Theater of Cruelty

To Dance

by Valery Panov, by George Feifer
Knopf, 397 pp., $15.00

Valery Panov and George Feifer have a highly dramatic, indeed tragic, story to tell in this book: the story of how the gifted dancer was prevented from developing his talents on the stage of the Kirov Theater in Leningrad. They tell how Panov became instead a puppet in the cruel and absurd bureaucratic theater of Soviet culture.

Panov describes the humiliation of his efforts to find out what the omnipotent authorities held against him. Why was he prevented from touring abroad with the famous Kirov company? Why, when he decided to emigrate to Israel, was he so harshly treated by the KGB? His account of his campaign to be allowed to dance, and then to leave Russia, do much to explain why, beginning in the early 1960s, the best classical ballet company in the world was deserted by its best dancers.

To understand his story, however, we must recall that the theater from which he was expelled has long seemed under a curse. It is as if fate, personified by the Russian bureaucracy, both tsarist and Bolshevik, had determined to take revenge on the tenacious company that had survived as an island of classical art, first in the flood of modernist Russian culture during the two opening decades of the century, and then later when this culture was destroyed by “proletarian” conquerors.

The Kirov Theater has always suffered from the petty tyranny of its official supervisors: they dropped the great Petipa when he grew too old to dance; they fired Nijinsky, ignoring his talent. The exodus of artists escaping from the Kirov’s rigid management was begun by Diaghilev when he took the first of his famous seasons abroad. Balanchine left this theater to go first to Paris and eventually to the US. Indeed, were it not for the continuing bureaucratic pressure forcing Russian artists to flee to the West, Western ballet might never have developed to its present state. Other dancers, like Nijinsky and Spessivtseva, found respite from the pressure only in madness.

The Kirov Theater has also been marked by a number of sinister mysteries. The first, in 1924, was the drowning of Lidia Ivanova, a young dancer who promised to become another Anna Pavlova. The circumstances of the incident are still obscure, and some evidence indicates that she was in fact murdered by the KGB. Half a century later there was the suicide, without apparent motive, of Yuri Soloviev, known for his incomparable Blue Bird, his Spectre de la Rose, and the fantastic soaring ballon leap that led old St. Petersburg ballet fans to compare him to Nijinsky.

Under Stalin, when emigration to the West was impossible, the best dancers of the company—Ulanova, Semyonova, Chaboukiani—fled to the Bolshoi in Moscow. The Maryinsky, renamed the Kirov in 1934 after a Party leader murdered by Stalin, became the stronghold of the St. Petersburg dance tradition, under close supervision by the Party bureaucracy and the powerful influence of Agrippina Vaganova’s ballet school. Swan Lakes and Sleeping Beautys …

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