The dissolution of the USSR in the '90s changed the face of ballet forever. Here's a look at how, from a few different perspectives. It's not all sugar plums and fairy dust in Moscow!
There's no more waiting years for your favorite dancers to tour or wondering if they'll be kept back home because the risk of defection is too high. And getting to see Russian-born phenomena like Maria Kotchetokova do pieces like William Forsythe's "In the middle, somewhat elevated" midweek in San Francisco is a real treat. (Ironically, Forsythe's piece was commissioned by 1961 Soviet defector Rudolf Nureyev for the Paris Opera Ballet.)
For all those Russian audience members who yearned for their own leotards and time at the barre but couldn't get into the elite state schools, that has all changed too. Now ballet schools aimed at the general public have sprung up across the country. Will this topple the pedestal on which Russian ballet dancers have stood for so long? Only time will tell, but if the West is any model, these schools will only fuel the desire for quality productions and increase the audience level of appreciation.
The artistic freedom that comes with dancing in the West is the lure some performers still talk about, even with the old USSR a thing of the past. Just ask Natalia Osipova, who made principal at the Bolshoi in 2010, then left a year later to perform with ABT, the Mikhailovsky and the Royal Ballet in London. She maintains that favoritism and propaganda-driven productions still reign in Moscow, and she finally had had enough.
Mikhail Kaniskin was born in Moscow, did his early training at the Bolshoi, then moved to the John Cranko School of Stuttgart Ballet. Now at the Berlin State Opera Ballet, he appreciates the wider repertoire of the West and the chance to work with a more varied array of partners.
Not all dance traffic travels out of Russia, however. Olga Smirnova opted to stay in Russia and made an unusual choice: she graduated from the Vaganova Academy but elected to dance with the Bolshoi, exercising a different kind of artistic freedom. Named one of 25 to Watch by Dance Magazine in 2013, her refined performances and willowy port de bras add an air of sophistication to the fiery athletic style favored in Moscow.
The Vaganova Academy began taking international students in the '90s, and dancers like David Hallberg have made Russia their new home. Formerly with ABT, Hallberg is now a principal--the first American one--at the Bolshoi.
Georgian Igor Zelensky manages to have the best of both worlds, serving as an artistic director in both Novosibirsk and Moscow, while performing as a guest artist around the globe. Zelensky and many of his contemporaries are part of a new breed of ballet freelancer--performers who guest with big companies and participate in gala shows like Stars of the 21st Century. While Stars of the 21st Century has been criticized for being more showmanship and tricks than artistry and technique, it's a prime example of a novel kind of ballet jet-setting since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Things have been slightly more tranquil in St. Petersburg than in Moscow. The Kirov reverted to its original name: the Mariinsky Ballet, but the feet of the swan are pedaling furiously beneath the illusion of the regal bird gliding upon the surface of a glassy lake. Without state funding, dancers have been slowing dribbling away in search of greater stability elsewhere. Management has had more of a chance to look at dancers outside of Russia and have been wooed by ballerinas, like Sylvie Guillem.
While preservation of the original Vaganova technique and Kirov choreography were the goal after the USSR broke up, there has been talk of a new "Moscow Syllabus" creeping into the Vaganova curriculum. Ten years ago, directors were looking for a different body type in the dancers they admitted to the school. Now there is an entire group of female principal dancers at the Mariinsky who resemble foreign-trained performers with their looser limbs and more flamboyant style of movement. The corps de ballet,however, has still retained most of its steely strength and brilliant ensemble work, which were the hallmarks of Vaganova training and Kirov stage presence.
What this new mish-mosh of styles will mean in the long run remains to be seen. The uniqueness of the old Kirov style may have been forever undercut by greater exposure to Western dance. Yes, some of these newer principals could handle a broader, more modern repertoire, but as the Mariinsky is still largely playing it safe with the classical standards, is this really an asset? Does the world want one global style of ballet, or is it better to preserve the individual characteristics of St. Petersburg, Copenhagen, and London? Rhetorical questions, but ones worth asking.
The Bolshoi has not been without its share of drama, both onstage and off. With a roller coasteering economy, Byzantine politics and the closing of the theatre for six years for renovations, the venerable Moscow institution has weathered its share of post-Glasnost storms. For those who feel that the Bolshoi is and always has been a reflection of Russia, perhaps this is just a mirror of the current regime. And it certainly won't hurt other companies who have picked up disgruntled dancers from Bolshoi.
In spite of dancers like Hallberg, it seems that Russia has had a slow talent exodus since the late '80s that has not been balanced out by foreign dancers in Russian troupes. In a way, true Russian technique and choreography have moved west, to places like New York where Soviet-era ballet legend Irina Kolpakova mounts meticulously traditional productions of Raymonda and other classics at ABT. Though the ballet world in Russia is still in considerable flux since the dissolution of the Soviet monolith, my prediction, as the French would say, "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." ("The more things change, the more they stay the same.")