Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich was the second Romanov ruler in Russia and was the first ruler to present ballet to Russian society. He brought the dance form to be showcased at his wedding celebrations. Ballet has been such an important part of Russian culture it is said that Peter the Great would dance with prisoners of war from Sweden.
It is undeniable that the influence Russia and the Soviet Union has had on the world of ballet. The long time tradition of classical dance hails in St. Petersburg and in Moscow and has been a focal point of ballet enthusiasts worldwide.
With this in mind we would like to take time to reflect on some of the personalities that helped shape the landscape of ballet in Russia.
1. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born on May 7, 1840, the first Russian on our list is undeniably a great influence on the Russian ballet. He has composed three of the greatest ballets of all time, The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. The first work of Tchaikovsky’s to be performed publicly took place when he was twenty-five. It was titled Characteristic Dances and conducted by Johann Strauss the Younger.
Swan Lake premiered on February 20, 1877 but was not well received. It is said that inadequate staging and poor choreography was the cause. It was nearly forgotten and little did they know the long term success this piece would become. It has influenced a great deal of other works including the movie Black Swan.
The next great ballet out of the only three Tchaikovsky ever wrote was The Sleeping Beauty, which he composed between 1888 and 1889 and was an instant hit. During this period, he was financially supported by Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow whom he never met but would keep in touch in letters. At the end of 1890 von Meck would write that she was broke and could not continue their agreement. Tchaikovsky was devastated.
Tchaikovsky traveled to the United States and played a few engagements to excited audiences. The next year he returned to Russia and composed his very last ballet The Nutcracker. This ballet was not received well either and would be another to become a huge success after the composer’s death.
Reports are mixed to whether or not Tchaikovsky died of cholera or suicide, but his influence on ballet is important either way. He had a unique talent to create melodies that could evoke strong emotions to those listening. The duration in which his only three ballets have lasted is a true testament to the talent in composition this Russian master possessed.
2. Aram Khachaturian
Our next composer of Russian descent was born in 1903 in a suburb of Tiflis. His works have become classics of the twentieth century and he is not only synonymous with Russian ballet but his name is known in ballet circles all over the world. He learned to play the cello at Gnesin Music School at the age of nineteen while also earning a biology degree at Moscow State University.
Still, composition was his future and this would be realized when he began a class at the same school. By 1929 Khachaturian would become a member of the Moscow National Conservatory and the rest was Russian history. When fellow composer Sergey Prokofiev visited Khachaturian’s class the young student was captivated. Khachaturian’s works were so impressive to Prokofiev that they both traveled to Paris and his works were produced instantly.
It was Gayaneh, completed in 1942, that Khachaturian would use his signature style of combining classical ballet style with the folk music of his nationality. With a libretto by K. Derzhavin and excellent choreography this first ballet by Khachaturian is still performed by ballet companies all over the world. It is this ballet that features Sabre Dance, an admired rhythmic composition.
His second ballet Spartacus was written in 1954 and is arguably the most notable of the two ballets. The plot is daring and heartbreaking and this sophomore and final effort of this Russian composer has earned its spot as one of the greatest ballet compositions of the twentieth century. The theme is thoughtful and it utilized dances and music of a more contemporary flair.
The works of this Russian composer, as with many others, reaches far beyond ballet into orchestral works, concerti, chamber music and incidentals. Khachaturian was awarded membership in the Armenian Soviet Republic’s Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Arts of GDR and was given the title of Doctor of Art Criticism.
3. Anna Pavlova
At number three we now look at a ballerina. Anna Pavlova, born in St. Petersburg on February 12, 1881, studied dance at the Imperial Ballet School in the same city. At the age of eighteen she debuted for the company and was instantaneously given the title of prima ballerina. Yet, it was in 1905, in The Dying Swan, would be the role to garner her fame.
Once the title was given Pavlova performed n tour of Europe in 1907, which included cities like Berlin, Copenhagen and Prague. She was so well received another tour was scheduled for the next year. In 1909 Sergei Diaghilev sent the ballerina an invitation to join the Ballet Russes on a Parisian tour.
A great achievement for this Russian female was in 1911 when Pavlova founded her own ballet company. She did so to ensure her creative control over productions and better opportunity to choreograph her own performances. Her company would succeed greatly and take her on tours around the globe that lasted the final twenty years of her careers.
It was in 1914 when she began touring independently to corners of the globe more isolated than the likes of Paris and New York. It was her mission to bring the ballet, an art form she loved, to everyone she could. Audiences who were lucky to have witnessed her performances were treated to a vision of elegance and graceful routines that seemed magical. Pavlova routines made a lasting impression on all that saw them.
4. Mikhail Baryshnikov
We thought we would move forward a little and take a look at a dancer who began his career in Russia but moved it toward the United States, which includes roles that fall into the genre of pop culture. Mikhail Baryshnikov was born in Riga, Latvia in 1948 to a Soviet colonel, a man with whom the famous dancer had a difficult relationship, and a mother who would commit suicide by time he reached his early teen years.
Still, at sixteen Baryshnikov started to train for ballet at the Vaganova Choreographic Institute with Alexander Pushkin. In four short years Baryshnikov premiered his talents at the Kirov Ballet in a production of Giselle. He would be moved up to premier danseur noble in other productions with that company including Vestris, which had routines carved out just for him. These moves would go on to become synonymous with Baryshnikov.
Even though by the late 1960s saw Baryshnikov soaring the stardom of the Soviet Union ballet, it was on a tour in Toronto where Baryshnikov made a decision to defect from the Soviet Union. He did so with hopes to be free creatively and personally. Once this was done his fame would reach heights this Russian dancer had never seen.
First Baryshnikov would become a member of the American Ballet Theatre where he became a featured dancer. People filled the seats to watch this Russian impresario dance. A few years later Baryshnikov began his film career. One such film is The Turning Point in 1977, which focused on ballet and brought it into a broader spectrum of social consciousness.
The next year Baryshnikov left the American Ballet Theatre to join the New York City Ballet. It was at this company where Baryshnikov would work with George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Baryshnikov would also perform in live televised specials on ballet for which he would win two Emmy Awards.
Then in 1985 a breakout role in White Nights opposite Gregory Hines would make Mikhail Baryshnikov a household name. In 1990 he formed his own plan called White Oak Dance Project, which would last twelve years before breaking up. Of course, another famed role by Baryshnikov was as Carrie Bradshaw’s love interest in Sex and the City where he plays a famous painter.
Still, on this list of Russian ballet masters it only seems fair to include Baryshnikov even though his career has flourished mostly through North American ventures. Where he lives now does not erase the fact that he was trained as a Russian ballet artist and his talents were the product of that Russian educations. Laura Shapiro wrote, “his flawless, seemingly effortless classical technique and the extraordinary airborne maneuvers [were] executed with such zest and precision.”
In 2004 Baryshnikov founded an arts center to create a space allowing artists from all genres to meet and collaborate. It is named after the Russian dancer and has a theater, performance spaces, studios and offices for the sole purpose of creative enterprises.
Do you want to watch some ballet performances now? Check out our dance genre to watch ballet pieces from around the world!