For decades, ballet stars from Russia and the former Soviet Union have been joining Western companies as fully-fledged members. But the idea of a Western dancer becoming part of a Russian troupe is unheard of - until now.
Moscow's Bolshoi Theater has broken new ground by inviting David Hallberg, of the American Ballet Theater (ABT), to be a guest dancer for the upcoming performing season. The Bolshoi's new season kicks off at the end of October, with the reopening of its historical building, following a lengthy renovation.
In the Soviet era, ballet was one of Russia's internationally recognized brands, alongside Sputnik and the Kalashnikov. The local school of ballet enjoyed wide acclaim in the West, and those of its students who eventually defected to Europe or the United States - including Rudolf Nureyev in 1961, Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974 and Alexander Godunov in 1979 - were given a hero's welcome, as well as lead parts at some of the major ballet companies there.
Baryshnikov served as director and chief choreographer of the ABT in the 1980s, exerting a major influence on American ballet. The Bolshoi's Nina Ananiashvili joined the same company as a prima ballerina in 1993.
Hallberg, 29, will appear on the stage of the Bolshoi in early November, in Adolphe Adam's "Giselle" and Pyotr Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty." What kind of impact will the American dancer have on this country's flagship ballet company?
Hallberg set to develop the Bolshoi's Klondike
It goes without saying that a ballet company's reputation is formed by its leading performers. Soviet ballet owes its international renown mainly to the Bolshoi stars of the Yuri Grigorovich era, such as Vladimir Vasilyev, Yekaterina Maximova, Natalia Bessmertnova, Mikhail Lavrovsky and Maris Liepa. Sergei Filin, one of Grigorovich's post-Soviet successors as the Bolshoi Ballet chief, seems to be well aware of this fact. According to him, "it is the personalities that make a theater."
Hallberg's appearances at the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky (Kirov) theaters from 2008-2011 revealed him as a virtuoso dancer best suited for romantic parts. And lyrical dancers with impeccable technical skill are hard to come by. Filin was, and remains, one of the few.
It was Filin who invited his American colleague to work at the Bolshoi. Filin's predecessor, Alexei Ratmansky, had engaged Hallberg in his 2010 production of "The Nutcracker" at the ABT. And this year, Hallberg appeared as Prince Siegfried in "Swan Lake" at the Mariinsky Ballet Festival.
Hallberg's experience dancing in Russia has led him to the conclusion that ballet is taken seriously here - an obvious conclusion, though still flattering. Any study of the history of Russian ballet will demonstrate that this is the case. Even now that the original traditions are yielding to a motley variety of new concepts, the Bolshoi is still seen as a Klondike, with a wealth of gold that remains to be mined.
Hallberg has promised to respect the traditions of Russian ballet. This appears to be a cautious approach, especially against the backdrop of the Bolshoi Theater's daring experiments throughout the last decade. Many of its recent experimental productions, which often overplay the spectacle of a show at the expense of meaning, have proved to be quite controversial with conservative Russian audiences.
Such was the case, for instance, with "Creation 2010," a ballet staged here last September by French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj. After this highly ambitious production, which attempted to depict the Creation and the Apocalypse on stage, many critics and members of the public expressed their bewilderment over its vague pantomime, which they found to be lacking in coherence and emotion. Some argued, however, that Russian lovers of ballet were too conservative to understand this technically innovative show. But the problem probably resided not so much in the "innovative" choreography as in the poor expressiveness of the show, which often failed to resonate emotionally.
Making it even better
It is worth mentioning that David Hallberg is more than just a highly skilled performer. Critics have never described his dance as mechanical or superficial.
This performing season, the Bolshoi Theater is set to continue its work on George Balanchine's three-part ballet, "Jewels." It has already presented its production of "Rubies," and is now preparing to stage the remaining two parts, "Emeralds" and "Diamonds." Hallberg may well have his own precious contribution to the promotion of Balanchine's rich legacy here, in the Russian-born choreographer's native country.
Hallberg is able to boast of a vast experience in dancing Balanchine's one-act ballets, as well as productions by Frederick Ashton, William Forsythe, Twyla Tharp and other internationally renowned choreographers. Many of the Bolshoi dancers have admitted they have difficulty getting used to Balanchine's style. Hallberg could help by sharing his expertise with his Russian counterparts.
Addressing a Bolshoi company gathering last week, Filin said: "I'm often asked whether the theater will remain as good as it was in its glory days. Looking at you here makes me think it is bound to get even better."
This is a highly promising remark, especially considering the forthcoming reopening of the Bolshoi's old stage. In preparation for this historic event, which is set for October 28, the company is rushing to get the new season's highlights ready for the stage, while the public is awaiting surprises, pleasant surprises.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.