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Essay: Why did dancers from Soviet Russia began to defect to the West?

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  • Published: 15 March 2023*
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When you think about war, what do you think about? Missiles, poverty, the little green army men from Toy Story? In this essay, I am going to explore a different side of war–ballet. During the Cold War, more specifically the late 80’s and early 90’s, dancers from Soviet Russia began to defect to the West. A defector is anyone who has given up their allegiance to one thing in exchange for another. The question I want to answer in this essay is why did the dancers defect? I will be covering a range of viewpoints by including history about the personal experiences of defecting dancers from Russia, and information about why they ended up where they ended up, the West. The dancers defected from Russia to find artistic refuge in the West; they wanted to have the freedom to choose the art they created, they wanted to branch out stylistically, and most of all they wanted to escape extreme Soviet policy.
Before we can understand why dancers chose to defect to Western countries (like the United States of America, France, England, and other countries in the Netherlands), we must first understand why they felt persecuted in their countries of origin to begin with–why were they essentially being used as human leverage during the length of the Cold War? The surrender of Nazi Germany in the spring of 1945 is what brought World War II to a close. This also solidified the end to the already-fragile alliance of Soviet Russia, the political superpower of the East, and the United States of America, the political power of the West. The conflict between the two countries became energized when the Russian government detonated its first atomic bomb, called “Cold Lightning”, in the summer of 1949. This meant that the Russian government now had access to nuclear warfare, instead of it all being controlled by the government of the United States of America. This technological standoff, combined with their competing economic ideologies (Western capitalism in the United States of America versus Eastern communism in the Soviet Union), was ultimately what sparked the Cold War into being (L. Edwards). There was not ever any real “warfare”, at least not the use of traditional soldiers and the like, so this war over power began to express itself in different ways. One of these many ways was through art. Art of all types was used as propaganda (defined as “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view”) for either the United States of America or Soviet Russia. The conflicting ideologies were exhibited in their style, technique, precision, and even their casting types and performance venues. While many types of art–like music (this period is what gave rise to the start of the quintessential American jazz and blues music spread throughout the rest of the world) and visual (with expressionism and abstract art being churned out in the United States of America to reflect and promote our ideals of freedom)–in this essay we will be focusing on ballet.

Russian ballet may be seen as strict in today’s society (for example, seven year old little girls who are aspiring ballerinas are still being turned away from the Vaganova Ballet Academy, an esteemed classical ballet school located in Saint Petersburg, for being “too fat”), but it was even stricter during the age of the Cold War. The rigidity of the communist policy in the Soviet Union bled into art. This forced every dancer to rise to a certain bar instead of making bold and creative choices of their own volition. According to From Russia with Impact on the West’s Ballet, dancers chose to “pursue their careers in the West because they sought the artistic freedom they felt was absent in the Soviet Union”. For example, world famous choreographers (like Leonid Yakobson, the artist from Russia who spearheaded the beginnings of the Yacobson Ballet company) chose to produce more avante garde ballets, like the celebrated classic ballet “Spartacus”, that focused on imaginative and lyric-style solo (one dancer), duet (two dancers), and trio (three dancers) work rather than regime-like corps de ballet (the ensemble of a ballet that dance in formations during the group numbers) pieces. They sought artistic freedom because their style and the material they were creating was being patrolled. Even though the dancers who defected to the American Ballet Theater, or ABT, were still doing some of the same roles as they did at the Kirov Ballet, where they were before they defected to the Western countries. These classic roles were the Sugar Plum Fairy in Nutcracker, Giselle in Giselle, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, and Dulcinea and Kitri in Don Quixote, to name a few. They were able to make more artistic choices with the roles than they were previously able to when they were employed as company or even principal dancers at the premier ballet company in Soviet Russia (“From Russia With Impact”).

