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Love Russian ballet, dislike Russian politics. In Canada, that dichotomy was never more clear than in May, 1974, when Russian dance phenom star Mikhail Baryshnikov slipped into a car waiting three blocks from a theatre in downtown Toronto and defected from the Soviet Union. Within months, he was dancing on Canadian stages to great applause.
Despite the defections to the West that lured away its Cold War-era stars, Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet and the Mariinsky, its state-sponsored counterpart in St. Petersburg, remain among the finest ballet companies in the world. So many story ballets were first staged at those theatres, including enduring classics such as Don Quixote, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. Later this month, the National Ballet of Canada will stage its signature Sleeping Beauty, restaged in the Russian tradition by Rudolf Nureyev to Tchaikovsky’s familiar Once Upon a Dream score.
In the public imagination, good ballet is Russian ballet. In reality, ballet is more like vodka: It wasn’t invented in Russia, but the Russians became famous for it and remain so, even though it’s now easy to get the good stuff elsewhere. Stalin and Lenin thwarted the careers of countless Russian creatives, many more dancers fled in the 1990s and in recent years the Bolshoi, the Mariinsky and their respective dance schools have been rocked by scandals.
Yet, the reach of Russian ballet remains wide. You’d be hard-pressed to find a professional dancer in North America who hasn’t been taught by an ex-pat ballerina from a former Soviet republic; the stereotype of an older Russian ballet teacher with dyed hair, rigid posture and frequent smoke breaks remains somewhat accurate. Despite all these enduring Russian influences, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has largely unified the ballet world against Russia’s current regime and been a great cause for grief, with a handful of stars pressed to choose sides.
The highest profile denouncement came quickly, from choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who has built a career on refreshing Russian classics, including a Romeo and Juliet commissioned by National Ballet of Canada. When he restaged the ballet for the Bolshoi in 2018, Ratmansky invited principal dancer Guillaume Côté to dance the role of Romeo, making him one of very few Canadians to perform at one of the top Russian companies. (That elite list also includes former National Ballet artistic director Karen Kain, who appeared as a guest with the Bolshoi in the 1970s.)
When Putin began bombing Ukraine last week, Ratmansky, former artistic director of the Bolshoi and now choreographer in residence at American Ballet Theatre, was in Moscow working on two new projects. He received word not from Russian media but from his Ukrainian wife, Tatiana, who called from New York.
“The news was bad, but I was absolutely torn between creation, love and desperation – all these words,” Ratmansky told The New York Times. He identifies as both Ukrainian and Russian. His parents, sister, nieces and nephews all live in Kyiv.
In addition to cancelling the March premiere of a new ballet set to Bach’s Art of the Fugue, Ratmansky pulled out of his much anticipated restaging of The Pharaoh’s Daughter, which was scheduled to make its debut in May with a simulcast beamed to movie theatres around the world. (No screenings were set for Canada, but hundreds were lined up in the United States. Fathom Events announced all upcoming Bolshoi screenings, including a Swan Lake scheduled for Sunday, have been cancelled “in support of the people of Ukraine.”)
“Both of these projects are very close to my heart,” Ratmansky said of his Bolshoi ballets. “But at the moment, the only thing that matters is that Ukraine survives, keeps its independence, and that our families stay alive.”
Like several high-profile, pro-Putin classical music artists, Russia’s state-sponsored ballet companies also find themselves unwelcome to tour. The Bolshoi and Russian State Ballet of Siberia both had summer engagements cancelled in the United Kingdom, while the Kennedy Center in Washington announced last month it had “mutually concluded” that the Mariinsky should not appear in April.
Top-flight Russian dancers who enjoy international careers outside of Russia – including Diana Vishneva and Natalia Osipova – have also faced pressure to condemn Putin’s actions. Vishneva, who orchestrated the National Ballet’s first-ever tour of Russia by inviting the company to perform at her Context festival, wrote on Instagram Wednesday that, “We express our hatred of war and any violent acts.” Osipova, a principal with London’s Royal Ballet, wrote, “Nothing can be an excuse for war.” Ratmansky quickly reposted her statement with a, “Thank you, Natalia,” and two exclamation-point emojis.
The Royal Ballet launched a long run of Swan Lake on Tuesday with the Royal Opera House lit up in blue and yellow. Before launching into Tchaikovsky’s overture, the orchestra played Ukraine’s national anthem. The National Ballet are dedicating their Winter Season to the people of Ukraine in an announcement before every performance, beginning with last night’s opening of A Streetcar Named Desire. Only one Russian dancer is on the company’s roster, principal Svetlana Lunkina. She is joining a benefit concert in support of Ukraine at Meridian Hall, Toronto, on April 28, 2022.
One could argue that Ukraine has a stronger presence in Canadian dance today than Mother Russia. Professional and amateur Ukrainian dance troupes dot the country, especially in the Western provinces. Several top Canadian ballet companies feature Ukrainian and Ukrainian-Canadian dancers on their rosters, and Alberta Ballet welcomes guest Ukrainian folk dancers to perform the traditional trepak dance in its Nutcracker.
All of these cross-pollinations are evident on Instagram, the dance world’s lingua franca. Ukranian-born Royal Winnipeg Ballet dancer Elena Dobrowney posted footage of Kharkiv’s city centre exploding two days before the clip made The New York Times homepage, and has kept followers posted on her communications with her family in the heavily bombed city. “Didn’t hear from my parents for the last 48 hours,” she wrote earlier this week. “Praying their phones are dead, and they are alive and safe.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to say that Svetlana Lunkina is joining a benefit concert in support of Ukraine.