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The Boston Globe

Theater & art

Why do Russians love ballet?

Bolshoi dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko, in a Moscow court Thursday, says he hired the men who attacked the ballet’s director. He was reportedly upset that his girlfriend, a dancer, had been passed over for top roles.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

Bolshoi dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko, in a Moscow court Thursday, says he hired the men who attacked the ballet’s director. He was reportedly upset that his girlfriend, a dancer, had been passed over for top roles.

Ballet dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko confessed on Wednesday to hiring the men who threw acid in the face of Bolshoi Ballet director Sergei Filin in January. Dmitrichenko was reportedly miffed that Filin repeatedly passed over his girlfriend, ballet prodigy Anzhelina Vorontsova, for leading roles. Why is the ballet such a big deal in Russia?

It’s equal parts history, national pride, and hero worship. Russians of all social strata have long been obsessed with dancing. Regions have their own folk dances, and during the medieval period, dancing serfs provided the primary form of entertainment in the courts of Russian nobles. When the country became interested in Western European art forms in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, ballet replaced folk dances in the existing culture of dance training and performance. Orphans of deceased government employees were raised from birth to be ballet dancers, and aristocrats founded ballet academies to train the serfs who occupied their lands. The wealthy bought, sold, and traded their most talented dancers.

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There’s something uniquely Russian about the way the country went about conquering the ballet world: Russia’s leaders decided to make ballet a Russian art form, and through centralized planning and the shrewd use of resources, bent the country’s culture to their will. Catherine the Great, in particular, organized prestigious schools and built theatrical palaces. (It was Catherine who made the Bolshoi Russia’s most important ballet troupe.) Russian czars used their wealth to coax foreign talent to St. Petersburg, especially after the French Revolution stalled artistic progress in Paris.

Most notably, the French dancer and choreographer Charles-Louis Didelot immigrated to Russia after finding it difficult to make a living in in London, which lacked a strong state sponsor of ballet. Once in Russia, both foreign-born and native talent developed a Russian style of ballet. They helped liberate ballet from its relationship to opera and focused on the beauty of the movement.

In the early 20th century, Russian modernists like Sergei Diaghilev rebelled against the paint-by-numbers choreography that had turned ballet into a series of technical exercises.

While ballet lost popularity in the West during the second half of the 20th century, it held on in Russia, in part because exporting world-class talent gave Russians enormous satisfaction. The successors to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes toured the world, spreading the gospel of ballet. Young Russians saw ballet as the quickest route to glory, and the state strongly supported the development of promising dancers.

Russia’s style of ballet may also contribute to its enduring popularity. Many critics note — and some bitterly complain — that Russian troupes emphasize the individual dancers’ remarkable physical gifts, sometimes at the expense of subtlety and artistic expression. The emphasis on individual glory reminds one more of Hollywood’s star system than a purely artistic pursuit, and it may help to glamorize the ballet in modern Russia.

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