What’s the Difference Between Russian and American Dancers?

July 5, 2009

In beautiful Spoleto, I moderated a conversation between Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky last Saturday as part of the Spoleto Festival in Italy. It was soooo interesting to hear their take on Russian dancers (and just about everything else, but I’ll stick with this subject). Alexei, having led the Bolshoi Ballet for four years (he was Bolshoi trained but never danced with the company), said he felt the upper body is what distinguishes them, whereas American dancers focus more on the legs. Christopher said he felt for a while The Royal Ballet had both upper and lower because of the Cecchetti influence, but now that’s changed. (He didn’t go into when and why that happened.) He feels that one thing the Bolshoi dancers have in common with American dancers is that they move big.

As a point of history, Alexei told us that the Bolshoi was highly influenced by Gorsky, who was influenced by Stanislavski, and that explains the theatricality of the Bolshoi. So theatrical that the Kirov dancers think they are tasteless, whereas the Bolshoi call the Kirov dancers boring. It’s a much a clearer divide than comparing ABT with NYCB, which we three did take a stab at. Christopher felt the Russians are like NYCB, and that ABT is like the Kirov. Both Alexei and I felt the opposite—that the Bolshoi is more like ABT. And then again, I would say that ABT’s men are more like the Bolshoi and their women are more like the Kirov. Enough, this could go on forever.

Alexei pointed out that the difference between the Bolshoi and the Kirov has to do with their cities too: the red and gold of the Bolshoi theater, the vastness of Moscow, and the nearness to the Kremlin dictate a bigger, more triumphant style. St. Petersburg was built by Peter the Great according to a very civilized European style and thus is more refined.

Christopher, after dutifully listing all the positive things about the Bolshoi (he was invited by Ratmansky to make a ballet there a couple years ago), finally owned up to his irritation that they are definitely NOT collaborative in the choreographic process. Alexei quipped, “After the choreographer leaves,
they get creative!” Much to the chagrin of each guest choreographer who plies his trade at the Bolshoi, I imagine.

Anyway, you get the idea. It was lots of fun, including the subtleties of translation into Italian by ex-dancer Gisella Zanmatti. I hope to get a clip of the video to post soon. But in the meantime, borrow a copy of our June issue and read our cover story on the Bolshoi.