AFP, published on Thursday, May 19, 2022 at 6:10 p.m.
“For the Bolshoi, 20 years is nothing, but for a dancer, it’s his whole life”: Olga Smirnova, ex-star of the famous Moscow troupe who left Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, fears a lasting isolation of its artists.
The departure of the 30-year-old dancer, who joined the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam, had the effect of a small earthquake in the world of dance as the Bolshoi is synonymous with the art of ballet and is a showcase cultural, even political, of Russia.
Olga Smirnova was one of the faces of the company and a critically acclaimed “prima ballerina”.
Slender, almond-shaped eyes, swan-necked, she is “the perfect physical instrument of her art form”, as a British daily described her, evoking a “stunning perfection”.
“I spent ten wonderful years with the Bolshoi because the best choreographers came to create ballets there. I really felt that I was part of the world… All that ended with the war,” she told AFP during an interview at the National Opera of the Netherlands.
– “New worlds” –
Today, “the country is isolated and the Bolshoi is isolated from the world”, adds the dancer, very moved before the interview.
She is not worried about the Moscow company, “a huge institution that survives any crisis”, after having gone through the tsarist and Soviet eras and the end of the Cold War.
“History changes and the Bolshoi remains”, she assures.
But she fears the isolation of Russian dancers, recalling that the career of a classical dancer is short, “15 to 20 years if you are in good physical condition”.
Even at the height of the Cold War, ballet tours were seen as a bridge between the USSR and the West.
After the invasion of Ukraine, tours by companies like the Bolshoi were cancelled, its stars are no longer invited abroad and choreographers like Jean-Christophe Maillot and Alexei Ratmanski asked for the suspension of their ballets within the company.
Quoting the German John Neumeier, the French Pierre Lacotte, the American William Forsythe or the Briton Christopher Wheeldon, Smirnova believes that his generation, which carries the classical repertoire superbly, had “a magnificent opportunity to discover new worlds” with these choreographers.
She refuses to call her departure a “defection”, a word used in Soviet times when ballet legends like Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov moved to the West.
“I think I was honest with myself and followed my conscience. (…) I felt so sorry for these people who were forced to lose their homes,” says Smirnova.
The ballerina thought the invasion would stop soon.
A few days later, she wrote on the social network Telegram: “I am against the war with all my soul. (…) I never believed that I could be ashamed of Russia”.
She travels to Dubai to treat an injury then she takes the plunge.
“Nobody knew about it, except my husband and the artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet, Ted Brandsen,” she says.
For his parents, it’s a shock. So far, “they don’t really accept the idea that I left the Bolshoi”.
As for her colleagues, she “almost has no contact” with them.
“I just got a few messages. Maybe they don’t understand my decision, maybe they’re shielding themselves from the truth and saying, ‘I’m just a dancer, I have nothing to do with the policy+”. And the press? “They prefer to pretend that I don’t exist”.
– “Avoid overthinking” –
Today, “I feel more and more at home” in Amsterdam, she says. She moved into an apartment and danced in April in a new production of the “Raymonda” ballet.
“I got back into the ballet routine from day one. (…) I felt like I was getting back to my normal life… (Dancing) helped me avoid overthinking,” says- she.
The St. Petersburger did not dream, like many little Russians, of becoming a ballerina. “Nobody in my family came from the world of theater or ballet,” she says. Her engineer mother, however, enrolled her in the prestigious Vaganova Academy and, barely graduating, she was hired in 2011 by the Bolshoi and quickly rose through the ranks.
Before the war, Smirnova was tempted by the idea of being principal dancer at the Bolshoi and guest artist at the Dutch National Ballet, in particular to discover the work of Hans van Manen, soon to be 90 years old, who will be celebrated in June at the Opera national of the Netherlands.
What stage does she dream of dancing on? “The Paris Opera! I’ve never danced at the Palais Garnier,” she smiles.