Russia is home of the worlds two most famous ballet companies—the Bolshoi and the Kirov (Maryinsky) —and the source of ballet’s greatest dancers: Nijinsky, Pavlov, Nureyev and Baryshnikov. Russians are big ballet fans. Sometimes they applaud cameo performers before they step on stage.

Russian ballet, some critics say, has achieved greatness by blending classicism and Russian folk dance. Vakil Usmanof, former choreographer for the Moscow Ballet School, told the Economist, "The Russian tradition is unique, with its own internal conception closely related to the Russian soul. It is not modern, not jazz but exclusively classical.”

Joan Acocella wrote in The New Yorker: “”The Russian way of dancing looks old-fashioned but beautifully so, when its done right. The arms are gorgeous, and the deliberateness can be a lot of fun.” Some believe the richness and uniqueness of Russian ballet and dance has been compromised by globalization and the exodus of Russian dancers to the West.

The large cities of Russia traditionally have their own symphony orchestras and ballet and opera houses. Although funding for such facilities has diminished in the 1990s, attendance at performances remains high. The Moscow-based Bolshoi and St.-Petersburg-based Kirov have toured regularly since the early 1960s.


Ballet is a theatrical form of dance with music and a story. The difference between dance and ballet is that the latter has rigid rules and tells a story. One thing that distinguishes ballet from other forms of dance is its grounding in classicism. Although it has been changed and modified over the years, ballet remains true to its 17th century roots. Ballet was the first major dance art of the West.

The idea of “aplomb”—perfect balance from which a dance performs poses or movements—is a key element of ballet. In the “Encyclopedia of Dance”, Anatole Chujoy wrote, "ballet bears a resemblance to architecture as movement can come to immobility. Like architecture, ballet is the result of geometrical, spatial thinking" but “ballet uses as it instrument—the human body."

"A typical program of ballet consists of three individual numbers. Together these take about as much time in the theater as a three act play. The program may contains a forth number, often a “pas de deax”, or dance for two, from a well-known longer ballet.

Books: “A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet” by Robert Greskovic (Hyperion, 1998), “Encyclopedia of Dance” by Anatole Chujoy] .

Five Positions of Ballet

The five classic body positions of ballet were first formulated by Pierre Beauchamp around 1700. They are the only five positions for the feet in which are convenient and practical to move in any direction. There are inverted positions and intermediate positions but a new sixth position can not be invented. These position provide basis for all of a ballet dancer’s moves.

The five positions are based on the notion of a turn-out, the ability of a dancer to turn his or her knee much father than is natural in everyday life. The basis of the movement is the hip joint which is expanded through stretching to give a dancer "precision of movement, certainty and deftness, the impression of ease, and economy and compactness which are characteristic of the ballet style."

The Five Positions are: 1) First (feet turned out sideways with the heels together); 2) Second (feet turned out sideways with the heels spread about a foot and a half apart); 3) Third (feet turned out sideways with the one heel in back of the other); 4) Forth Open (feet turned out sideways with the one heel about a foot in back of the other) and Forth Closed (legs crossed, feet turned out sideways with the heel of each foot lining up with the toe of the other foot about a foot in front of the other); 5) Fifth (legs crossed, feet turned out sideways with the heel of each foot lining up with the toe of the other foot).

The Five Positions En Poine (for toe dancing) are similar except the dancer is on her toes. Dancing on the toes is one of the more difficult aspects of ballet.

Ballet Movement

In the “Encyclopedia of Dance”, Anatole Chujoy wrote, "When we watch complicated ballet dance composed of brilliant pirouettes, leaps, and beats, we derive great pleasure from them not only because they are thrilling in themselves, but also because they have the appearance of security, facility, exuberance, and ease. We are not aware of the intricate technique which makes brilliant execution possible. We do no see the strenuous preparations for them...Whether simple or difficult, the movement is performed with ease, economy, deftness and grace."

“Allegro” encompasses the notions of height, jumps, leaps and toe dancing. As a counterpart to allegro, “adagio” embraces the notions of poses and beautiful positions. Both allegro and adagio are Italian words for the kind of music that traditionally accompanies the ballet movements.

Adagio is usually performed by two dancers: a female actually doing the poses and male holding her up. Classic adagio include the: 1) “arabesque” (the ballerina stands on the toes of one foot, bending forward, with the other leg raised, and arm movements forming the longest possible line); 2) “the attitude” (similar to the arabesque except the back is slightly bent and the leg and arm are bent at the joint); 3) “Écarté” position; 4) “Croisé” position; 5) “Effaceé” position.

