Ballet Culture in Russia (Sherri Grierson)

Anna Pavlova. Mikhail Baryshnikov. Rudolph Nureyev. Names belonging to the complex cultural tradition of classical ballet. These names are the greats—celebrities of an era still being uncovered.   They are part of the rich cultural history of St. Petersburg, and reflect the most complex of relationships among the high and low aspects of the artistic world, including art, music, and dance. Russian “kul’tura,” is distinctly different from the rest of the modern world, its role and formation a result of adaptations (or russifications) of surrounding states. A majority of people look at culture as solely internal, but when analyzing Russian society—this fails to account for everything that is identified as distinctly Russian. It is in this respect that culture blurs lines with identity.

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Dance has long been at the forefront of Russian culture. The ballet of St. Petersburg has played a significant role in forming the Russian identity of past and present, and will undoubtedly continue to play a role in future cultural development. The dance culture of Russia has been instrumental in influencing the western perception of Russian society, as well as, western perception of classical dance as a whole.Identity, which can be either constructed or innate, can still become an element of culture.

Ballet originated in the art halls of Italy before spreading into nearby France. As Western Europe chassed and chaine-turned their way through the Renaissance movement, the Rus’ state was dealing with the Mongol invasion and later building an imperial regime. Ballet in Russia is linked to the imperial period—encouraged by the Romanov tsars and tsarinas. Ballet was first introduced by Empress Anna in St. Petersburg in 1734 (“History of the Vaganova Ballet Academy”). Indeed, the word ‘balet’ is derived from the French language. This school of ballet, which was aptly called the “Imperial Theatre School,” was under the instruction of Western instructors during its formative years. The encouragement of ballet during this time coincided with the ideology of “Westernization” championed by Peter the Great. Years after the creation of the “Imperial Theatre School”, Catherine the Great of Russia established the Mariinsky Theatre also by imperial decree (“History of the Theatre: Mariinsky Theatre.”). Over the course of the 19th century, the Russian Ballet gained worldwide prominence and respect as one of the leaders in classical dance. In the 20th century the Russian Ballet gained fame as the premier example of classical dance—a model for other countries to follow. It is in the 20th century that the distinguishable Russian ballet techniques and teaching methods started to become a Russian export.Art is a social construct, defined by a constantly changing community. In times of great social upheaval, art, in many ways, can capture the changes that form within society. In the early twentieth century, a colossal shift occurred within the Russian borders when the Soviet regime came into power. Because art is both a reflection of social values, as well as a potential spark for the change of social values, it would be reasonable to think that the dance world in Russia would also change—exemplifying the social upheaval that traditionally results after drastic political upheaval.

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In October 1917, the Bolshevik Party overthrew the Provisional Government which had established itself in Russia following the end of the Romanov dynasty, marking the end of the imperial Russian state. The Ballet Russes was created several years prior to this event, during a time of political unrest and revolution in Russia. Formed in 1909, the Ballet Russes has been considered the greatest ballet company of the 20th century (“Diaghilev and the Ballets Russe”). This traveling modernist dance troupe played a significant role forming the perception of Russia as a model for dance culture in the Western world. The Ballet Russes revived the declining performing arts of the western countries, bringing the ballet tradition of Europe full circle.

The Ballet Russes, praised for its ingenuity, has a strong historical connection to the Imperial Ballet Company. Although arising in Paris in the early 20th century under Sergei Diaghilev, the Ballet Russes “collected” many dancers trained in the ballet schools of St. Petersburg and Moscow (“Diaghilev and the Ballets Russe”). The company fostered western fascination, especially within Paris, of Russian culture outside of the growing political tensions. The Ballet Russes, characterized by its emphasis on both modern themes and technique, was able to connect the past and contemporary Russian ballet tradition into a singular entity that could be loved by art lovers and the general public. The significance of the Ballet Russes lies in the company’s unmeasurable influence on the evolution of ballet across the world.

