Russian Ballet Star ‘Follows Conscience’ to Leave Bolshoi

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Russian superstar ballerina Olga Smirnova left the Bolshoi Ballet after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, but says the famous dance troupe will leave the whims of war behind.

“History changes, but the Bolshoi remains,” Smirnova told AFP while rehearsing in Amsterdam, where she joined the Dutch National Ballet in March.

“I had to follow my conscience,” added Smirnova, who made headlines when she left the Bolshoi.

The 30-year-old principal ballerina said she worries about the future of dancers, choreographers and performers staying at the Bolshoi as Russia is increasingly isolated globally due to its decision to attack its neighbour.

30-year-old ballerina Olga Smirnova left the famous Bolshoi Ballet after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Photograph: AFP / JOHN THYS

“Twenty years is nothing for the Bolshoi, but their whole life for a dancer,” Smirnova said in an interview with AFP just before the rehearsal of veteran Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen’s ballet “Frank Bridge Variations.”

Smirnova was one of the company’s faces for a decade as a principal ballerina, known for her slender physique, almond-shaped eyes and swan-like neck, her gaze described by a British newspaper as the “perfect instrument of the art form”. It evokes “stunning perfection”.

“The Bolshoi is now isolated from the world as well. I spent a great 10 years with the Bolshoi because the world’s best choreographers could come on stage to create original ballets.”

“I really felt like I was part of the world. I guess it all ended with this war,” Smirnova said between her busy schedule.

i had to follow my conscience smirnova tells Russian Ballet Star 'Follows Conscience' to Leave Bolshoi “I had to follow my conscience,” Smirnova told AFP while rehearsing in Amsterdam. Photograph: AFP / JOHN THYS

Even during the Cold War, the Bolshoi’s ballet tours to the West were seen as a bridge with the Soviet Union.

But after the February 24 invasion of Russia, all tours were canceled and the stars of the Bolshoi are no longer invited abroad.

Choreographers such as Jean-Christophe Maillot and Alexei Ratmansky asked the Bolshoi to suspend the performance rights of their ballets.

For ten years Smirnova was one of the faces of the Bolshoi as a principal ballerina. For ten years Smirnova was one of the faces of the Bolshoi as a principal ballerina. Photograph: AFP / JOHN THYS

Smirnova now fears that Russian dancers will lose the chance that she and her generation will “explore new worlds” as she has done with choreographers like Americans John Neumeier and William Forsythe, France’s Pierre Lacotte or Britain’s Christopher Wheeldon.

But Smirnova refuses to call her decision “deviation,” a word used in Soviet times when ballet legends like Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov crossed the Iron Curtain to the West.

“I think I was honest with myself and listened to my conscience… I thought it was right for me,” said Smirnova, visibly emotional.

“I’m so sorry about all this… all these people… they lost their homes,” he said.

'I am against war with all my soul.  Smirnova wrote to Telegram shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. ‘I am against war with all my soul. Smirnova wrote to Telegram shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. Photograph: AFP / JOHN THYS

Smirnova said she was shocked to learn of the invasion of Moscow, which saw more than six million refugees flee Ukraine.

He thought the invasion would end soon.

But “five or six days later”, he wrote on the Telegram social messaging platform, “I am against the war with all my soul. I never believed that I could be ashamed of Russia.”

After leaving Moscow, he went to Dubai to treat a wound and then decided to dive.

“No one knew except my husband and Ted Brandsen, the artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet,” Smirnova said.

His decision came as a shock to his family in Russia.

“It is still really unacceptable for me to leave the country and the Bolshoi for them,” he said.

“My colleagues almost did not react” when Smirnova left.

“I don’t know what they’re thinking. Maybe they didn’t understand my decision. Maybe they’re shielding themselves from the truth… They think, ‘I’m a dancer, I’m out of this political stuff.'”

“I feel like I’ve lost almost all contact with the Bolshoi dancers,” she said.

However, Smirnova said she felt “more at home in Amsterdam” in the Netherlands, where she moved into a new flat the day before the meeting.

In April, she starred in the production of a new classical ballet “Raymonda”.

“From the first days I was put into the ballet routine. I felt like I was (back) in my normal life. I was able to rehearse… it made me feel normal.”

Dancing “save me from overthinking,” she said.

But for Smirnova, it remained a dream.

“I would love to come to the Paris Opera to dance. I have never danced at the Palais Garnier.”