Russian artistic fencing as heritage of antiquity

Russian artistic fencing as heritage of antiquity


PhD, Associate Professor V.V. Lobanov1
Dr.Hab., Professor, Honoured coach of Russia A.D. Movshovich2
1Tomsk State Pedagogical University, Tomsk
2Russian State University of Physical Culture, Sport, Youth and Tourism (GTSOLIFK), Moscow

Keywords: artistic fencing, fencing, antiquity, sport.

Background. Artistic fencing is a very young sport discipline that has not developed a sustainable selfhood as yet. It is a common knowledge that the artistic fencing disciplines were registered with the National Sports Register in 2008 no sooner than the national Federation of Artistic Fencing (FAF) was founded. It should be noted that the registration of the sport disciplines was largely due to the great authority of professors A.D. Movshovich and D.A. Tyshler, recognized leaders in the national competitive fencing and scenic fencing theory. It may be due to this fact that the modern artistic fencing traditions in Russia have borrowed so much from traditions of competitive fencing and scenic fencing bouts. It may be mentioned in this context, for instance, that the training system being used by Espada Studio (GTSOLIFK, Moscow) is largely based on the competitive fencing methods plus the actors’ education traditions.

Nevertheless, since the FAF was established and the artistic and competitive fencing emerged as institutionally separate disciplines, the sport community has been in need of an analysis of artistic fencing as a new phenomenon that cannot be limited to the historic traditions of the art of swordsmanship with foil, sword and sabre and the Russian national theatrical traditions.

Objective of the study was to give a historic analysis of artistic fencing as a sport and theatre uniting phenomenon.

Study results and discussion. Theoretical approaches to the essentials of artistic fencing. The issue of essential basics of artistic fencing has never been seriously considered by the scientific theory. There have been a few attempts at the thematic conferences held in Kolomna town to explore and identify the social and cultural potential of artistic fencing, although there are no easy ways to do that until the essence and origins of the discipline are found.

It should be confessed with regret that discussions of artistic fencing specialists are more often than not limited by the matters of competitive rules plus a variety of practical aspects of the coaching director’s responsibilities. Mentioned at the session of Section “Artistic fencing development problems: from networking interactions to system integrity” at the XIX International Conference “Science and Education” (Tomsk, 2015), for instance, were a few factors that appear to hold back the sport discipline being promoted as a popular social practice [2]. Obvious refereeing errors, for instance, are one of the factors that make many leading teams reluctant to participate in the Russian Championship, albeit the ever changing interpretations of the existing rules of competitions are always in the focus of their highest interest [1].

Furthermore, the issue of cultural semantics of artistic fencing in the context of the common greatest human ideals is still waiting for comprehensive studies. Should the specialists fail to shape up commonly accepted notions on the social values of artistic fencing in the context of the RF budget deficits, we may see with time the discussions similar to those that were so topical in the late 1940ies. Let us remind the reader that it was the time when great V.A. Arkadiev had to explain to the officials the importance of fencing for the Soviet young people by saying that it can prove that the young workers and peasants can be no less successful in the “noble” art of swordsmanship than the nobility [5, p. 31]. Apparently, the true virtues of artistic fencing cannot be limited by the human body development potential since an artistic fencer is normally second in physical fitness to a highly skilled master of foil, sabre or sword. The efforts to explore the genuine cultural values of artistic fencing are further complicated by the fact that the rules, policies and practices of the refereeing services provided to the Russian Championships force the participants to give favour to the competitive fencing techniques regardless of the weapons used. As a result, a classical foil lunge, for instance, is performed in the same style as if it were a heavy sword of medieval times, and the sabre attacks are styled like the bouts with “light swords” from the popular fantastic “star wars”. In other words, artistic fencing at present evolves along the ways of competitive fencing sport rather than its own ways being limited by the popular basic concepts of the traditional art of swordsmanship.

Artistic fencing viewed as renaissance of the ancient Greco-Roman cultural ideas. Generally, modern artistic fencing may be described as a synthetic phenomenon that integrates two interrelated albeit immiscible cultural phenomena – a bout and a theatre. It is quite obvious that each of them acquired its highest secular cultural values not sooner than in the antique times and it happened much later than the religious values of both were formed. A good case in point may be provided by the ancient Egyptian figures of “fencers” fighting in religious bouts traditional at that time [3, p. 7]. And it was only through the Olympic Games in the classical antiquity that the mass consciousness was changed with an ideal of harmonic human being implanted into it. As far as the theatrical aspect is concerned, its sacred origins are doubtless as manifested by the gladiator bouts when each “actor” was prepared to die on the stage. It was through these gladiator fights that the spectacle of a theatrical death evolved to a popular mass performance that ensured, among other things, high socialization standards of the ancient Roman citizens.

The above considerations make it possible to qualify artistic fencing as a synthesis of the ancient Greek and Roman manifestations of the mass social activity and as a renaissance of the ancient heritage on the Russian soil. It should be noted that no knight fighting traditions in form of mass shows may be found in the national history, and it may be one of the reasons why artistic fencing was ranked among formal sport disciplines unlike historical fencing, albeit the western European nations tend to provide government support rather to the historical fencing and reconstruction initiatives than to the artistic fencing enthusiasts.

