Dance pro made stop motion's first steps

For decades, the father of Russian stop motion was thought to be Ladislas Starevich, who reanimated dead beetles and other small critters in “The Cameraman’s Revenge” and other shorts.

But fresh evidence suggests a man named Alexander Shiryaev may have gotten there first; Annecy auds will have a chance to see his early experiments in paper drawings and puppet animations at this year’s fest.

A professional Russian dancer, Shiryaev assisted famed choreographer Marius Petipa at St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet Theater, though the institution frowned on the then-lowbrow innovation of cinema and denied Shiryaev’s request to record the dancers firsthand. Not to be dissuaded, Shiryaev innovated painstaking frame-by-frame techniques to document the moves of regional folk and character dances between 1906 and 1909.

His work went unknown for so long because he toiled for the sake of posterity rather than public screenings. Then, in 1995, researcher Viktor Bocharov happened upon a stockpile of Shiryaev’s footage and equipment, and found an ally in Birgit Beumers, a scholar of Russian studies at the U. of Bristol. Beumers turned to David Sproxton and Peter Lord at neighboring Aardman Animations studios to help in preserving the fragile work.

Sproxton marvels at the precious discovery’s very existence: “The material survived a major revolution, two world wars and a period of major famine in St. Petersburg, when people were literally stripping paper off the walls to eat. Just to hold this stuff in your hands is incredible.”

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