The Born-Again Balletomane's Blog

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A Little Russian Headache December 6, 2012

Been away for a bit because of yet another illness.  It’s been a very long year in that regard.

Anyway, I was feeling like watching a full-length ballet and so headed over to YouTube.  I landed on an old Kirov production of The Nutcracker. The ballerina was one Larissa Lezhnina.  Honestly, as her career started during my long absence from watching ballet, I never heard of her.  But she was charming, so I sought more information.

I landed on this interview (click on link).  Please read it before reading this article further.

I was shocked to see that quite a while back I echoed in this blog, without knowing it, some of the things she says here — specifically about  “flexerinas” like Svetlana Zakharova (who actually has toned down that aspect of her dancing a bit, as far as I can see), and numerous others.  Her comments about these dancers gave me a better timeline as to when the pretzels took over.  Although there has always been a dancer or two who was more flexible than most, the trend toward everyone being that way seems to be very recent, post 2000.

Lezhnina says that this type of dancing is “not pure Kirov style.”  I wouldn’t know.  All I know is that when I started watching again after a nearly 30 year break, I was shocked to see legs flying so high up in the air that the heel of the foot almost touched the opposite ear, and/or grands jetes so over-split and hyperextended that it looked like the dancer had fallen apart in mid-air.  (Quick, get the Super Glue!)  This, to me, had nothing to do with classical ballet.

I also pretty much agree with her about most of what I see in modern choreography, but that’s for another post.  I’ve never been a fan of most modern choreography and don’t find it worthwhile or beneficial in any way, but I’ll have to study it more before I comment at length.  Certainly there must be something that I’m missing.

Again, this is an old interview, around 15 years old, but you really should read it.

Bringing it back into the present, I was thinking again about the YouTube vlogger Russianballetvideos.  He’s the one who is the devotee of the Maryinsky (Kirov).  He’s been screaming a lot lately about people like Oxana Skorik and Keenan Kampa, who in his opinion are not worthy to be in the Maryinsky, are ill-trained and under-talented at worst and just don’t fit in at best.  Their very presence in the Maryinsky indicates terrible, nefarious things going on in the background that will be the end of Russian ballet as we know it, and blah, blah, blah.  Money-grubbing!  Impurity!  Oh, the horror!

Read the Lezhnina interview.  She says pretty much the same thing about a not-much-earlier generation of Russian dancers.  Yes, what she says is palatable to me because I totally agree with her on so many issues, but the fact is that all of this brings up a question: is this argument always going on in Russia?

I’m guessing it must be.  If one looks at videos spanning the past century (and it is possible), one sees that each generation of dancers usually provides some sort of fairly radical departure from the previous generation.  And goodness knows, kids are always trouble, aren’t they?

So is it possible to look at it this way: Russian ballet as we know it is always dying and being reborn right before our eyes?  And if that’s so, is it possible that people like RBV and others I’ve commented on recently are flipping out about nothing?

Or is there something else going on?  In the past week I’ve had an awful lot of time to read and reflect and Google.  One of the things I was curious about was the current status of Joy Womack over at the Bolshoi.  Kampa finally showed up in the roster of the Maryinsky early in the Fall, but Womack…well, she’s just not there.  It’s been that way for months.  (12/7/12 update: her photo and name are now listed among the corps; no, this was not there when I looked yesterday).

So what did I find out?  She had been presented with an extraordinary choice — to join the Bolshoi as a corps dancer or join the Mikhailovsky as a soloist.  I think it shows a lot of integrity and forethought on her part that she chose to go to the Bolshoi, even with lower status there.  Popular as she already is, she still needs to build credibility and gain experience.  It’s to her credit that she recognized this.

But that’s not the point.  The point is…it’s that pesky Mikhailovsky again!

This is the troupe that swallowed up Natalia Osipova and her husband(?) Ivan Vasliev amid shouts of scandal and horror in Moscow.  At one point, as I previously mentioned, the whole caper was being blamed on American dancer David Hallberg, who apparently was going to bring down the entire Bolshoi and all or Russian ballet with it just by setting foot on the stage of the Bolshoi Theater.  I mean, OMG he’s AMERICAN, he CAN’T DANCE.  And someone claimed that Osipova fled to the “really third rate” Mikhailovsky to get away from him.

Tut, tut.

Seems the cat’s out of the bag: the Mikhailovsky also had made an offer to Hallberg, which he refused.  And now we have this news about little Joy Womack.  (BTW just found out that Womack’s school partner, Bolshoi-Academy-trained American dancer Mario Labrador, has joined the Mikhailovsky as a coryphee.)

What the Mikhailovsky is doing is building a team by buying it. (ABT has been doing this for decades, so this sort of thing is no shock to us in the U.S.)  As a troupe they are still dismissed as lightweight and inconsequential; however, the dancers there seem to view it as a place of refuge, with the positive possibility that they won’t have to spend the rest of their careers buried in a herd of principals and wanna-be principals, fending off the flavor-of-the-moment and waiting months between performances; worst of all, never getting chances at choice roles.

This may prove to be interesting.  And it’s yet another change in Russian ballet: the old power structure is gone and a new one is trying to take its place.  I have my own opinions about that (I still think ballet thrives best on government support), but I’m willing to watch and wait.  Goodness knows it is never a pretty process, but it is always fascinating.

Meantime, I’ll try to keep all the whining in perspective.  Dance is live; therefore, dance is change.  It’s as true in Russia as it is in the rest of the world.

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3 Responses to “A Little Russian Headache”

  1. atlantic Says:

    There is someone making some pretty nasty allegations about Womack (click “show more”, the comments were made about 2 months ago). It seems like her former dance partner is lashing out at her. I think she is a great dancer, extremely dedicated and deserves her spot at the Bolshoi. I think people are having a hard time accepting that an American can dance at the same level as a Russian. Sounds like sour grapes 😦

  2. theworstat Says:

    Definitely there is a “sour grapes” thing going on here. I think it’s very hard for some to accept that ballet isn’t just one country’s sport. This is something I keep harping about in this blog. The unanswered question is, “what will happen to Russian companies if the homogenous ethnic identity erodes?” I think as long as the training stays in place, they’ll be fine. It is that particular style of training that they own, not ballet itself.

    It could be argued that the identity thing comes in part from being able to select a certain type of child in mid-childhood and then keeping that child and cherishing it and training it just so. But then you get someone like Joy, who came in at age 15.

    Thanks for the link; I read the comments below from Mario Labrador, her former partner. I have to admit something: I was wondering about that marriage. Now I understand. It is her life.

    She is extraordinarily talented and I wish her well.

  3. atlantic Says:

    I think the main problem is that Russia was closed off for so long. Other European companies have no issues with hiring foreign dancers, including American dancers (Royal Ballet, Het Nationale, ENB, Flanders etc). The Mikailovksy had no problems extending offers to Labrador and Womack. In fact, the director himself if not Russian.

    From what I can discern, she is in fact married. However, I don’t know if I believe that the only reason they took her is due to her marriage. She obviously has the talent and drive to make it. It is her own business, but I am sorry her former friend is defaming her on the internet.


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