The ballet world entered a new Cold War in 2022

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

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

Ballet first germinated in Italy and then blossomed in France, but it was Russia that elevated it to the level of high-baroque musical, with the visual and choreographic magnificence that we recognise today. It has spawned the most famous ballets – The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, The Firebird, The Rite of Spring – as well as a disproportionate number of the most ­celebrated dancers. In short, it has a balletic tradition like nowhere else and, for the 15-plus years I’ve been doing this job (and for many decades before that), the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky’s triennial visits to London have been immensely cherishable chances to see what the great Russians were up to.

It’s not just the Big Two. For years now, smaller troupes, such as the Moscow City Ballet, the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre and the Russian State Ballet of Siberia, have been touring Britain’s regions, enriching theatre schedules in towns and theatres far too small for larger itinerant companies (such as our own English National Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet).

Now, no more. The Kremlin would doubtless still love Russia’s dance troupes to come over and impress us (the Bolshoi, especially, has long been the Kremlin’s “soft-power” spearhead), but now it is we who don’t want them. The Bolshoi didn’t pull out of last summer’s keenly awaited Covent Garden residency. In February, Lilian Hochhauser – the tireless promoter who, with her late husband Victor, has been instrumental in bringing Russia’s finest companies to Britain since 1960 – sat down with the Royal Opera House’s management and rightly decided that such a visit was untenable in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. They couldn’t possibly now be seen to be welcoming the Russians – plus, 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 understandably been “cancelled” by the West for refusing to denounce Putin. ­Compare and contrast, with sadness, the 20 million Brits who apparently tuned in to watch a televised broadcast of the Bolshoi’s first visit to these shores in 1956.
Then there are the recent Russian defections, which inevitably recall the dramatic East-to-West flights of everyone from Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova to Mikhail Baryshnikov and Alexander Godunov.

History repeating: dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who fled Soviet-era Russia - Frank Barratt/Keystone/Getty Images

History repeating: 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 war with all the fibres of my soul,” explained the 31-year-old.) Up-and-coming Mariinsky dancer Victor Caixeta (22, from Brazil) simultaneously declared that he, too, was heading to the Dutch troupe. And this 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 that he, too, felt he had to leave Russia. Two other Bolshoi dancers – Jacopo Tissi and David Motta Soares – also quit, in solidarity with Ukraine.

Western companies are, of course, enriched by these new arrivals at the Russians’ expense – something hard to mourn in itself. But the concept of dancers fleeing Russia feels like a return to the bad old days, and the memory of the Royal Ballet’s Darcey Bussell duetting with the Mariinsky’s Igor Zelensky in both London and St Petersburg seems a distant one. Meanwhile, the Mariinsky’s Covent Garden sojourn in 2024 is currently looking inconceivable.

If there is a silver lining, it is that as one huge international door slams shut, lots of little ones seem, hearteningly, to be opening wider. I’ve been struck again and again this year by small, young, visiting companies such as the Dutch NDT 2, the Cuban Acosta Danza and the Senegalese Ecole des Sables (which delivered a juggernaut-like Rite of Spring at Sadler’s Wells). Youthful British companies, such as ZooNation and Ballet Black, have also impressed. The effective home arrest of Russia’s (often touring) Big Two has now left a fascinating power vacuum on the international stage, not least in Covent Garden’s summer schedules. Who will fill it?

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