During the Soviet period, the arts, much like all aspects of culture, were subject to government control. The performing arts were seen by many Soviet leaders as maintaining ties to monarchical Russia, and as built upon values in opposition to the Soviet government—western, imperialistic, high-class values. When the Soviet government took control of the Mariinsky as a state asset, it also assumed the responsibility of patronage of the Mariinsky performers. Before the fall of tsarist Russia, ballet dancers and other artists were supported by the royal family and high-standing nobles. Prima ballerina Mathilde Kshesinskaya was a favorite of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. A former mistress of the future leader, Kshesinskaya amassed a wealth and status from royal support—with the start of the Soviet Union this support system fell apart and another had to take its place. Kshesinskaya later moved to Paris after the Revolution, and opened a ballet school. Interestingly enough, Vladimir Lenin, the first leader of the Soviet Union, would later give a famous speech standing from the balcony of Kshesinskaya’s house—now the home of a Museum of Political History in St. Petersburg, Russia (“Museum of Political History”).

Dance, much like other art genres, progresses through movements and eras with different artistic philosophies and aesthetics. In response to increasing criticism of the avant-garde movement and fear of “artistic anarchy” a new policy of “socialist realism” exemplified by Maxim Gorky, a Soviet writer, was adopted by the Kremlin as state-supported artistic orthodoxy (Evtuhov and Stites, 372-374). While many superficial changes had occurred prior to the policy adoption, socialist realism was an attempt to internalize soviet values in the art world. Instead of superficially changing the names of ballet theatres and schools to “Kirov” or “Leningrad,” socialist realism attempted to change what was being depicted—the art itself (“History of the Theatre: Mariinsky Theatre”). Ballets during this time sought to portray uncomplicated moral themes that dealt with Soviet life, while still keeping the technical skill developed during the Russian Empire.

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Ballet existed throughout Soviet period, never truly detaching from its imperial tradition. Despite the continued ties to that tradition, Soviet leaders, including Stalin, did not seek to destroy Russian ballet. Instead the ballet itself was repurposed to serve the goals of the new Soviet state. This idea is supported by the fact that the Mariinsky Theatre was renamed in 1935 in honor of Sergei Kirov, a communist revolutionary, following his death. Many scholars today comment on the lack of a national, historical foundation for the Russian state—the lack of a metanarrative. Ballet, along with other forms of art and culture, common elements of a national tradition, were consequently used to create a national tradition in the USSR.

The Soviet Union marketed itself as a place of artistic expression and ingenuity superior to its capitalist counterparts. The Soviet Union, contrary to many prevalent stereotypes, supported the ballet tradition, whilst censoring social expression as a whole. Theatres and concert halls were exported to states within the Soviet Union as an example of the regime’s largesse—it used the ballet tradition and environment, the classical institution, to appeal to states within its control. Ballet helped serve a “dual political role,” in promoting the Soviet Union’s propaganda as a culturally superior country, as well as disseminating Soviet values to a larger audience (Hamm 3). Art, like other aspects of society, was rewarded with medals and titles like the “Narodnyi Artist SSSR” or National Artist of the USSR. Such practices perpetuated the social acceptance of ballet as a national activity, not unlike the use of ballet to create a more Western association a century before.

Many dancers, however, especially while touring in western countries, defected from the Soviet Union. Rudolph Nureyev, a soloist in the Kirov Ballet Company, refused to return to Soviet Union after performing in Paris in 1961. The dancers, like Nureyev, who left the Soviet Union would later join Western ballet companies gaining individual fame as well as increasing the prominence of the companies relative to the Soviet Union (“Russian Ballet Star Nureyev Defects”). These well-publicized acts of course contradicted the Soviet government’s perennial declaration of free cultural expression. YouTube Preview Image

Russia’s deep history with ballet has contributed to its place within the national identity. The Ballet Russes set a precedent. There is a deep-seated interest in Western countries in Russian ballet. People flock to opera houses and arts centers in hopes of seeing what makes the Russian ballet different from other ballet traditions. Museums in Russia and Western countries frequently have exhibitions dedicated to the Russian ballet tradition, perpetuating the association of Russian society with ballet (“Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music”). Dance in Russia has been depicted in literature and art, and has accompanied opera and theatre productions. Music and dance combine when viewing the famous ballets of “Sleeping Beauty” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the “Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky (Jenik). In Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, the Countess Natasha performs a dance said to lie within every Russian and consequently “rediscovers [her] own ‘Russianness’” (Figes xxx, 45).

