The once archetypal image of the Russian ballerina—silent, compliant, and delicate, regardless of national celebrity status—is distorting in real time.
On Wednesday, the National Opera Ballet announced that Russian ballerina Olga Smirnova of the Bolshoi Ballet, one of the reigning ballet companies in the world, has left the company and her native country to join the Dutch National Ballet, where she will be able to speak freely.
As Bolshoi’s principal soloist since 2016, 30-year-old Smirnova’s exit is one of the most culturally significant artistic departures from the warring country. Though she follows an exodus of other artists from both Bolshoi and the Mariinsky Ballet as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine intensifies, including the Italian Jacopo Tissi, the Brazilian David Motta Soares, and the British Xander Parish, Smirnova is the first major Russian-native ballet dancer to make a statement of her own in the midst of the ongoing crisis.
The release announcing Smirnova’s new appointment included a statement from the artist, which she had previously released on messaging app Telegram:
“I have to be honest and say that I am against war with all the fibers of my soul. It is not only about every other Russian perhaps having relatives or friends living in Ukraine, or about my grandfather being Ukrainian and me being quarter Ukrainian. It is that we continue to live as if this were the 20th century, even though we have formally moved to the 21st century. In a modern and enlightened world, I expect civilized societies to resolve political matters only through peaceful negotiations. I never thought I would be ashamed of Russia, I have always been proud of talented Russian people, of our cultural and athletic achievements. But now I feel that a line has been drawn… We may not be at the epicentre of the military conflict, but we cannot remain indifferent to this global catastrophe.”
To hear this sort of pointed language and a sharp denouncement from one of Russia’s most prized cultural gems is nothing short of a seismic wave coursing through the international dance landscape, or, as professor of music and Slavic languages at Princeton University Simon Morrison puts it, a “massive geopolitical statement.” Morrison, alluding to Smirnova’s decade-long reign in a long line of Bolshoi prima ballerinas at the state-run ballet company, noted that the simple act of leaving would’ve been a huge blow on its own. “But the fact that she left and attached words to that departure? It’s a devastating loss. Dancers are generally reticent,” he said. “Smirnova’s not condemning all of Russian culture, but she’s condemning this guy, this monstrosity, and this inhumane act, and as an artist of good conscience, she’s upholding the values that she believes in, which are antithetical to that regime.”
Such an upheaval of a household Russian institution is notable, of course, but it’s also a comment on the current state of gender politics in a historically anti-feminist and homophobic nation.
Misogyny has, unfortunately, long been baked into ballet. The art form has historically been synonymous with quiet femininity, voicelessness, and complicity, not only in the quality of movement and the characters women dancers portray (swans, sleeping beauties, princesses, and “suicidal Italian teenagers,” according to journalist and author Chloe Angyal), but behind the curtain, as well. In paintings by impressionist artist Edgar Degas, ballerinas were termed “little rats” — fragile and malnourished, says Morrison, and even today, young artists are constantly being watched, escorted by wealthy donors, groomed by artistic directors, and stifled in their own fight for equal pay.
“Ballerinas aren’t fragile or weak or voiceless; it is simply convenient for the people who would like to control them for them to be seen as fragile and weak and voiceless,” Angyal, the author of Turning Pointe says. “Ballet training puts a premium on obedience and conformity from a very early age, and traditional ballet training doesn’t encourage young dancers to express themselves with their voices and their ideas. There’s a sense in the ballet world that they’re a world apart, so separate from the real world and politics that whoever you are outside of the ballet studio, you have to cease being that person once you step inside.”
But in Russia, where Morrison says the iconicity of the ballerina as otherworldly celebrity or as role model is far more prominent than in the states, the idea of voicelessness becomes not just a matter of compliance and politicization, but of life and death.
“For these dancers, the stage was the one place where you could be free,” Morrison said. “Russia is a repressive society. It’s authoritarian, at best, and there is little freedom on the street. Yet on the stage, the narrative and the myth is that they could do incredibly brave things and represent their unburdened will, which does not exist anywhere else. Onstage, performers felt liberated.”
Smirnova isn’t the first woman to denounce the control of the Kremlin: Former Bolshoi prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya wrote an explosive memoir detailing her experiences in Russian ballet, and Morrison pointed to both male and female dancers who had been imprisoned in the Gulag. The cultural cachet of ballet has often been politicized by the Kremlin as a “football between east and west,” according to The Guardian. When tensions between warring nations had subsided, ballet performances could once again resume, and the ballerinas could return to their dutiful transcendence of borders and language as the great unifiers.
That’s precisely why Smirnova’s refusal to participate—and her insistence on denouncing the fragility once attributed to her in service of nationalistic pride—is earth-shattering.
“In terms of how ballerinas perform in Russian ballet, they are completely dominant. They rule time and space, they rule melody, and they rule rhythm and harmony. There’s just no escaping them,” said Morrison. “The entire art form historically been subservient to these women, in the sense that throughout the course of history, great ballets have survived because of the women who have decided it was worth their time.”
“Great ballets have been changed,” he added, “because great dancers have demanded changes. Great productions like the original Swan Lake failed because an immensely gifted dancer, Lydia Geiten, refused to dance to music by Russian composer Tchaikovsky that she could not stand. And now, Smirnova has taken that power with her, off the stage.”
The perception of ballet stands in opposition to everything that Russia glorifies: homophobia, hyper-masculinity, strength above all else, force, and unlimited power. If ballet is indeed feminine, as it’s always been understood, perhaps the Kremlin could stand to learn a thing or two from their silenced artists: the women who will no longer keep their mouths shut.