Russian ballet star ‘follows his conscience’ to quit Bolshoi
Russian superstar ballerina Olga Smirnova left the Bolshoi Ballet following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, but says the famous dance company will survive the vagaries of war.
“History changes, but the Bolshoi remains,” Smirnova told AFP as she rehearsed in Amsterdam, where she joined the Dutch National Ballet in March.
Smirnova, who made headlines when she left the Bolshoi, added: “I had to follow my conscience.”
The 30-year-old prima ballerina said she feared for the future of dancers, choreographers and performers still at the Bolshoi, as Russia grew increasingly isolated globally over its decision to attack his neighbour.
“For the Bolshoi, 20 years is nothing, but for a dancer, it’s his whole life,” Smirnova told AFP in an interview just before a rehearsal of the veteran’s ballet “Frank Bridge Variations.” Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen.
For a decade, Smirnova was one of the faces of business as a prima ballerina, renowned for her slender physique, almond-shaped eyes and swan-shaped neck with looks described by a British daily as “the ‘perfect instrument of his art’. evoking “astonishing perfection”.
“Now the Bolshoi is also isolated from the world. I spent 10 incredible years working at the Bolshoi, because the best choreographers in the world could come on stage, even create original ballets.
“I really felt like I was part of the world. I think it all ended with this war,” Smirnova said between her busy schedule.
Even during the Cold War, Bolshoi ballet tours in the West were seen as a bridge to the Soviet Union.
But after the Russian invasion on February 24, all tours were canceled and Bolshoi stars are no longer invited abroad.
Choreographers like Jean-Christophe Maillot and Alexei Ratmansky asked the Bolshoi to suspend the performance rights to their ballets.
Smirnova now fears that Russian dancers will lose the chance to “discover new worlds” as she and her generation did with choreographers like Americans John Neumeier and William Forsythe, Frenchman Pierre Lacotte or Briton Christopher Wheeldon.
However, Smirnova refuses to call her decision a “defection”, a word used in Soviet times when ballet legends such as Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov walked through the Iron Curtain to the West.
“I think I was honest with myself and just followed my conscience…I thought it was good for me,” Smirnova said, becoming visibly emotional.
“I felt so terribly sorry for all of this…for all these people who…lost their homes,” she said.
Smirnova said she was shocked to learn of the invasion of Moscow, which has now seen more than six million refugees flee Ukraine.
She thought the invasion would end soon.
But “five or six days later,” she wrote on social messaging platform Telegram, “I am against the war with all my soul. I never believed that I could be ashamed of Russia.
After leaving Moscow, she traveled to Dubai to treat an injury, then decided to take the plunge.
“Nobody knew about it except my husband and the artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet, Ted Brandsen,” Smirnova said.
His decision came as a shock to his parents back in Russia.
“For them, it’s still not really acceptable that I left the country and left the Bolshoi,” she said. “My colleagues hardly reacted”, when Smirnova left. “I don’t know what they think. Maybe they didn’t understand my decision. Maybe they’re just shielding themselves from the truth…just thinking, ‘I’m a dancer, I’m away from this political stuff.’
“I feel like I’ve lost almost all connection with the Bolshoi dancers,” she said.
Smirnova, however, said she was welcomed with open arms in the Netherlands, feeling “more and more at home in Amsterdam” where she moved into a new apartment the day before the interview.
In April, she performed the lead role in a new classic ballet production “Raymonda.”
“I was put into a ballet routine from the early days. I felt like I was back to my normal life. I was able to rehearse…it made me feel normal.
The dance “saved me from overthinking,” she said.
But one dream remains for Smirnova.
“I would love to come to the Paris Opera to dance. I have never danced at the Palais Garnier.