The Ballet Dancer Defects
The ballet dancer’s defection was the most spectacular of all: ovations, flowers, embraces—then a flying ‘leap to freedom’. Raised, protected, and tutored by ballet masters and mistresses second to none, the absconding Soviet dancer was taken to have betrayed his teachers, his colleagues, his native land (rodina). Yet defectors were the exception; Soviet dance companies regularly transported hundreds of performers across the world and brought them all home.
Was cold war cultural conflict to be found within the art, craft, and vision of ballet itself? What form did the almost inevitable clash between ‘modernism’ and ‘realism’, the abstract and the concrete, assume? The most abrasive issue, as it transpired, was not for or against the revolutionary heroics of modern Soviet ballets like Spartacus (Spartak, about a slave revolt in ancient Rome) or The Red Poppy (celebrating the role of the Red Army in the Chinese Revolution). It was less a question of political content than of dramatic and musical form which separated the Bolshoi’s vision from that of Georges Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, Anthony Tudor, John Cranko, and other leading Western choreographers. Finally it came down to ‘realism’ once again, even though balletic realism as seen in Giselle or Swan Lake at the Bolshoi and Kirov theatres was about as unrealistic as could be imagined: a fairy-tale world of romance, chivalry, passionate colours, glorious costumes, richly coloured, three-dimensional sets, perfectly synchronized choruses— but all of it embodying the great battle between good and evil, all of it about ‘man’ and his ‘lofty spirit’; about ‘humanism’. By contrast, Western ballets increasingly avoided stories, dramas, heroes, heroines, villains, dénouements, dying swans. Dance was developed as an en-soi, a thing apart, a suggestive form of motion, mime, and gesticulation in which meaning remained ambiguous, and intentions ambivalent. The external referent, the story, essential to Soviet audiences, had been deliberately cauterized. Abstraction prevailed. This was the balletic equivalent of non-representational