The world of ballet has entered a new cold war in 2022

A fine balance: dancers from the English National Ballet perform The Rite of Spring – Alastair Muir

It was the year the ballet returned to the Cold War. The deprivation of balletomanes is of course only a microscopic drop in the bucket compared to the misery that Putin’s murderous expansionism is causing to Ukrainians. But, like any kind of wall between countries and cultures, it is always a great shame.

The ballet first germinated in Italy then flourished in France, but it was Russia that raised it to the rank of musical high-baroque, with the visual and choreographic magnificence that we recognize in it today. today. It gave birth to the most famous ballets – Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, The Firebird, The Rite of Spring – as well as a disproportionate number of dancers the most famous. In short, it has a ballet tradition like no other, and for the more than 15 years that I have been doing this work (and for many decades before that), the triennial visits of the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky to London have been immensely precious to see what the great Russians were doing.

It’s not just the Big Two. For years, smaller troupes, such as the Moscow City Ballet, St Petersburg Ballet Theater and Russian State Ballet of Siberia, have toured parts of Britain, enriching theater programs in cities and theaters far too small for major touring companies (such as our own English National Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet).

Now no more. The Kremlin would no doubt still like Russian dance troupes to impress us (the Bolshoi, in particular, has long been the spearhead of the Kremlin’s “soft power”), but now we are the ones who don’t want them. The Bolshoi did not pull out of the long-awaited Covent Garden residency last summer. In February, Lilian Hochhauser – the tireless promoter who, together with her late husband Victor, has helped bring the best Russian companies to Britain since 1960 – spoke to the management of the Royal Opera House and decided rightly that such a visit was untenable in the wake. of the invasion of Ukraine. They could not be seen now as welcoming Russians – moreover, the paying public would almost certainly have felt the same way.

The St Petersburg-based Mariinsky now feels identically tainted, with Valery Gergiev, its director since 1988, having been understandably “cancelled” by the West for refusing to denounce Putin. Compare and contrast, in sadness, the 20 million Britons who apparently watched a TV broadcast of the Bolshoi’s first visit to these shores in 1956.
Then there are the recent Russian defections, inevitably reminiscent of the spectacular East-West flights of everyone from Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova to Mikhail Baryshnikov and Alexander Godunov.

History repeats itself: Dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who fled Soviet-era Russia - Frank Barratt/Keystone/Getty Images

History repeats itself: Dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who fled Soviet-era Russia – Frank Barratt/Keystone/Getty Images

In March, news broke that Olga Smirnova, one of the Bolshoi’s brightest stars, had decided to join the Dutch National Ballet. (“I have to be honest and say that I am against the war with every fiber of my soul,” the 31-year-old explained.) Up-and-coming Mariinsky dancer Victor Caixeta (22, from Brazil) simultaneously said that he too was heading towards the Dutch troop. And it came just three days after Xander Parish – the Yorkshire-born Royal Ballet alumnus who joined the Mariinsky 12 years ago and became a star there – announced he too felt he had to leave Russia. Two other Bolshoi dancers – Jacopo Tissi and David Motta Soares – have also quit, in solidarity with Ukraine.

Western companies are of course enriched by these newcomers at the expense of the Russians, which in itself is hard to deplore. But the concept of dancers fleeing Russia feels like a throwback to the bad old days, and the memory of the Royal Ballet’s Darcey Bussell dueting with Mariinsky’s Igor Zelensky in London and St Petersburg seems distant. Meanwhile, Mariinsky’s stay in Covent Garden in 2024 currently seems inconceivable.

If there is a silver lining, it is that as a huge international door closes, many small ones seem, encouragingly, to open wider. I was struck again and again this year by small and young passing companies such as the Dutch NDT 2, the Cuban Acosta Danza and the Senegalese Ecole des Sables (which delivered a juggernaut like the Rite of Spring in Sadler’s Wells) . Young British companies, such as ZooNation and Ballet Black, have also impressed. The effective house arrest of Russia’s (often touring) Big Two has now left a fascinating power vacuum on the international stage, especially in Covent Garden’s summer schedule. Who will fill it?

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