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The Russian company featuring Diana Vishneva partnered by Andrian Fadeev in the Grand Pas of Marius Petipa’s “Paquita”. Photo: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Russia has made a unique contribution to the development of ballet. A Russian national school of ballet evolved in the first three decades of the 19th century shaped by two equally important traditions: Western academic dance, introduced to Russia by European ballet masters, and Russian folk dance. At that time ballet enjoyed a privileged position among other theater arts as confirmed by the opening of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 1825 and the Mariinskii Theatre (renamed Kirov Theater under the Soviets) in St. Petersburg in 1860. In the latter 19th century Marius Petipa, a French choreographer who spent fifty years staging ballets in Russia, was the dominant figure, his greatest triumphs being the staging of Tchaikovsky's ballets. 

The most influential figure of the early twentieth century was the impresario Sergey Diaghilev, who founded an innovative touring ballet company in 1909 with choreographer Michel Fokine, dancer Vaslav Nijinksy, and designer Alexandre Benois. Until Diaghilev died in 1929, his Russian dance company, the Ballet Russe, was headquartered in Paris and enjoyed tremendous success. In the same period, the émigré dancer Anna Pavlova toured the world with her troupe and exerted a huge influence on the art form.

Anna Pavlova in "Swan Lake"

The most influential Russian dancer of the mid-twentieth century was Rudolf Nureyev, who defected to the West in 1961 and is credited with establishing the dominant role of the male dancer in classical ballet. A second notable émigré, Mikhail Baryshnikov, burnished an already brilliant career in the United States after defecting from Leningrad's Kirov Ballet in 1974. 

Meanwhile, the Soviet government sponsored new ballet companies throughout the union. After a period of innovation and experimentation in the 1920s, Russia's ballet reverted under Stalin to the traditional forms of Petipa. Many ballet versions of literary classics appeared. This “narrative” form of ballet, such as Sergey Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”, typically told a dramatic or tragic story by choreographic means.

In the latter 20th century the most influential figure in Soviet ballet was Yury Grigorovich, who for 30 years directed the Bolshoi Theater’s ballet company. His productions were distinguished by classical elegance of women’s parts, the power and energy of men’s roles and the epic atmosphere of ballet scenes, characteristic of his versions of Sergey Prokofiev’s “Ivan the Terrible,” Aram Khachaturian’s “Spartacus” and Dmitry Shostakovich’s “The Golden Age.”  

By the mid-1970s Russian ballet troupes had been permitted by the Soviet government to tour abroad, and the Bolshoi Ballet Company and the Kirov Ballet Company upheld the outstanding place that Russian ballet came to occupy in the world of dance. Rich traditions of Russian ballet are developed by new generations of Russian ballet stars, with the two outstanding ballet companies competing for the pre-eminence in the present-day Russian ballet.  




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