The Russian Influence on Western Dance

How Russia has played a key role in the development of Modern Western Dance styles, especially Ballet, through the actions of various important figures.

Marius Petipa, Agrippina Vaganova, Anna Pavlova, Serge Diaghilev, Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Leonide Massine, Igor Stravinsky, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, George Balanchine, and Mikhail Baryshnikov- these are just some of the names that come to mind when speaking about the role of Russia in the realm of dance. Even Enrico Cecchetti falls onto this list due to the fact that he taught at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg from 1887-1902, training Anna Pavlova exclusively for two years straight. Each of these names stand tall for the accomplishments they made in the world of dance and every single one, with the exception of Enrico Cecchetti and Marius Petipa, is Russian by birth and each plays an important role in the development and progression of dance. The realm of dance is a vast expanse of culture and change; from the ritual and religious dances of the Paleolithic Era all the way to Contemporary Ballet. Dance has been an important part of history, showing us what the people of different times went through, experienced, and believed. The history of dance is one that continuously switches from genre to genre, country to country, century to century. One strand that is important in modern dance, though, is the Russian influence. That is the focus of this paper; the fact that so many essential methods and modern dance styles are due to the actions of Russians and their approach to dance throughout time.

Before one can speak about the influence that Russian dance has had on the world, though, one must explain what Russian dance is exactly and its history. The history of dance in Russia starts with ballet. Ballet started out in France and even moved up into Scandinavia, but due to the French Revolution and the later actions of Napoleon Bonaparte, that began to change. Though ballet in France was later reborn, the center of world ballet began to change- switching from Paris, France to St. Petersburg, Russia. In the textbook ‘Dance History’ by Gary Larsen, it says that, “In 1736, Empress Anna Ivanova brought the first professional ballet to Russia, and in 1738 established the Imperial School of Ballet. The school was established in order to form Russia’s first professional dance company. It began with twelve boys and twelve girls and the first classes were held in the empty rooms of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.”(1) Russia was incredibly influenced by the French Ballet done during the Romantic Era and soon decided to make ballet their own, creating their first ever dance company which was focused on this style. This quote also shows the connection between Russian dance and the Russian government which plays heavily into this history and progression of dance in Russia through the centuries.

After those first few classes, the Russian Imperial Ballet later found a home in the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Russian Imperial Ballet at Mariinsky Theater will often appear in this paper, showing its importance in the evolution of Russian Ballet throughout the centuries. Another important location to speak about is the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow; founded only a few decades after the Russian Imperial Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet was often overshadowed by the Imperial Ballet in its first two centuries. As we enter the Soviet Era of Russian history, that begins to change as the location of the center of Ballet makes another shift from St. Petersburg to Moscow. This occurred due to a number of things- as noted before, it was Empress Anna Ivanova who created the Russian Imperial Ballet. For the 1700s, 1800s, and very early 1900s, this connection between the Imperial Government and the Mariinsky Theater helped push Russian Imperial Ballet to the forefront of World Ballet. 

But, due to the immense losses from World War I, the abject poverty in Russia, and the growing hatred of the Imperial family, revolution broke out in 1917. In the chaos, a new government was set up by Vladimir Lenin and later taken over by Joseph Stalin thus changing Imperial Russia to the Soviet Union(which it would stay as for nearly a century). The connection that had helped the Russian Imperial Ballet grow so much began to turn against it as the Imperial Empire no longer existed. Even more, with the changing government the capital of Russia switched from St. Petersburg to Moscow, placing the government in the Bolshoi Theater’s backyard. In the coming years, the ballet at Mariinsky Theater fell into decline, solely held up due to the work of Agrippina Vaganova who started teaching there in 1921 and soon became the director in 1934. Her importance and significance can be stated in one sentence: “Her work became the foundation of ballet instruction in the Soviet Union.”(2)

It was in 1935 that the Russian Imperial Ballet at Mariinsky Theater changed its name to the Kirov Ballet to disconnect itself from its previous Imperialistic ties. It was changes like this and the actions of Agrippina Vaganova that kept the school alive until today. The Bolshoi Ballet continued to flourish under the direction of the Soviet Union and is still around today. These two schools are foundational to the topic of Russian dance and play an important role in the influence that Russian dance has had on the global realm of dance genres over the decades.

