Buddy

What Is Russian In Russian Ballet ?

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Ballet is almost a religion today in Russia. Yet if you think about Russia in general, would you really make a connection ? The Essence of Russia -- The Essence of A 'Classical' Russian Ballet ? What's Russian about Swan Lake for instance ?

Added thought:

The most famous paintings in St. Petersburg world famous Hermitage Museum, the Rembrandts, da Vinci's, Matisse's….can be so different from so much that you'll see in St. Petersburg's National Museum. (I'll qualify on the Rembrandt's though. For me they do have a lot of remarkable soul, which is also so very 'Russian'.) Yet much in the Hermitage feels like 'Russian' 'classical' ballet to me.
Does 'Russian' 'Classical' Ballet have 'Russian Soul' ?

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Interesting topic, Buddy, and one that could go in a number of directions. I would say offhand that different nationalities can possess "Swan Lake," but an American Swan can be very different from vieille Russie. Thoughts?

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My personal opinion is that the Mariinsky Ballet has a very unique style, one that I love. I know others find their arms and upper body too much, but I love it. I think it is a totally unique style, and I think the Bolshoi has a little of it, even though the curriculum is supposedly the same. But I think the Mariinsky style is more extreme than the Bolshoi, and I personally like it better.

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Interesting topic, Buddy, and one that could go in a number of directions. I would say offhand that different nationalities can possess "Swan Lake," but an American Swan can be very different from vieille Russie. Thoughts?

Dirac, for the moment I'm talking about the Swan Lake that was essentially created in Russia. What's Russian about it ?

Birdsall, also a very good point. There isn't just one Russian way in ballet of doing the same thing.

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I am coming late to this topic, but I think it is a very rich and complex one. Offhand I'd say that what makes Swan Lake in particular "Russian" is the fact that Tchaikovsky wrote the music. That makes it "ours" from a Russian perspective in a way that Giselle could not quite be, for example, despite its restaging by the (French) Petipa in St. Petersburg in the 1860s.

In a larger sense, though, I think that what makes ballets Russian is the fact that they are "archived" by living Russian institutions, the Maryinsky, the Bolshoi, and others. Unlike a painting, which simply hangs on a wall and is viewed, Swan Lake has lived and passed on through Russian dancers and teachers. It survived the Revolution - with a changed, more uplifting ending - and continued on through the Soviet era, passed from dancer to dancer. That direct physical link, along with the workings and reworkings of this ballet (Gorsky, Vaganova, Lopukhov, Sergeyev), make it Russian, even if there are no overtly Russian dances in the ballet (the Russian dance not being performed in contemporary productions). And there is a lot of consciousness about Swan Lake being a sacrosanct tradition in Russia, even if the ballet went through a lot of changes. I don't think you see that in the States. Swan Lake is just another ballet to be performed, albeit one with its own special style and history, but not one to be approached with reverence and awe.

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cgc, I can try to very briefly respond to this topic, which you have quite correctly described as “a very rich and complex one.”


I would define Russian ‘Soul’ as Spontaneous, but deeply felt love. It’s something that I feel greatly in Russia and would almost call a cultural characteristic. For me, it doesn’t necessarily show on the day to day surface, but you still feel that it’s there. When it does surface it’s heart grabbing.


Ballet is to a large extent Refined, artistically developed expression. It’s something that I would more associate with France, or Paris in particular. In fact Russian ‘classical’ ballet was largely developed in the Tzar’s court (which at times spoke primarily french), by a frenchman. St. Petersburg architecture is largely influenced by Italy and France. This renaissance oriented expression was intended to represent an ideal way of being.


So I tend to see Russian ‘classical’ ballet, Swan Lake in particular. as an *Idealization* of Russian ‘Soul.’

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"We took the best of the French school, with its grace and lightness, the best of the Italian school with its power,

strength and expression, and fused them with "duzha," our soul. Pyotr Gusev (1904-1987)

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"We took the best of the French school, with its grace and lightness, the best of the Italian school with its power,

strength and expression, and fused them with "duzha," our soul. Pyotr Gusev (1904-1987)

At its best, this is quite true.

However, as we know, the French school today is less graceful and light, the Italian school now dances like other schools and the soul is not always present with the Russian school.

The sentiment remains however.

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Would it be the romatic idea of the Tragic? I believe Romeo and Juliet is very close to the Russian soul too. Why do so many iconic Russian ballets take place outside of Russia? Nutcracker & Swan Lake in Germany, Sleeping Beauty I thought was set in France? Romeo & Juliet in Italy, La Bayadere in India, Raymonda in Hungary, Esmerslda in Paris, ... Only the Little Humobacked Horse & Baba Yaga which are tarely presented in the US? Firebird, of course, but that is Ballets Russes... Not sure it is much loved in Russia? Is it a repertory warhorse at the Maryinsky or Bolshoi? Fountains of Bakhchisarai? Has that ever been presented by a Russian touring company in the US? We are more likely to get Giselle, set in Germany. Spartacus, so tepresentive of the soviet Bolshoi, again, not set in Russia...

Peehaps to be Russian is to be tragically in love with the exotic ?

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I am forgetting Sleeping Beauty... Is it not some echo asserted between Louis xIV and the Tsar?

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Placing plots and stories elsewhere wasn't new to Russian ballet or to ballet for that matter. Not only are other locales exotic, with plenty of excuses for national dances and color, but politically, it's a way of commenting on local matters while keeping out of prison, or the comparison can be an explicit, mostly flattering one. How many Shakespeare plays are set in England or Verdi operas set in Italy (pre- and post-unification)?

New ballet companies in the US and Canada strove to set ballets in their countries and on North American themes; this was Royal Winnipeg Ballet's early calling card and dear to Kirstein's heart, but that was different from the Russian, French,and Danish classic balket. I think the bigger question was why Russian opera seemed to buck the trend, with many classic Russian operas set there or regionally, like "Mazeppa" in Ukraine.

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The idea of "making American dance" was also fundamental to the early modern dancers in the US -- one of the criticisms that Ruth St Denis would often get is that her works were set in foreign or "exotic" environments.

(a colleague of mine is working on a book about mid-20th century American ballet, with part of the emphasis placed on discussing what actually makes it "American.")

Several years ago I wound up giving a series of talks about the shifting definition of "Russian ballet," in conjunction with the Goodwill Games in Seattle (we got several touring ensembles, dance and otherwise -- I was just a part of a bigger education project). One thing I came away with, after doing the prep, is that in many cases, the "Russian" aspect of the work was defined by people outside Russia.

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