Dancers also wanted to stop creating pieces that strictly perpetuated the agenda of Soviet Russia. Natalia Osipova (a dancer who defected from Moscow, the capital of what at one time was the USSR, to the American Ballet Theatre in the heart of New York City) was fed up with favoritism and propaganda-ridden pieces (“30 years ago the USSR fell apart. Did it change the world of ballet forever”). A good example is the famous ballet “Swan Lake”. This ballet is a combination of two classic Russian folk tales in two acts. The story revolves around cursed maidens, forced marriages, and deceitful swan look-alikes. There are a vast amount of group numbers, as well. Under the surface of this classic ballet is a decidedly Soviet message. Many numbers of that ballet are finely-tuned ensemble pieces, with these “ballet corps” (symbolizing military corps) representing obedience and cohesion. (Dickason). Ultimately, dancers fled to the West to maintain their artistic integrity.

Another reason the dancers defected to the West was to escape the extreme policy of the communist Soviet Union. As seen in the article A Defector Still True to His Art by John Bemrose, dancers dreamed of escaping constant surveillance and pressure from the KGB, the security branch of the government in the USSR (kind of like the CIA of America) (“A Defector Still True to His Art). Here in the United States of America, though, the government is not concerned much with the goings-on inside a theater–the most pressure you will get is an Equity (the labor union designed for performers) dancer complaining to the stage manager that their 10 minute break was only 8 minutes. That was not the case in Soviet Russia, though. Dmitriy Romendik, a writer for the website Russia Beyond, outlines many examples of this extreme policy in his article Dancing Their Way to Freedom: 4 Great Soviet Ballet Defectors. Dancers who were caught exiting the country for any reason (it didn’t even have to be necessarily suspicious) were banned from performances and declared public enemies (“Dancing Their Way to Freedom: 4 Great Soviet Ballet Defectors”). This led to them leaving their home country forever in hopes of creating a better, more artistically fulfilling life for themselves.

Two examples of this unfair treatment of dancers by the Soviet Union government were Valery Panov and Rudolf Nureyev. Panov’s whole family tree was from Israel and had lived there for many years. He attempted to emigrate there in 1974, but the Russian government thought he was becoming too “acquainted with outsiders” and banned him from leaving the Soviet Union for the forseeable future. There’s even an original musical based off of his life, called “To Dance: A Passionate New Musical”. Nureyev, on the other hand, defected to Paris, France to escape the mistreatment he was currently experiencing at the Kirov Ballet. He was considered a security risk (for example, the government forced him to be surrounded by KBG security guards during his performance tour of France in 1961) and banned from leaving the country (Parish). On top of that he was being financially exploited– the Kirov Ballet (which was controlled by the government, because everything was at that time) was only paying him 400 dollars a week for dancing a lead role (which is typically how much novice corps members made back in that time). While he was on a ballet tour with the company of the Kirov in France, the KGB still supervised them and even made them follow a curfew. The mounting injustice–politically and economically–is another reason Soviet ballet dancers defected to the West.

Some may say that it wasn’t just for dancers to pack up their whole lives and families just because they were feeling artistically frustrated. This issue goes beyond simple petty creative differences, though. These dancers were essentially being used as pawns in an international standoff between two huge world government superpowers. By being used in propaganda pieces, like Swan Lake, they were being forced against their will to advocate for a government they certainly did not even agree with. Good art means telling bold, honest stories that comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted, and if this right was being ripped from dancers all across the Soviet Union it is completely understandable why they would choose to leave the country they were born in. They also may not have been able to even make a living wage and provide for their families, as evident in the problems Nureyev faced in his career. In some cases, being by their families side wasn’t even an option physically, like how Panov was banned from Israel.

Ultimately, ballet dancers defected from the Soviet Union to various countries with Western ideals to escape persecution. This persecution showed itself in artistic and political forms. The artistic persecution was evident in the strict control over style and material. It showed itself most notably in the great ballet, “Swan Lake”, and many other propaganda pieces choreographed in the Cold War. The political persecution was evident in the ever-present eye of the KGB that was watching the whereabouts of dancers, like Panov and Nureyev. It also influenced the pay gap and curfew enforced on the mega-supervised company members. The issue of the rights of dancers reflects how Richard Nixon, who was president at the time, viewed the state of our nation during the Cold War: “The Cold War isn’t thawing; it is burning with a deadly heat. Communism isn’t sleeping; it is, as always, plotting, scheming, working, fighting”.

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