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A short history of how Russia became the epicentre of ballet

Ballet has been nurtured and revived in Russia for over 300 years. Today this beautiful art form is a national treasure and synonymous with Russian culture. The country has created some of the world’s most revered ballet companies, theatres and dancers… But how did it all begin? We take a look at the incredible history of Russian ballet and where to experience it for yourself in Russia

Why is ballet famous in Russia?

Ballet has been a part of Russia’s cultural identity since the 17th century, when Peter the Great, the former Emperor of Russia, began a cultural revolution to challenge the West. Many cultural institutions were introduced, but ballet had the greatest influence of them all, touching the hearts of almost everyone in Russia.

Unlike in France, where ballet was exclusively for the wealthy, this elegant dance was enjoyed by almost everyone in the country, from the rich to the poor. Since then, it has given rise to the most iconic Russian ballets, powerful dancers and stunning concerts, and ballet remains a treasure of Russia. 

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How ballet came to Russia

Although ballet may have originated in France and Italy, it was refined in Russia. It arrived in Russia in the 1700s when Peter the Great began replacing traditional Russian folk dances with ballet as part of his Westernised cultural revolution. It boomed in popularity during the reign of Catherine the Great. Russian aristocrats learned how to dance ballet, and even Catherine’s son Paul I danced ballet in court events before becoming emperor. 

As the tsars began to patronise the art form, foreign talent and teachers were brought in from France and Italy to teach at the ballet schools built in St. Petersburg and Moscow. The dancers often came from poor backgrounds, including orphans raised to be ballet dancers. The first ballet school was founded in 1734, while the first full ballet company was established in the 1740s at the Imperial School of Ballet in St. Petersburg. 

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Russian ballet goes international

The 1740s also brought the Mariinsky Ballet, directed by the French ballet master and teacher Jean-Baptiste Landé. It remains one of the world’s greatest ballet companies to this day. The Mariinsky Ballet brough Russian ballet to global fame and employed many iconic figures of Russian ballet history including Charles Didelot, Jules Perrot, Carlotta Grisi, Christian Johansson and Marie Taglioni, one of the finest dancers of the Romantic era of ballet. 

Along with Landé, the Mariinsky Ballet (originally known as the Imperial Russian Ballet and now known as the Kirov Ballet) was led by famed French choreographer Marius Petipa. He spent 50 years staging ballets in Russia throughout the late 19th century. Many of his famous ballets like The Nutcracker and Don Quixote are still performed by ballet companies around the world. Petipa’s revival of the Swan Lake ballet is one of his most legendary works for the ballet company.

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A new age of Russian ballet

Although Italian and French dancers greatly influenced the early ballet in Russia, it also soaked up native styles like Russian folk dancing. In the early 19th century, the Russian ballet master Ivan Valberkh incorporated some Russian folk dance elements into classic ballets. Both foreign and Russian ballet dancers and teachers began to develop a uniquely Russian style of ballet.

A new era of Russian ballet began when Bolshoi Theatre dancer and choreographer, Ivan Clustine, was chosen as Maître de ballet (Ballet master) at the renowned Paris Operá. This marked a shift in European ballet, with Russia in the limelight. 

It also paved the way for the creation of the first Russian touring company, Ballet Russes. Founded in 1909 by acclaimed art patron Sergey Diaghilev, it brought together some of the most cutting edge composers, choreographers and dancers like George Balanchine, Bronislava Nijinska and Marius Petipa. Originally based in Paris, the Ballet Russes went on to tour the world. Young Russians back home saw that ballet gave them a path to international glory and began devoting themselves to the craft. Since then, Russia has had an enormous – and unique – impact on the development of ballet around the world.

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The Soviet effect

After the Russian Revolution ended in 1923, the new Soviet Union dictated a strict socialist realism style for the arts. Ballet companies like the iconic Bolshoi Ballet (founded in 1776 and one of the world’s oldest ballet companies) staged ballets such as ‘Ivan the Terrible’ to fall in line with the new rules. However, many Bolshoi dancers such as Mikhail Baryshnikov fled to the west in the 1960s in search of creative freedom. They began spreading the distinct Russian ballet style around the world.

What makes Russian ballet different?

One of the most unique elements of Russian ballet is its incredible blend of classical ballet and Russian folk dance. It brings a piece of Russian soul to the dance, making it utterly captivating to watch. In terms of technical skill, Russian ballet has a sense of deliberateness. The dancers hold their poses longer, use their upper body as much as their lower, and incorporate theatrics into the dance. Russian ballet invigorates the art form with drama and intensity… And it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen in the ballet theatres of western Europe.

There’s also the great sacrifice it takes to become a successful ballet dancer in Russia. At only 10 to 12 years old, the first-year students at the famous ballet schools, such as the Bolshoi Academy, have already developed the skills and strength of a professional. It takes thousands of gruelling hours to become the best and most dancers must sacrifice everything else in their life to make it. It’s also incredibly competitive.

Many Russian ballet schools select less than 100 students from thousands of applications every year. The ballet schools are known for their intense programs and only around half the students are likely to complete it. The students start at around 10 years old (any older than 12 and they’re considered untrainable). They must have long, strong and graceful bodies, and most importantly, an overwhelming desire to dance ballet.

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Who is the most famous Russian ballet dancer?

Russians are huge ballet fans and that means the best ballet dancers are treated like superstars. Many people choose ballet performances to see a particular dancer, and they applaud cameo performers before they step on stage. Tickets to performances with the most revered dancers like Maya Plisetskaya, Ekaterina Maximova and Galina Ulanova, one of the finest ballerinas of the 20th century, always sold out instantly.

The most famous ballet dancers of more recent times are Ulyana Lopatkina, Diana Vishneva and Ekaterina Kondaurova of the Mariinsky Theatre, Svetlana Zakharova of the Bolshoi Theatre, and Natalia Osipova of the Mikhailovsky Theatre. They’re all incredible ballet dancers, yet they’ve all developed their own wonderfully distinct styles. 

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The best Russian ballet theatres

If you’re wondering which ballet theatre to visit in Russia, you’ve got two of the world’s most famous ballet companies to choose from – the Mariinsky Theatre (Kirov) in St. Petersburg and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Both ballet companies have produced some of the world’s greatest ballet dancers, including the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky and Rudolf Nureyev. 

While the Mariinsky is traditionally renowned as the best ballet theatre in Russia, the Bolshoi is also world-famous and known for its experimental performances. Both theatres are masters of classical and contemporary ballet, and you’ll be stunned by the architectural beauty and bewitching performances. But be sure to get in early – tickets to these theatres often sell out months in advance! 

Besides the two greats, there are many other excellent ballet theatres in Russia. The Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and the Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre in Moscow are fantastic, while the ballet theatres in Yekaterinburg, Perm and Novosibirsk are growing in popularity.

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Are you dreaming of seeing a Russian ballet performance? Let us know in the comments below!

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