Ballet and the Evil Empire

August 8, 2005

When John and Jackie Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were in the White House they had many ballet performances in the White House on a specially built temporary stage. Ronald Reagan was not what you would say interested in the Fine Arts. In fact, when Reagan presented the Kennedy Award to Antony Tudor, the President mispronounced Mr. Tudor's name. One of Ron Junor's performances with the Joffrey Ballet Company may have been the first time the President Reagan had seen a ballet. The very smart Robert Joffrey played up the fact the President's son was a member of his company.

On the other hand, the "Evil Empire" (as Reagan called the Soviet Union) promoted ballet. They had State sponsored ballet schools and companies that guaranteed its dancers security for life. That sounds nice, but if you were found in disfavor with the government, they could make your life unbearable.

The Russian ballet tradition is long and colorful, as is the treatment of its practitioners. After a half century, Marius Petipa (1818-1910), the famous dancer, teacher and chorographer wasn't allowed in the theatre for the last ten years of his life. Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950) and George Balanchine (1904 -1983) were dismissed from the Russian Ballet. They were the earliest defectors to escape Russia to join Serge Diaghilev Ballet Russes in the West.

According the Otis Stuart's Perpetual Motion Rudolf Nureyev had nothing to lose when he defected, because on his return from tour of the West; the police were waiting at the airport to arrest him because of his sexual preference.

I know first hand that when Baryshnikov was a soloist with the Kirov Ballet (named for the head of the Communist party), principal dancers Valeri Panov and his wife Galina Ragozina, were denied a visa to go to Israel and were imprisoned and expelled from the company. Ballerina Kaleria Fedicheva married an American dancer and was not allowed to dance in Russia for two years. Because of her American husband she was allowed to come to America in 1975. She took my class for years and later she opened her own school on Long Island.

I know nothing about the reason Baryshnikov defected, although one reason may have been after graduation from the Russian ballet school, dancers were assigned a particular role. Because of the great number of dancers, a performer might have danced only once or twice a month. Rising above a certain rank depended on who you knew. Being accepted in the school, your family was examined for what the student might look like as they grew. The students had to live at the school and only on holidays could they visit their parents. They were expected to devote their lives to ballet, because their education was paid for by the state.

You can find more information in an article by Joan Acocella called "The Soloist" in the New Yorker January 19th 1998.

Next: Dance, But What Kind?