Many articles concerning the dance world of Russia are involved not so much with the influences of politics and society on the social institution, but rather with the art itself. They look at how the ballet techniques and schools compare to Western counterparts. It has been argued that ballet is a reflection of Russian society—changing as society has changed. Others have argued that ballet and dance culture is instead one of the few things in Russian society that has been a constant across the decades – remaining generally unaffected by the Soviet period (Ezrahi 234, 237).

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Teatralnaya ploshchad’, Theatre Square, is home to the renowned Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg, Russia. The Mariinsky Theatre is the head of the Mariinsky opera, ballet and theatre companies. While in the past the Theatre and the Company functioned separately, today the company does not exist without the patronage of the theatre. Because of this interconnected relationship, when discussing the Ballet of St. Petersburg, the Mariinsky Theatre must also be addressed. Ordering a ticket at the Mariinsky Theatre is both an interesting and invigorating experience. Thousands of people move through the historic space each day, standing in lines in order to see the next showing of Don Quixote or The Brothers Karamazov.

These ticket officers speak various languages, able to communicate in English but ready to tolerate broken Russian. The tickets have a broad range of prices depending on what you want to see, where you want to see it and arguably, who you are (prices are conveniently lower for people who are adept at using the Russian language). The Mariinsky Theatre technically describes three separate buildings, each great in their own way: the Concert Hall, acutely designed to showcase musical greats; the original Mariinsky (Mariinskii Odin), and a new addition, Mariinsky Dva. The Mariinsky operates very differently than one would expect. It is formal, but at the same time—not. A mix of people in gorgeous trailing dresses and ties next to others in jeans and shorts. Cameras, while not allowed, are rarely supervised. The tickets, while not cheap (especially for well-known Ballets and Opera performances), are reasonable in an attempt to cater to a wider audience. A section of straight-backed, wooden benches lords over the other seating in reach of the classically painted mural and chandelier. This section is the least expensive and allows those who cannot afford the “Bainoire” or “Belle-Etage” levels a chance of seeing the productions. The Mariinsky experience is not solely for Russian citizens—but rather a source of pride that they can give to the world as a whole. The Mariinsky Theatre is one of the biggest tourist attractions in St. Petersburg, indeed in the world. Ships from all over the wottracts people who wish to see the Russian interpretation of well-known performances. They come because of the reputation that exists in the Western world, a reputation the Mariinsky propagates (“Giselle 3D from the Mariinsky Theater”).YouTube Preview Image

Local pride in the theatre is endemic, and my host mother in St. Petersburg would regularly sit down at the small kitchen table to tell me about upcoming performances she would be attending. Almost every week she would look forward to the opera or one of her favorite performers, who were coming to St. Petersburg. Twice she gave me tickets to see Mariinsky performances myself—the opera, Rigolleto and a quartet, which played music by Russian composer, P. I. Tchaikovsky.

With the White Nights, the summer months of St. Petersburg hold an intangible feeling of excitement and adventure. The festival of the White Nights includes hundreds of performers of every specialty, working closely with the Mariinsky Theatre itself. The Mariinsky Theatre and the performances of ballet, opera and theatre, provide a service for the Russian people—it offers a place to escape. I saw three ballet performances on two different occasions—“The Carmen Suite”, a scene from the ballet “Le Corsaire” and “Giselle”. The ballet and the theatre have the ability to transport viewers to another place. It is three hours where the outside world disappears and the inside world becomes reality.

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