Can art, in this case dance, be a protection from politics? Do you become a collaborator if your work is helping to fill the coffers of the regime?
Conductors Furtwängler and Toscanini offer a famous dichotomy: Furtwängler remained in Nazi Germany throughout World War II and became known as Hitler's conductor (though he had no respect for the “hissing street pedlar”), while Toscanini left Italy at the beginning of the war and returned in 1946 to conduct the opening concert at La Scala after a restoration following the bombing of Milan. Of course, the stories of both men are far more complex than this – Furtwängler was fiercely against antisemitism, for example – but did Furtwängler's presence conducting in front of Hitler give prestige to the Reich?
Ukrainian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky abandoned his work at the Bolshoi when Russia invaded his homeland, and the Russian ballet star Olga Smirnova left the Bolshoi saying “[I am] against this war with every fibre of my soul”. The Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato decided to remain (he was director of the Mikhailovsky company in St Petersburg from 2011 to 2014 and returned to be its director again in 2019).
Individual circumstances are complex – there are those who are freer due to economic possibility or exceptional artistic talent, and those who have family ties and do not have a guarantee of work if they leave their base.
Russia's Kommersant newspaper brought some of these thoughts to the fore with the announcement of the new Mikhailovsky Theatre ballet season.
“I was thinking art is outside of politics, or could be.”
While stating that “few Western choreographers dare to stage or license their productions in Russia” and saying that it is not a surprise Duato's name is included as he has “been living in Russia for many years”, the newspaper expresses surprise by the inclusion of a work by “Russian American” Ukrainian-born former dancer and now choreographer Yuri Possokhov. The choreographer of the Bolshoi's notorious Nureyev ballet “retains ties with his homeland”, says the paper, yet has allowed his 2005 work Reflections, created for San Francisco Ballet, to feature in the season.
The newspaper also remarks on the inclusion of choreographer Marco Goecke “which can only be explained by the fact that he has nothing to lose – in Germany, the choreographer was barred after he smeared an influential critic with dog excrement”.
A work by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin is part of the season. This is surprising as in March 2022, when figures from the dance world were sending messages of solidarity to Ratmansky, Naharin wrote:
This is an unfolding tragedy. The result of a criminal act by heartless men. Russia, abusing its power and creating huge loss, great suffering, hundreds of thousands of innocent victims and bringing instability to a world that is already very fragile. My thoughts and feelings are with the Ukrainian people.
Some Western works are being performed because of pre-war licensing, which are usually legally binding obligations of five years (Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale is therefore still in in the Bolshoi's current season). Yet oddly, in May, the director of the Bolshoi Theatre, Vladimir Urin, announced that John Neumeier had prolonged his license for Die Kameliendame, and Katerina Novikova, the Bolshoi's press officer, later told the Russian news agency TASS, that “an agreement has been reached with John Neumeier and the license for the ballet Die Kameliendame has been extended”. In July, however, Neumeier put out a statement saying there was no license renewal. As the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote, “This means that either the Bolshoi leadership lied at the time, or John Neumeier reversed his decision sometime between May 19 and July 12”.
Sometimes the ballets are just performed anyway, with the choreographer's name omitted from promotional material.
Bonds of friendship between choreographers and dancers, and the long relationships that some choreographers have with the Russian theatres, create many grey areas. After the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, Ratmansky himself continued to work in Russia. In a recent interview with the Guardian newspaper, he said,
“…it's something I'm going to have to live with – that I went back and worked there. I was thinking art is outside of politics, or could be. But the invasion opened my eyes. And I have to admit that this guilt of not speaking out is very strong… somehow making these ballets, working with these dancers, and continuing what I started when I was director of the Bolshoi, seemed more important. Wrong… the silence of the cultural elite led to this tragedy”.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.