The dance genre that has been influenced the most by Russia is ballet. From Classical Ballet due to Marius Petipa, to Les Ballets Russes on account of Serge Diaghilev, to Neoclassical Ballet with George Balachine, and even Contemporary Ballet due to George Balanchine and Mikhail Baryshnikov; it is the country of Russia and its citizens who have defined these four time periods of Ballet. Marius Petipa, born in France in 1819 is known as the ‘father of classical ballet’. Despite not being Russian, his effect on Russia and its dance culture was immense. “In 1847 he went to Saint Petersburg as principal dancer at the Imperial Theater, choreographing his first work there in 1855. In 1869, he was appointed first ballet master of the Imperial Theater.”(3) It was his actions as the director of the Russian Imperial Ballet for half a century that led to the popularity of Classical Ballet; over his time there he would make more than “50 full-length ballets”. Many of the most well-known ballet’s come from him: ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, ‘The Nutcracker’, and ‘Swan Lake’. This last one in particular holds quite the weight in ballet culture, having been performed numerous times since its creation in 1895- if someone were to walk up to a stranger, say the word ballet, and ask what the first thing that came to their mind was, more than likely it would be an image of ‘Swan Lake’ being performed. 

The next important figure in Russian Ballet is Serge Diaghilev. Diaghilev himself was not a dancer; instead he was an entrepreneur. He knew beautiful art when he saw it and he was determined to spend his life promoting it. He was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, but due to the 1905 revolution, he headed west, leaving Russia behind.(4) It was this action that truly brought Russian Ballet out into the world and onto the global stage. Many dancers were given to Diaghilev by the Tsar of Russia, loaned from the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Many of these dancers even left the Mariinsky Theater for good for the company that Diaghilev set up in 1911: Les Ballets Russes. This was “a group of highly trained, mostly Russian, dancers who performed avant-garde ballet masterpieces.”(5) He pulled in people like Michel Fokine (his choreographer who created works like Les Sylphides), Vaslav Nijinsky (his choreographer who created ‘The Afternoon of a Faun’ and ‘The Rite of Spring’), Igor Stravinsky (his composer who created the music to accompany ‘The Rite of Spring’), and Leonide Massine (his choreographer, known for his ‘symphonic ballets’). The company itself was incredibly popular, causing it to take tours around Europe and the world- in fact, it was through Les Ballets Russes that America was introduced to ballet which would color their later interactions with the genre. It was Diaghilev who kept the company alive, shown by the fact that when he passed away in 1929, Les Ballets Russes fell apart. However, it was through this company that Russian Ballet was introduced to the globe, changing the course of dance worldwide.

As the Soviet Union grew in power and prestige, they began to place ballet as the face of their government; as a way to show a lighter and more beautiful side of their country. But, while the government pushed ballet into the forefront, their control was slowly chipping away at what truly made Russian Ballet exceptional. Ballet had grown and evolved over time due to freedom of ideas, but due to the control that the Soviet Union had on ballet, that growth was halted. Because of the world changing from things like World War II and the Cold War, the world began to want something new and the Soviet Union ballet was not providing that. This is when George Balanchine came into the story. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Balanchine was taught at the Imperial Theater School from a young age and spent his years studying here- going on to study music and even choreographing works as early as 1920 (he was born in 1904). After a knee injury, Balanchine devoted himself to choreography instead of dancing- he even served and learned under Diaghilev in Les Ballets Russes and, afterwards, toured Europe. As he grew older, Balanchine wanted to expand the realm of ballet, but he knew the controlling environment of the Soviet Union would hinder his ideas and views. 

It was upon meeting Lincoln Kirstein that George Balanchine’s ideas began to take shape. Due to Les Ballet Russes touring America, many Americans wished to learn how to do ballet. Seeing this, Kirstein and Balanchine founded the School of American Ballet in 1935. Balanchine created his own method different from the method’s created before him (such as the Cecchetti Method or the Vaganova Method) which focused on the movement of the body first and foremost. It used the body to better show off the art of music- this method would become the foundation of Neoclassical Ballet, leading to Balanchine being called the ‘father of Neoclassical Ballet’. He focused on the movement of the body rather than a storyline or emotions, believing that movement shows the very truth of dance in a way that nothing else did. Balanchine’s ideas quickly took over the dance culture in America and fully opened the country up to a love of dance- all due to the actions of the Russian choreographer George Balanchine.

The final stage in the Russian influence in ballet is seen in Contemporary Ballet due to George Balanchine and his student, Mikhail Baryshnikov. Baryshnikov, paired with Twyla Tharp, led to the creation of Contemporary Ballet. Baryshnikov first started out in the Kirov Ballet (what was formally the Russian Imperial Ballet at Mariinsky Theater) in 1967.(6) He toured Canada as part of the Bolshoi Ballet and then joined with Balanchine’s school during that; Balanchine is not just considered the father of Neoclassical Ballet, but also “one of the first developers of contemporary ballet…Balanchine used flexed hands and feet, turned-in legs, off-centered positions and non-classical costumes, such as leotards, unitards and tunics instead of tutus. He also included modern dancers in his company, the New York City Ballet.”(7) Eventually, in 1980 Mikhail Baryshnikov became the director of the American Ballet Theater, helping to combine both Classical Ballet and Contemporary Ballet, making this Ballet Theater one of the top companies in the world. Contemporary Ballet would go on from just Balanchine and Baryshnikov creations, but it was their actions that influenced its start and push towards the global stage of dance.

