Blisters and blood, strict technique, merciless competition, endless affairs between noblemen and ballerinas who become so rich that they eat diamonds for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – welcome to the world of the Russian ballet. Despite the viciousness of the training involved in the process, ballet somehow beautifully aligned with Russian culture and grew into its own independent being.
Not so long ago, just a century before the collapse of the Russian Empire and creation of USSR, the public in the West and in America especially, was spoiled by neverending tours of famous Russian ballet companies. Western audiences developed a special taste for ballerinas, such as Avdotia Istomina, who was one of the first ballet dancers from Russia that wowed the European public with her exceptional talent, and ballet impresarios, like Sergei Diaghilev, that turned the art of ballet into a fairytale. It seems that Western democracies and Imperial Russia finally arranged a working system of cultural trade and came to a mutual understanding, yet it was too early to rejoice.
Being involved in the First World War, Russia lost its empire. Almost like an orphan, she was deprived of its own religion and culture. There was no way to have a conversation and the negotiation table was broken.
That is until Russian ballet took over. Just like a mythical phoenix, ballet escaped the grasp of tyranny through art manifested by Maya Plisetskaya and Mikhail Baryshnikov. They slowly unlocked the door of the iron curtain. Who knew that the 21st century had more challenges in store to surprise us and make the process of reconciliation “rib-tickling,” to say the least?
Politics, unfortunately, can be quite deceitful nowadays and we must keep decidedly moving forward. However, the American public is interested in Russian ballet now more than ever before. They now have a less stereotypical image of Russia and cultural exchange via this beautiful form of art flowing in both directions.
“The American public can allow themselves to show their appreciation during the very performance when there is music playing and people dancing,” said Svetlana Zakharova, a prima ballerina with Bolshoi ballet in an interview for Russia 24.
“I remember when I was dancing La Bayadère in New York and carried out a développé and my famous six o’clock,” she recalled. “[The] public started applauding. It irritates some people, but I think it is rather inspiring that they express their feeling so innocently.”
Indeed, with every single visit of the Bolshoi, Mariinsky, or Mikhailovsky ballet companies, people buy tickets in advance. Russian ballet, after all, is regarded as one of the most prestigious in the world, and people expect nothing less than excellent choreography.
It can be argued that the strong desire to reach Russian levels of ballet perfection, has brought enthusiasts like Michael Fokine to found an American Ballet Company based on Russian training in 1924. This in its turn encouraged Mikhail Baryshnikov to start dancing with the American Ballet Theatre, where he partnered with Gelsey Kirkland from 1974 to 1978.
“Arts teaches us not to look at everything from left to right, it makes us more self-investigative,” said Victor Robles, the department chair of the dance department at Glendale Community College. He claims that ballet, unlike professional sports, has nothing to do with competition and winning—it is more comforting and easing, and people come to enjoy it as a whole. Usually, when watching ballet, we don’t wish for one of the ballerinas to slip and fall down or to ridiculously embarrass herself. Dance doesn’t have to be combative or divisive, instead, it teaches us to be open to the experience.
Could it also serve as a cultural bridge that would someday break the old stereotypical image of Russia? Perhaps it could, but for ballet to really bring light and wash the prejudice away, it needs to be accessible for greater numbers of people. Unfortunately, for now, ballet in the U.S. is highly under subsidized by the government and supported mostly by private organizations, which is obviously insufficient. Inadvertently, it makes one ponder whether ballet in America is just for the amusement of higher echelons of society.
“I don’t know why it is like that, but there is inaccessibility of higher arts among the general public in this country,” Robles pointed out, citing that there is decreasing interest in ballet from young people. He said that students at GCC are more interested in contemporary dance movements, and only a few do Russian ballet. If things will not change, the ballet will remain out of reach and foreign for the majority of American people.
Those people who ultimately learn and watch Russian ballet have a clearer understanding of Russia and its culture. Good and bad, elegant and distasteful, intricate and sometimes even incomprehensible parts of Russian culture can all be beautifully explained in the course of a single ballet performance. After spending a few hours watching Nutcracker or Swan Lake, even the coldest glance of the scariest man somewhere from Siberia would for some reason, feel warmer.
Ongoing student exchange programs and the increasing amount of American students who visit Russia to particularly experience and learn classical techniques, be it Vaganova that emphasizes dancing with the entire body or Cecchetti which allows arm flow and blend of positions, slowly, yet properly join two cultures closer.
“Russia is very often misunderstood,” Joy Womack, an American student in The Bolshoi Ballet Academy said in her interview for Russia Beyond. “I think that people have to come and experience it. When I see it in their eyes that they’ve seen it and experienced it, they completely change their opinion and this is a wonderful place and it is not well-known to my family, friends, and background.” Indeed, people’s knowledge of Russia in America often is very superficial, which inevitably makes their opinion banal and preconceived.
As Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev once famously stated, “You cannot understand Russia relying only on your common sense, she does not fit into existing units of length, she is an exceptional figure, you can only believe in it.”