Soviet ballet: dancing the heritage of humanism

How socialist realism, serving the people, sparked unparalleled creativity.

Proletarian writers

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Soviet ballerina Olga Lepeshinskaya dances Kitri in Don Quixote, 1940

Proletarian writers

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In the Soviet Union, dance was an artform expressing a collective belief in life, cultural progress and artistic excellence. Apart from its demands for “bread, peace and land”, the October Revolution made demands for culture to be made available not only to a selected few but to the broad masses, who were thirsty for education and art.

The foundations of a new proletarian culture were laid. According to VI Lenin, it would need to appropriate all the important achievements of bourgeois civilisation and build on them. Lenin stressed the importance of building on the past rather than attempting artificially to create something new. (The tasks of the youth leagues, 1920, Collected Works, Vol 31)

Like Marx, who based his work on the knowledge acquired by humanity throughout the era of class society, this proletarian culture was not to be clutched out of thin air; it was not the invention of those who call themselves ‘experts’ in culture. Rather, it was the logical development of the store of knowledge mankind had accumulated, which had first to be assimilated and then built on.

In art, as in all spheres of life, communists understood that one should first acquire that sum of knowledge of which communism itself is the result.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that a well-established classical artform such as ballet served as a foundation for what Lenin envisaged as the development of the best models, traditions and results of existing culture, from a Marxist outlook. According to Marxism Leninism, every artist has the right to create freely, but one needs to question whether freedom really exists in the capitalist world; the ‘freedom’ of a bourgeois artist is false and limited when compared to the truly free process of socialist creation.

Freedom in art is the freedom “to elevate the masses, teach them and strengthen them”, said Lenin. (Party organisation and party literature, 1905, Collected Works, Vol 10)

Ballet was taken away from the autocratic caste and given back to the masses, becoming an art for the people. As an art so completely regarded as the preserve of nobility, the Bolsheviks maintained its embodiment of everything elegant and refined to be enjoyed by the masses.

The established generation of dancers – Tikhomirov and Geltser at the Bolshoi, Vaganova at the Mariinsky – saw to the passing on of existing tradition to the proletarian generation. Agrippina Vaganova (1879-1951) in particular, having been made a professor at the Leningrad Choreographic school, turned ballet into an organised system for the children of the people, creating a revolutionary method still in use today.

Lenin had called revolutions “the festivals of the oppressed and the exploited”, but he also talked about organising the creative instincts of the masses. (The Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, 1905, Collected Works, Vol 9)

Spontaneity of feeling and the joy of movement are a great release from the cares of daily life, but they remain empty if they don’t transcend to a consciousness of class struggle. That movement from spontaneous existence to class consciousness is what defined Soviet dance as an artform with a social mission; art created by and reflective of the struggle for socialism.

It was art with an aim. The lack of aim can reduce art to the level of naturalistic description, whereas proletarian culture requires that the description of life given by art should be inspired by the vision of a socialist society.

Socialist realism

This vision in art manifests itself as socialist realism, an artistic movement dedicated to reflecting and contributing towards the people’s struggle for a socialist future. The early 1930s was this movement’s dawn, and produced a great variety of works in the USSR. A grand concept of humanist endeavour – of an art that corresponds to the needs of the people – socialist realism affirms and supports the universal historic mission of the working class.

Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet people’s commissar for education, wrote that the writer who laid the foundations for socialist realism was Maxim Gorky, and it was through Gorky that the working class had found its artistic identity – just as Marx, Engels and Lenin had laid the foundations for their philosophical and political identity.

In 1935, Gorky addressed a congress ‘In Defence of Culture’ held in Paris: “There is only one class in the world that is capable of understanding and sympathising with the universal significance of humanism. That class is the proletariat. Our efforts should be dedicated to the work of releasing the inexhaustible reserves of intellectual energy latent in the hundreds of millions of working people, the handiworkers of culture, the working intellectuals and the labouring peasants, who want to be and deserve to be masters of culture.”

So the task for the new Soviet ballet artists – engineers of the soul by means of the body – was to find themes that would reflect workers’ lives, philosophy and social reality. At the same time, they had to build a dance lexicon that would harmonise existing mime and dance traditions, and be capable of interpreting dramatic and literary subjects in a way that was useful, pleasing, accessible, and beneficial to the existence and betterment of the people.

The world-historical shift occasioned by the October Revolution meant that everything changed in the way that dance was produced and received; the men and women who sat in the theatre stalls after a day’s work in the factory, docks, shops and trams breathed their own material lives into the beautiful image of a dancer on stage.

Of course, links to the old art world endured, but in a dialectical way involving many quantitative and qualitative changes. Even in the early years, exhausted by the years of war that followed the 1917 revolution, the state allocated part of its small budget to keeping theatres going.

