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When it comes to the world of ballet Russia is a serious contender. We can’t deny that. Granted, this classic form of dance originally came from Italian Renaissance courts in the fifteenth century. Still, it wasn’t long after its inception that the art of ballet was taken over by Russia and matured to become the dance it is today.
Russian artists have had a bigger impact and influence in the world of ballet than anywhere else in the civilized world, other than France. It is our belief though, that the Russian influence on ballet is just as powerful as it’s French peers.
This is why we thought it would be fun to take you on a little trip through the history of ballet in Russia.
The ballet was first presented to Russian society by Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich.
He was the second Romanov ruler in Russian and brought the dance to be performed at his wedding celebrations. It wasn’t until Mikhailovich’s son, Peter the Great, came into power that the once foreign dance, ballet, was fully adopted as a Russian art form. It is said that Peter the Great loved ballet so much he would dance himself alongside prisoners of war he had obtained from Sweden.
On May 15, 1738 two rooms in the Old Winter Palace, a place that nearly every monarch in Russian history called home until 1917, were given to French ballet instructor Jean-Baptiste Landé.
These meager yet noble accommodations would evolve to become the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet School. This Imperial Ballet School would then be renamed Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet when the Soviet regime took over.
Charles Louis Didelot is known at the “father of Russian ballet.”
Born in Stockholm, this French dancer and choreographer learned the ballet from his own father, who was “the dance master of the King of Sweden.” In his 1796 production of Flore and Zephyr he included dancers suspended on wire. It was Didelot’s dedication to the Russian ballet that gave it global recognition.
The groundwork for Russian ballet was laid down by Didelot when he created the Prisoner of the Caucasus, a dance adaptation of the Russian poem written by Alexander Pushkin.
The importance of this on the Russian ballet is notable because this was the first piece of Russian Literature to be reworked into a ballet. Up until the beginning of the twentieth century all compositions used in Russian ballets were written by foreign composers.
When Russian ballerina Elena Andreianova left her home in St. Petersburg to perform in her nation’s capital she was not received well.
Her lover who also happened to be the Director of the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg, was giving good roles to foreign ballerinas. Andreianova didn’t like this so he sent her to dance at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. Of course, the local ballerinas weren’t too thrilled that their roles were being taken away. Their solution was to throw a dead cat on stage after her performance. Still, she received a standing ovation and stayed on to dance the ballet at the Bolshoi for fifteen years.
Swan Lake debuted at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow on March 4, 1877.
Composed by Tchaikovsky this famous ballet bombed opening night. Negative criticism of the sets, musicians, and dancers was undisputed. Even the score, which is now considered a masterpiece, was not noted by critics at the time because the beauty of it was shadowed by the poor production quality. Plus, the music was considered unfit for ballet due to its complexity. Still, this production went on to perform for six years totaling forty-one shows.
PS: Here is a very unique and fantastic rendition of Swan Lake, watch it tonight!
The next major ballet to debut in Russia is Sleeping Beauty, which was also composed by Tchaikovsky after the debut failure of Swan Lake.
He was commission to create a ballet piece adapting the story of Undine. Yet, it came to pass that he would instead, compose music to tell the tale of La Belle au bois dormant, by Charles Perrault. Once working on it Tchaikovsky found himself referencing the Brothers Grimm version of the same tale Dornröschen. This original performance was choreographed by Marius Petipa, and starred Carlotta Brianza
Adapted from the Prussian story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King the famous ballet with a shortened version of the same name premiered at the Imperial Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on December 18, 1892.
It was debuted alongside another Tchaikovsky work, his last opera, Iolanta. Similar to Swan Lake, this Tchaikovsky work, The Nutcracker, was not successful. One critic called the dancing of one ballerina “insipid” while another wrote her ballet was “charming.” One critic by the name of Alexandre Benois called the performance during the battle scene as chaotic and “amateurish.”
