oppression that is driving them into rebellion. It is Judith, not the rebels, who accomplishes these things. The rebels would never have done it without her. But Judith doesn’t do it through revolution. She does it by bridging the gap between Petra and the rebels with the one thing they have in common: they all love dancing one way or other. And in so doing, Judith averts a bloody civil war, frees people from oppression, and not only frees Petra from Berova’s control but also helps redeem her.

The redemption of Princess Petra is certainly atypical of many unpleasant characters in girls’ serials, but it is credible: using her love of dancing to get through to her. Although Petra is in the grip of Berova she does not come across as a weakling (despite her sickly constitution) or a puppet ruler. She is a tyrant in her own right, as evidenced when she forces a man to dance day and night because he got carried away with dance tunes. She is a haughty, cold, spoiled, self-absorbed girl who only thinks ballet and doesn’t even understand or care what’s going on in her own kingdom. In her view, people who dance for her are only there to feed her obsession with it.

Unlike most unsavoury characters in girls’ serials Petra does not change through shock treatment or hard experience. It is through using her love of ballet to teach her that other people are human beings too. By the end of the story Petra has changed into a more humane person who wants to accomplish things for her people. She still loves ballet, but we can see she will share her love of it in a more positive manner.

Of course there can be no redemption for Berova, the female Rasputin whose cruelties and power over superstitious minds almost plunge the kingdom into civil war for her own gain.

 

3 thoughts on “Secret Ballet of the Steppes (1974)

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