How Igor Moiseyev revolutionized
Russian folk dance and conquered the world
Anna Galayda, special for RBTH
Seeing the number 80 on this season's posters for the Igor Moiseyev Folk Dance Ensemble is almost confusing. The ensemble, which was founded 80 years ago, feels like an institution, one that has been around forever — almost like the Bolshoi Theater or the Hermitage Museum.
Performance of the Moiseyev ballet
In Russian history, the year 1937 has become synonymous with the worst mass repressions of the Soviet period. But it was also the year that, on Feb. 10, a dance company was founded in Moscow, one that would, just a few years later, be regarded as a symbol of the openness, joie de vivre and artistic professionalism of the peoples of the USSR. Internationally, the company is generally called the Moiseyev Dance Company, but in Moscow people usually just say they are going to see the Moiseyev dancers.
Stroke of luck

The Moiseyev Ensemble came into being almost by accident, the idea of a young choreographer named Igor Moiseyev.

He was just 31 at the time but already a prominent figure who, despite taking up ballet at the relatively late age of 14, had made it into the Bolshoi Theater.

Choreographer and founder of the dance company Igor Moiseyev, 1976
After joining the Bolshoi, he came into the circle of the People's Commissar for Education, Anatoly Lunacharsky. At 24, by way of helping out at the theater, he made his debut as a choreographer. His colleagues were struck by the fact that Moiseyev not only "rescued" a premier that was facing major setbacks but also came up with spectacular dance sequences for the ballet The Footballer, the very title of which made even experienced directors thrown up their hands in frustration. Moiseyev's found himself in great demand, working on legendary parades in Red Square, replete with pyramids, acrobatic stunts and hundreds of participants marching in ever-changing formations. He approached each task in front of him with enthusiasm and always found a way to showcase his talent.

During this period, Moiseyev had his eyes on becoming the Bolshoi's chief choreographer. In the end, however, Rostislav Zakharov got the job. It was here that Moiseyev showed off one of his main talents: the ability to turn setbacks to his advantage. He abandoned his plans to create multi-act ballets and developed an interest in the folk dances of different nations around the world. It was a revolutionary idea at the time—before Moiseyev this type of choreography had been a mere element in classical ballets and was not considered to have artistic merit on its own. Moiseyev reached out to contacts he had in high places and immediately got permission to set up an ensemble.
Behind the scenes of Moiseyev rehearsal ahead of its 80th anniversary
Ensemble without stars
In February 1937, the new company started rehearsals. It had several dozen dancers, many of whom did not even have professional qualifications. Moiseyev valued raw talent and had a good eye for it. By his own admission, he could not stand having stars around him and instead preferred to seek out diamonds in the rough and then incorporate them into a monolithic ensemble in which any soloist could join a group piece and then suddenly go off in completely the opposite direction, causing the audience to jump with excitement at such unexpected and elaborate stunts.

The work on performances was collective, and it did not begin in rehearsals. The first generation of the ensemble's dancers, together with Moiseyev, went on tours around the Soviet Union in search of folklore material. That was how in 1938-1939 the program The Dances of the Peoples of the USSR and then the next year's The Dances of the Baltic Peoples came into being. The ensemble took these performances all over the country. They even continued touring during World War II. The Moiseyev dancers travelled throughout Siberia and the Far East, even going so far as Mongolia, becoming one of the first Soviet companies to perform abroad.
Without translators
After the war, the ensemble gained increased international recognition. Its dancers entered destroyed cities in Eastern Europe almost in unison with the Soviet Army. Their performances brought back some of the things that were forgotten during years of war: beauty, joy, celebration, love and faith. The language of dance did not require translation. The ensemble performed a new program called Dances of the Slavic Peoples in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and other socialist countries.

Spectators were amazed at how authentically Moiseyev could transfer folk traditions to the stage. But the paradox in this was that the choreographer had not even had the chance to study folklore. His talent manifested itself in the ability to identify and highlight, based on photographs, pictures and musicians' stories, the key movements in different national dances and then, using his own imagination, come up with ways of framing them effectively.

The ensemble went on to perform for audiences in Mexico, Asia and Western Europe, becoming a key symbol of Soviet art. It was the first dance troupe to break through the Iron Curtain, performing triumphantly in Paris and the United States—even before the Bolshoi—and later at the Palais Garnier in Paris and La Scala in Milan.

Even today, 10 years after the death of its founder, the Moiseyev Ensemble continues to tour the world almost non-stop, breaking attendance records along the way. The most popular performances remain those created by Moiseyev himself—A Road to Dance, The Partisans, Aragon Jota and others, which are arguably as esteemed and valued as Swan Lake at the Bolshoi Theater.
Text by Anna Galayda
Edited by Oleg Krasnov
Images, video credits: Mastyukov Valentin, Savostyanov Vladimir/TASS, Kira Pievskaya/RBTH, YouTube
Design and layout by Anastasiya Karagodina
© 2017 All Right Reserved.
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