Marius Petipa, whom we’ve mentioned as choreographer for these previous debut performances of ballets that are world famous, is a Frenchman by birth, but a notable influence on the formation of Russian ballet.
His is thought to be the most significant ballet master and choreographer in the history of not only Russian ballet, but globally as well.
He held the position of ballet master at the St. Petersburg Imperial Theaters from 1871 until 1903. During that time, he choreographed over fifty ballet performances, many of which are still performed in their original versions today. Some of those legendary debut performances include Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, Les Saisons, and The Pharaoh’s Daughter.
Ballet dancers that are considered from Russia can be born in Russia or merely studied the art of ballet in Russia.
This said, the number of talented dancers that hail from Russia as a place of birth or education is far higher than we could possibly list in this small article.
Notable ballet dancers that hail from Russia are Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, Anna Pavlova, Sergei Diaghilev, Galina Ulanova, Maya Plisetskaya, Mikhail Fokin, Tamara Karsavina, and Svetlana Zakharova.
The Ballets Russes, a company based in Paris also considered the most influential ballet company of the twentieth century, was created founded by Russian ballet master Sergei Diaghilev.
While creating this bastion of ballet in Paris, Sergei Diaghilev would commission works from fellow Russians such as Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Alexandre Benois, and Vasily Kandinsky. This ensured a well-represented Russian presence in the Paris ballet community.
Learn more about some of the composers associated with the Ballet Russes.
Russian ballet has a prominent influence in establishing ballet as an art of ballet in the Americas as well. This would be because to the father of American ballet George Balanchine.
Born in St. Petersburg Balanchine brought his education at the Imperial Ballet School and experience with the Ballets Russes in Paris to New York to form New York City ballet and its educational partner the School of American Ballet. Balanchine acted as Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet for over thirty-five years.
Besides creating a ballet school Balanchine choreographed for American musical theater as well. His dances were one of kind in which they enabled the furthering of the plot.
Agrippina Vaganova is a Russian ballet dancer who created the Vaganova method of dancing.
After being appointed artistic director of the Imperial Ballet in the 1930’s. After becoming the Kirov Ballet in 1935 Vaganova dealt with state guidelines forcing her to change the artistic integrity of pieces she put together. For example, she was told to change the end of Swan Lake from heartbreaking to elevating.
Her book Fundamentals of the Classic Dance has become the “bible” of ballet since it was translated into English. The Soviet government named the Leningrad Choreographic Institute after Vaganova.
Four famous ballet dancers who defected from Russia are Valery Panov, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, and Alexander Godunov.
Valery Panov and his wife, ballerina Galina, applied for exits visas to Israel. Due to this infraction the couple was imprisoned for a short time and then banned from taking ballet classes for two years. With appeals for their release coming from Western artists like Laurence Olivier, the Panovs finally left Russia in 1974 settling in Israel.
Mikhail Baryshnikov, arguably Russia’s and the world’s most famous ballet dancer, defected to Canada the same year as Panov. They were both members of the Kirov Ballet when leaving Russia. From there he would leave Canada and become a household name in the United States due to his acting roles in movies like White Nights and in the television hit Sex in the City.
Nureyev, another member of the Kirov Ballet, was a ballet star in the Soviet Union by the late 1950’s. Even though his reputation as a rebel preceded him, Nureyev’s talent in ballet secured him a spot on a Russian ballet tour of the West despite political opposition. On June 16th of that same year, with the aid of French police and his friend Clara Saint, Nureyev defected at the Le Bourget Airport in Paris. He would not return to the Soviet Union until 1987 when he got permission from Gorbachev to visit his dying mother.
Alexander Godunov is the last of our list to defect from the USSR in 1979. He did so while touring with the Bolshoi Ballet in New York City. The ballet dancer got in touch with American authorities asking for political asylum. The KGB put his wife on a plane headed for Moscow but the American authorities delayed take-off. After negotiations it was proven that Godunov’s wife preferred to return to Russia without him. They divorced in 1982.
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