A White Crow and a Latvian Legend

A White Crow and a Latvian Legend
22 May 2023

Much like literature and film, Russian theatre is extremely fertile ground for both research and writing, and so, in order to retain a sense of scope and ground my writing with some relevance, I shall approach the theme within the framework of two key figures in the history of Russian. Namely, Rudolf Nureyev (so as to retain the historical link to Soviet performing arts) and Mikhail Baryshnikov, a more contemporary choreographer and Riga native. Both figures stood at the pinnacle of Soviet-era ballet, and both ultimately defected to the west in highly publicised cases. They are therefore, a fine pairing when examining Russian theatre.


A White Crow


We begin with Rudolf Nureyev, the earlier of the two dancers and who is widely considered to be the finest ballet dancer of his generation. Nureyev lived an eventful if not untimely truncated life. Born in 1938 in the sub-Siberian city of Irkutsk, a city ironically famed for having harboured many of those exiled throughout Russian history, Nureyev soon headed west to what was then Leningrad in the hope of advancing his love of dance into mastery. Nureyev had designs on entering into the Mariisnky Ballet – which bore the Soviet-era title of the Kirov Ballet – as this was considered the most esteemed throughout the whole USSR, and so, turned down a place at the Moscow-based Bolshoi ballet, despite a successful audition. However, Nureyev ultimately ended up at the Vaganova Academy, where he studied under the reputable ballet master, Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin – the second most notorious Pushkin


Nureyev’s relationship with Pushkin was beyond just that of master and dutiful student, as, recognising Nureyev’s remarkable inherent aptitude for dance, Pushkin took both a professional and personal interest in his life, even going as far as offering him lodging. Under the tutelage of Pushkin, Nureyev became a national sensation, and by the late 50s, his touring with the Mariisnky Ballet had earned him notoriety across the USSR, as well as recognition in the west, owing to his 1959 performance in Vienna. However, Nureyev’s ‘individualistic’ attitude and semi-seditious tendencies had him be considered as a bit of an outcast, a risk for the Soviet authorities when allowing him to perform outside the USSR. It was this very quality that earned Nureyev his childhood nickname белая ворона or ‘the white crow’ – a symbol of his ‘different-ness’ akin to the English expression ‘black sheep’.


At long last, Nureyev was permitted to travel to fly to first Paris and later, London in order to perform with the Mariinsky Ballet in 1961. However, Nureyev’s willingness to bend rules owing to his ‘different-ness’ got him in trouble with the KGB members who had accompanied the tour. This culminated in a tense standoff at Paris airport in 1961 which saw Nureyev defect to the west, despite being in direct company with KGB agents and thus, abandoning his tour. Should Nureyev’s defection have proved unsuccessful, then he would have undoubtedly been subject to draconian repercussions upon his return to the USSR, and so, it is the bravery the белая ворона exhibited in doing so that, along with his undying talent, etched Nureyev’s name in to the history books of the 20th century. Indeed, this whole episode, along with perspicacious dramatic insight into his formative years under Pushkin, has been dramatized in the 2018 biopic ‘The White Crow’ – a film well worth the watch for any lovers of either Russian ballet or Soviet history.


A Latvian Legend


The second titan of the Russian ballet comes in the form of the living Latvian legend – Mikhail Baryshnikov, a Riga local who succeeded Nureyev in both the Mariinsky Ballet in 1967 as well as assuming the title of the greatest of his generation. Baryshnikov, though born in Riga in what was then the Latvian SSR (a constituent of the consolidated USSR), his heritage was Russian. Baryshnikov’s early life followed a path very similar to that of Nureyev some 20 years earlier, as after early training in the peripheries of the Union, moved to Leningrad in 1964 to train at the Vaganova and subsequently, just like Nureyev, joined the Mariisnky ballet in 1967.


Baryshnikov’s ensuing career was one of resounding success which similarly earned him great notoriety throughout the USSR as well as attention from some of the most pre-eminent of Soviet choreographers such Vinogradov, who is known to have arranged ballets for Baryshnikov specifically. However, after moving to a tour with the aforementioned Moscow-based Bolshoi ballet, Baryshnikov’s career would take another turn that bespoke that of the great Nureyev’s who preceded him. That is, he would choose to defect, seeking political asylum in Canada whilst on tour in Toronto in 1974. Much like Nureyev’s defection, the tour was of course accompanied by a troupe of KGB agents, an obstacle that again like Nureyev, Baryshnikov successfully overcame, though this was something he recognised as being a ‘civil disobedience’.


By 1986 Baryshnikov had long been dancing for various ballets across North America and subsequently received naturalised American citizenship status, thereby relinquishing his Soviet citizenship in doing so. Interestingly however, despite Baryshnikov’s ethnic Russian status, he nonetheless maintains a close relationship with his Latvian heritage and Riga itself as his birthplace. In fact, after having expressed interest in becoming a Latvian citizenship once independence had been long established, in 2017 it was granted and the Latvian legend regained his Latvian status. Further, his relationship with Riga is one of cherished affection it seems, as he frequented the neo-bohemian establishment, ‘Kafe Osiris’ (Riga’s answer to Paris’ ‘La Coupole café’ and St Petersburg’s ‘Le Literary Café’) along with many of his bohemian archetypically disobedient contemporaries.


Individually, both Nureyev and Baryshnikov stand out, like a pair of белые вороны, as the greatest Russian-born members of the ballet in their respective generations. When viewed together, a more unified picture emerges: one that bespeaks the incontestable might that was the superb quality of the Soviet-era ballet.

Patrick, currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz, Riga.

Image Credit: https://vk.com/wall-72910587_14482

Posted by Patrick Groves

Hi, I'm Patrick. I'm a student at Wadham College, University of Oxford spending most of my time writing essays on Tolstoy or in one of Oxford's many pubs. I'm currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz, Riga.

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