Of course, the Russian influence is not only seen in the realm of Ballet; it is also seen in the popularity of folk dance. Right in the middle of the Cold War, when tensions and distrust between the US and the Soviet Union were high, there was a popular group called the Moiseyev Dance Company who toured the US and they were from Moscow. This leads us to Igor Moiseyev. Now, Moiseyev trained at the Bolshoi Ballet school as both a dancer and later as a ballet master. “In 1937 he organized the Moiseyev Dance Company, a ballet-trained folk dance group. The company later toured Europe (debuting in Paris in 1955), the United States (debuting in New York City in 1958), and China and became one of the world’s most popular dance troupes.”(8) Moiseyev worked tirelessly creating various works throughout his career trying to show his Russian culture to the world as something beautiful and theatrical. In a time of such distrust, Moiseyev was able to successfully spread optimism about his own country and culture, affecting the view the world had on folk dancing and dancing troupes.

Throughout this research paper, we have explored the effect that the Russian dance culture has had on the world of dance. We spoke about the lasting power and influence of the Russian Imperial Ballet at Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg and its changes throughout time and how it still exists today and has influenced and produced so many amazing figures in dance. We also spoke about the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, Russia; how it was at first overshadowed by the Mariinsky Theater, but then at the start of the Soviet Union, it began to truly shine, creating various figures that would go on to change world dance history even to today. We then discussed the most profound effect that Russia has had: in the dance genre of ballet.

Starting with Classical Ballet we see that it was through the efforts of Marius Petipa who was director of the Russian Imperial Ballet for half a century who created well-known and beloved ballets like ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, ‘The Nutcracker’, and ‘Swan Lake’. He was the Father of Classical Ballet, born in France but truly taught and forged by the country of Russia. We then moved on to the realm of Les Ballets Russes with the entrepreneur Diaghilev who disembarked from Russia, taking his new style of ballet to Paris, France with his new company. He gained popularity, taking Les Ballets Russes all around Europe and even to America, where Americans were introduced to ballet for the first time and fell in love with it. It was dances his choreographers created (Fokine with ‘Les Sylphides’ and Nijinsky with ‘Rite of Spring’) that truly revolutionized how people saw ballet. Next, we moved on to Neoclassical Ballet with George Balanchine who learned at the Imperial Ballet Theater, left Russia, and toured Europe. Then, he met Lincoln Kirstein and opened up the American School of Ballet, bringing and teaching ballet to Americans for the first time. It was here where he specifically taught his own style of a focus on movement, on the body and on letting that speak the truth.

From there we continued to discuss Balanchine and his dance student, Mikhail Baryshnikov- about their influence on the creation of Contemporary Ballet. How Balanchine bounded back and forth from Classical Ballet Movements to Contemporary Ballet Movements; how Baryshnikov was taught at the Kirov Ballet School (Mariinsky Theater), toured with the Bolshoi Ballet, and then was trained by Balanchine. He then became the director of the American Ballet Theater, blending together Classical Ballet and Contemporary Ballet- and how both truly laid the foundation for Contemporary Ballet. Finally, we talked about the Moiseyev Dance Company and how they changed the world’s view of folk dances and of Russia’s Culture. In the time of the Cold War, when distrust of the Soviet Union was high, Igor Moiseyev created this company to tour around the world and show the beauty of Russia’s Culture to the world, creating one of the world’s most popular dance troupes. Each of these examples clearly show just how influential Russia was on the world dance culture, spreading new types of ballet and new views on folk dancing around the globe. There they reached places that had never seen such dances before, irrevocably changing their views on dance. The influence of the Russian Culture on dance is one thread of world dance history that cannot be ignored; if it is, then we lose sight of so much knowledge, truth, and meaning behind the very reason as to why we dance.

End Notes

1. Larsen, Gary. DA 402: Dance History (BYU-Idaho: 13th Edition, Winter 2020), 85.

2. “Kirov Ballet.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition (February 1, 2019).

3. “Petipa, Marius.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia (January 1, 2018).

4. Evans, Edwin. “Serge Diaghilev.” The Musical Times Vol. 70, No. 1040 (October 1, 1929), 892(3 pages).

5. Larsen, Gary. DA 402: Dance History (BYU-Idaho: 13th Edition, Winter 2020), 169.

6. “Baryshnikov, Mikhail Nikolayevich.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia (January 1, 2018).

7. Larsen, Gary. DA 402: Dance History (BYU-Idaho: 13th Edition, Winter 2020), 377.

8. “Igor Alexsandrovich Moiseyev.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition (February 1, 2020).