Types of ballet jumps, leaps and turns include “pirouettes”, “fouettés”, “entrechants” and “cabriolets”. A “pirouette” is a complete turn on one foot. An “entrechat” is a jump in which the feet cross back and forth in the air. An “anthracite quare” is a jump in which the feet cross back and forth in the air "four" or two complete crossings, with one foot passing in the front the first on the first crossing and behind on the second crossing. A “fouetté” is a turn in which the dancer standing on one foot uses the leg in a circular whipping motion to pull her around. “Swan Lake” has more turns: 32 “fouettés rond de jambe en tournat”.

Early History of Ballet

"Ballet," wrote historian Daniel Boorstin, "arose out of the lavish efforts of members of the Italian Renaissance court to entertain themselves. And the first authentic “ballet de cour” was organized by Catherine de' Medici (1519-1589) in 1581 to celebrate the marriage of her sister. When Catherine came to France as the wife of King Henry II, she brought Italian musicians with her. It was said that she planned a comic entertainment because she believed that performing a tragedy might bring bad luck...[She] brought Italian and French talents in music, verse, dance, and drama all together in unprecedented splendor to tell the familiar Homeric story of Ulysses escaping from Circe. The costly production was described by its director as 'geometrical arrangement of many persons dancing together under a diverse harmony of instruments."

Ballet caught on in France. "The dance," wrote Voltaire, "which may be reckoned as one of the arts since it is subject to rules and gives grace to the body, was one of the favorite amusements of the court. Louis XVIII had only once danced in a ballet, in 1625; and that ballet was of an undignified character...Louis XIV excelled in stately measures, which suited the majesty of his figure without injuring that of his position." Louis XIV was a fine dancer. He earned his nickname the "Sun King" from prancing around in “Le ballet da la nuit” (1653) with headgear shaped like the rays of the sun.

The French Academy, founded by Louis XIII in 1635, was the first institution in Europe devoted to enrich national culture. Set up under it’s a jurisdiction was the Academy of Painting and Sculpture (1648), the Academy of Science (1660), the Academy of Dance (1661) and the Academy of Music (1669).

Important Developments in Ballet

Before 1681 there were no women ballet dancers. Men danced the feminine roles. The first major woman dancer was Marie Anne de Cupis de Camargo, who danced from 1726 to 1751.

The first dancers to dance on their toes performed a ballet by Charles Didelot called “Zéphr et Flore” at the Drury Lane theater in London in 1796. The performances required special machinery to hoist them in the air. Invented in England, the machines made it possible for dancers to stand on their toes before they lept into the air. The machines were later made obsolete by reinforced slippers.

In the 1700s audience were scandalized when ballerinas threw off their wigs to let their hair hang free and shortened their skirts to ankle length, revealing their fancy footwork. In 1798, a member of the British House of Lord warned that France was not trying to conquer England militarily but trying to destroy it morally by smuggling in ballet dancers.

Toe shoes and flesh colored tights for women were introduced by Charles Didelot in his ballet “Zephre and Flore” (1796). The leotard was, introduced in the 18th century, by a trapeze artist named Jules Leótard who wrote that it was designed so that men who wanted "to be adored by the ladies" could "put on a more natural garb which does not hide your best features."

Ballet flourished during the Romantic era, roughly from 1830 to 1850. Famous ballets include Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, the Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty (See Tchaikovsky). “Giselle”, the story a naive peasant girl who loses her mind after her heart is broken by a nobleman, was first performed in Paris in 1841, with Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi as Giselle. The traditional choreography still ised today derives primarily from the revivals staged by Marius Petipa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg. Librettists Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier took their inspiration for the plot from a prose passage about the Wilis in De l'Allemagne by Heinrich Heine, and from a poem called "Fantômes" in Les Orientales by Victor Hugo. The prolific opera and ballet composer Adolphe Adam composed the music. Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot created the choreography. The role of Giselle was intended for Carlotta Grisi as her debut piece for the Paris public. She became the first to dance the role and was the only ballerina to dance it at the Opèra for many years.

Soviet-era ballet had to meet the standards of Socialist Realism. Despite this handicap some memorable works were produced: “The Red Poppy” (1927), Prokofiev's “Romeo and Juliet” (1946) and Yury Grigorovich's “Spartacus” and “Ivan the Terrible”.

Ballet Dancers

It takes a lot of hard training and practice under first rate teachers to became a ballet dancer. Most serious dancers began serious training before the age of ten and continue until they in their late teens before they are ready for the stage.

A ballet class is divided into two sections: the “barre” (bar) and “mileau” (in the center). Work on the barre stretches and warms up the dancer and helps the dancer turn out the legs at the hip to develop the basic positions and skills. “Mileau” skills include “adagio” (slow, developing posture, balance and slow movements) and “allegro” (fast, leaps and fancy steps and movements).

Many ballerinas spit on their ballet shoes or apply household cleaners or soft drinks to the stage so they don't slip.

The great 19th-century ballerina Emma Livry, a favorite of Napoleon III, dead a horrible death at the age of 20 eight months after being burned by gaslights during a rehearsal.

