One of Russia’s lasting legacies is its contribution to ballet. If you attended a professional ballet company performance and saw the program book, you may have noticed that some of the dancers have Russian names. Ballet, a style of dance first seen in Italy during the fifteenth century, made its way to Russia in the 1800s. The most recognized Russian style of ballet is the Vaganova method, named after dancer Agrippina Vaganova, that emphasizes lower back and arm movements.
The country is home to two ballet powerhouses: the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg. The word "bolshoi" (большой) means big in Russian, and it’s a fitting title for this company. The Bolshoi Ballet is arguably the world’s best ballet company and has contributed to Russia’s rich artistic heritage. The company performs in the Bolshoi Theatre, a neoclassical building that has become an icon of the country’s cultural scene, and does international tours. Here’s a detailed breakdown of the company’s history, the Bolshoi Theatre’s architecture, and company life.
In 1773, a dance school was established for a Moscow orphanage. Three years later, dancers created their own company under the direction of Prince Pyotr Urusov and Michael Maddox. The same year, empress Catherine the Great granted Urusov the power to oversee performances for ten years. He set up the Petrovsky Theatre, but it was burned down in a fire.
The Bolshoi Theatre replaced the destroyed Petrovsky Theatre, and debuted on August 20, 1856. In the 1800s, many choreographers visited Russia to work on performances in the Bolshoi Theatre. Yet the Bolshoi Ballet was overlooked because their rival, the Imperial Russian Ballet (the modern-day Mariinsky Ballet), was gaining more recognition.
The twentieth-century was a major turning point for the company. In 1900, Alexander Gorsky made sure that dancers followed an emotional style that emphasized leaps. The company performed ballets like Swan Lake and La Bayadere at this time. The theater survived a bombing during World War II. Some company members danced for troops, while others fought in the war. In the 1960s, the Bolshoi Ballet solidified its strong reputation with the appointment of Yuri Grigorovich as artistic director.
The Moscow State Academy of Choreography, frequently referred to as the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, is a dance school where many future company dancers train before landing their first job. They also have a summer intensive program in New York City and Connecticut.
The company performs at the Bolshoi Theatre located in Teatralnaya Square. It is an example of neoclassical architecture, as the front has columns and the grand design is meant to impress visitors. On the triangular upper front of the building, the Greek god Apollo directs a horse-drawn chariot. Apollo and the Bolshoi Theatre exterior appeared on Russia’s 100 ruble dollar bill.
The Bolshoi Ballet is the world’s largest ballet company, employing over 200 dancers. There are divisions in the company: Dancers are either principals, leading soloists, first soloists, soloists or the corps de ballet. Principal dancers perform the major roles, such as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake and the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. The corps de ballet consists of dancers who are involved in group dances. Ballerinas dance in pointe shoes, meaning they are able to move across the floor on the very tip of their toes.
Bolshoi Ballet dancers are known for their bold, expressive moves and emotional intensity. Their athleticism is world-famous. Special attention is also given to the scenery and costumes of a ballet.
During the COVID-19 lockdown this past spring, the company livestreamed popular ballets on YouTube as an effort to both entertain and comfort ballet enthusiasts at home. The company is currently planning its 245th season, with one-act ballets set to take place on December 18, 2020.