Therefore, artistic fencing has every chance to offset the shortage of the “knight fight show” culture in the Russian tradition, with the technical mastery of the artistic fighters catering for the sporting aspect of the art being reinforced by the scenic methods. In view of the fact that artistic fencing emerged in our country much later than scenic fencing, and the scenic bout directors in theatres and film studios were all specialized rather in competitive fencing techniques, modern artistic fencing will be still governed by the idea of A.D. Movshovich and D.A. Tyshler: “It is not sooner that the attention and thinking of the performers is no more distracted from the predesigned movement sequences and motor techniques [i.e. the sporting component of the performance – V.L.] that the true creative activity of the actors will unfold to personify the scenic images in the fighting process [i.e. the artistic component of the action – V.L.]» [6, p. 13].

The above statement is still highly relevant – for at least the reason that the mission of a bout within the frame of theatrical art may be interpreted as a demonstration of confrontation of personalities exemplifying certain human characters. Even when they are armed and forced to fight “as provided by the script”, the bout still may be staged to the spectators by exclusively theatrical tools and techniques, including the clanging of swords coming from behind the scene. Artistic fencing is quite different in the sense that domination of the artistic component over the technical fencing component of the bout is never tolerated, and the same applies to the bout script, performance of the artists, their costumes and the musical background collectively viewed as a “superstructure” on the art of swordsmanship as such. In this context, particularly valuable for the subject sport is the ancient idea of harmony, with the “artistic” and “fencing technicality” components being viewed in their harmonic integrity as equally important elements of a competitive performance.

Conclusion. First, the modern artistic fencing system may be viewed as isomorphic to the ancient Greek tradition that manifests itself in it to demonstrate achievements of a human being in the sport on the one hand; and to the ancient Roman tradition of gladiator games as a spectacle where the fighter’s mastery and survival-driven techniques were fairly judged and valued by the audience, on the other hand [4].

Second, as far as the artistic fencing culture is concerned as a heritage of the ancient art, its different disciplines will tend to display conceptually different semantics. For instance, the “Solo” and “Group Exercise” bouts of ancient times may be used to “warm up” the audience in the same way as the creative teams do at large tournaments. “Duet” bouts, in their turn, may be staged as a component of group fights that are more spectacular due to their mass nature. The group fights made it possible to demonstrate both the individual art of swordsmanship and the harmony of group actions that were so critical for survival on the arenas of the ancient Rome. At the moment, however, it is no more the group fight choreography that is viewed as the most challenging task, but rather an original technical design of a duet in the situation when most of the combinations have been demonstrated many times in competitions, performances and films.

Third, we have analyzed in the course of the study the potential influence of an audience on the “refereeing service” in artistic fencing versus gladiator fights. It is unlikely that the experience of the bloody ancient shows that have never been in demand since than for many centuries could be fully useful for the Russian artistic fencing development forecasts. Decisions of referees both in the modern Russian and global tournaments quite often fall at variance with opinions of the competent spectators who are motivated to come to the events nowadays rather by the artistic merits of the fencing techniques than the blood lust. Modern referees are by far less sacred in their decision-making powers than the Roman emperors, but still act like Caesars never taking the trouble of explaining their verdicts and even neglecting attitudes of the audience – that makes them different from the Caesars who could never afford doing that. This situation in fact deprives the artistic fencing tournaments of the feel of interaction that is so important for any high quality show.

Fourth, the Russian artistic fencing development process may reasonably be considered as a process of the ancient cultural heritage being revitalized and employed. The Greek ideas related to kalokagathia, for instance, are potentially beneficial for the fencers being motivated for the highest harmony of the fencing scenes, bout designs and images of the fighting characters, whilst the ancient gladiator fights could encourage the process contributors to improve the refereeing standards to make them at least as unbiased as they were in the ancient fights for survival on the arena.

The study was supported by Project Grant #15-18-10002 from the Russian Research Foundation.


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It is the concept of historicism that was taken as a methodological framework for the study since it implies both the modern situation of this sport discipline and the history of its emergence and progress being analyzed to obtain a basis for an overview of the Russian artistic fencing development prospects. Of high promise in this context would be a study of the phenomena that laid a foundation for the artistic fencing being established to cause a variety of influences on the Russian society. The article demonstrates that artistic fencing may essentially be viewed as an interaction of two cultural phenomena that is the fencing bout as an expression of the sporting ideals and the theatrical duel as an integral part of a mass spectacle. Furthermore, the study shows that attempts to formalize influences of these phenomena on the essentials of artistic fencing by rules of competitions may not be successful enough unless the historical heritage of the sport and theatre is taken into consideration. To address this issue in our analysis of the artistic fencing structure, we made an emphasis on the influences of the social practices of ancient Greece with its Olympic sports and ancient Rome with its gladiator fights. The emphasis on the ancient Greece heritage shows that the modern artistic fencing cannot be limited by the traditional purely sporting objectives of record breaking and expanding the physical human capabilities in biological sense, but it brings to the forefront the ideas of harmony and kalokagathia [kalos kai hagatos – beautiful and good, Greek] in the bout scenes, techniques and fighting images created by the fencers. The reference to the ancient Rome heritage made it possible to find that the gladiator fights of those times may set the pattern for the highest refereeing standards in modern artistic fencing sport, particularly in terms of the technical and artistic performance aspects being fairly judged.