History of Ballet in Russia

Ballet may have been invented in Italy and France but it was refined and invigorated in Russia. It developed in the 18th century Moscow and St. Petersburg in dance schools, some of which were associated with orphanages. The first ballet performed by Russians was performed in 1673. Ballet did not began to take off until it was patronized by the tsars and teachers from France and Italy were brought in the 18th century.

Ballet was introduced in Russia together with other aristocratic dance forms as part of Peter the Great's Westernization program in the early 1700s. The first ballet school was established in 1734, and the first full ballet company was founded at the Imperial School of Ballet in St. Petersburg in the 1740s. Italian and French dancers and choreographers predominated in that period, but by 1800 Russian ballet was assimilating native elements from folk dancing as nobles sponsored dance companies of serfs. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Ballet reached such a high level in Russia partly because it was the most popular form of entertainment among the Russian aristocrats whereas opera was number one among the nobility in western Europe. At the beginning o the 19th century the Russian ballet scene was dominated by Ivan Valberkh who began introducing more Russian elements into ballets, with some Russian folk dance elements finding their way into classic ballets.

Russia has made a unique contribution to the development of ballet and, European ballet critics agree, Russian dance had a positive influence on West European ballet. Marius Petipa, a French choreographer who spent fifty years staging ballets in Russia, was the dominant figure during the late 19th century; his greatest triumphs were the staging of Tchaikovsky's ballets. Other noted European dancers, such as Marie Taglioni, Christian Johansson, and Enrico Cecchetti, performed in Russia throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, bringing new influences from the West. *

Under Petipa the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet (now the Kirov) became the best in the world. Nijinsky and Pavlov danced there in the early 20th century. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, ballet companies in Russia had to abruptly go form being state supported entities to enterprises that paid their own way.

Russian Ballet Dancers

Joan Acocella wrote in The New Yorker: “Russia's dancers look different from ours. For one thing, their teachers spend as much time on port de bras—the carriage of the arms, shoulders, and head—as they do on steps, with the result that there is almost as much action in a Russian dancer's upper body as in the lower. Russian ballet also has a great deliberateness. When the dancers are about to go into a pirouette, they do a big, squatty preparation. When they hit a pose, they often hold it, so that you'll have time to admire it. (They don't mind taking bows in the middle of a number.) Finally, Russian dancers see acting as part of their job.”

Explaining what it takes to be a Bolshoi dancer, one dancer told British writer Juliet Butler, "You have want to be a ballerina terribly and you have to want it yourself. It's no good if your parents or your teachers are pushing you because in the end it's “you” who has to go through the hardship and endless hours of dancing."

Bolshoi prima ballerina Nadezhda Gracheva told Butler, "I believe I became a great dancer because of my character. I have a difficult character. I'm able to make sacrifices and drive myself on through the pain." The cost of her commitment has been few friends and a reputation for coldness.

Russian Ballet Schools

Many Russian ballet dancers are graduates of the St.-Petersburg-based Vaganova Choreography School, a training center for dances that selects only 80 or so students from the thousands of applications it receives. Ugly children are discouraged from even applying. Of the students that start the course usually about fifty complete it.⌂

Children usually enter the famous Russian ballet schools at the ages of 10, 11 or 12. Older than that are considered over the hill and untrainable. Instructors want their students to have long, sturdy bodies, natural grace, burning desire to dance and, perhaps most of all, they want children who have never had a single ballet lesson. It is too difficult to change bad training they say.

The majority of the dancers in the Kirov and Bolshoi have been trained by the companoes’ own ballet schools. The Bolshoi Ballet School, in particular, is known for its rigor and cruelty. See Separate Article on the Bolshoi and Kirov.

Training at the Best Russian Ballet Schools

The dancers in the Bolshoi are routinely insulted by the teachers who accuse them of having "leaden bodies" and "dancing like hockey players" even though they appear to be moving beautifully to outsiders.

After her group was accused of being to fat and dancing atrociously, one Bolshoi student told Butler, "We're all training even harder and dieting desperately. There isn't one of us who hasn't got a muscle injury, and two of the girls have lost so much weight they look like sticks. Last week one of them fainted in rehearsal and had to be taken to the doctors. We all want to get into the Bolshoi but only a handful of us will make it through. The coming exams are a terrible trial. Terrible."

Some dancers don't see their parents for years after beginning their training. One 27-year-old dancer from Kazakhstan, who hadn't seen her parents since she was nine, told Butler, “Of course I missed my parents, I was just a child. I didn’t have a childhood. I never had any toys. I didn't play."

"You have to want to be a ballerina terribly and you have to want it yourself," one Bolshoi dancer told Butler. "It's no good if your parents or your teachers are pushing you because in the end it's “you” who has to go through the hardship and endless hours of dancing."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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