The Bolsheviks showed particular concern for the country’s historic theatres – the Bolshoi, Maly and Art theatres in Moscow and the Mariinsky, Mikhailovsky and Alexandrinsky theatres in Leningrad. Their doors were opened to hundreds of thousands of new theatregoers: peasants, workers and soldiers.

Most of the Moscow ballet veterans remained at their posts. But now, as Soviet art workers, they were given the full freedom to retain what was good in their art and to improve upon it.

In the 1920s, Soviet ballet saw the barefoot naturalist movement, austere constructivism, and expressionism. But reality and the needs of the people showed the limitations of those movements.

Ballets that embraced socialist realism had various degrees of success. Some new ballets like Bolt,with music by Shostakovich, were taken off because of problems with the quality of the choreography or the plot, rather than as a result of bureaucratic interference, as is often alleged by western art historians.

Other experimentalist productions of the 1920s saw audience members walking out or falling asleep. Some were felt by them to be useful in aiding the class struggle and some were not. Politics and culture were one in the Soviet Union, and it was the people who decided.

While the humanistic heritage of classical themes found in national traditions and international poetry, drama and fine art constitute a solid foundation for new creation, formalistic innovations that denied the role of the classics in art lead nowhere.

As practice had proved, audiences showed a preference for classical ballet over extravaganzas. Meanwhile, defenders of classical dance declared that it had not been invented by any one person from the upper classes, and that bourgeois values had not been permanently thrust upon it.

Agrippina Vaganova argued that ballet had emerged from life itself – from the consideration of the posture of the human body and of how its aesthetic proportions could be introduced into a creative system giving rise to standards of stage behaviour.

These standards varied from age to age, according to customs, economic life and climate. Before going through its upbringing in the French court of the Versailles, ballet had existed in the courts of Georgian and Circassian princes – deriving from the ancient Greek art of orchesis and presenting Greek myths.

The word ‘classical’ in association with dance came to mean the most accomplished – that which belongs to no specific age, class or nation, but belongs to humanity as a whole.

Building a popular realist ballet theatre

In 1935, Pravda wrote: “Soviet art must inspire the masses in their struggle for a full and final victory of socialism; it must help them in this struggle. The era of the struggle for communism must become the era of socialist renaissance in art, for only socialism creates the conditions for a complete flourishing of all national talents.” (Quoted by Solomon Volkov, The Magical Chorus, 2008, p127)

In the same year, Vaganova declared in the cultural journal Izvestiiia: “One production after another – Swan Lake (1933), The Flames of Paris (1932), The Fountain of Bakhchisarai (1934), Esmeralda (1933), every new role danced by virtuoso artists of classical dance – all attest ever more insistently and clearly to the birth of a popular (narodnyi) realistic ballet theatre.” (Cited in Stumbling toward socialist realism: ballet in Leningrad, 1927-37 by Carolyn Pouncy, Russian History, Vol 32, No 2, Summer 2005, pp171-193)

Classical 19th-century productions remained popular and underwent numerous revisions, while adaptations from world literature, and in particular Pushkin’s works, appeared regularly. But the mysticism that had been so pronounced in pre-Soviet ballet was now abandoned.

“Mysticism,” wrote Pushkin, “that is, everything that is imagined, every delusion, every deceit … the darkness of mean truths are dearer to me than elevating frauds.” Truths not intended to be mean but instead objective – referring to an external world rather than inner life – became the substance of the socialist-realist school of ballet choreographers.

Following the cultural revolution of the 1920s, one could see the interaction between the demands of the recently-educated and empowered worker and peasant readers and the state’s new requirements for cultural producers. Bolshevik artistic policy affected literature, theatre, cinema, music and the fine arts, and established culture as an important front in the class war.

The cultural trends of Bolshevik policy during the Stalin era and the formidable state-backed socialist realism of the 1930s were given particular manifestations using the classical form of ballet. It is fruitful for communists today to explore this relationship between the demands of cultural policy and the way those demands were met by artists.

Drambalet, standing for dramaticheskii balet (dramatic ballet), is a form of ballet that meets the demands of socialist realism. Western bourgeois historians describe it as the imposition of drama onto dance, but it was really about a ‘harmony of components’, and it had existed well before the October Revolution as a movement within ballet.

The Bolshoi’s ballet master, Alexander Gorsky, wrote in 1890 that the artist and the musician, the dramatist and the choreographer, the actor and the producer should serve the same cause: the rendering of the ideological and artistic content. It was, he affirmed, their task to jointly seek the best way to present the production.

A specialist in classical dance, Gorsky advanced new principles. His renditions of Don Quixote were emblematic of the Russian school – he wanted the dancers to live their parts, and urged for the enhancement of expressive (that is, dramatic) means.

His dances were packed with detail and with local colour, whether through the aid of folklore dance or through realistic gestures; lively emotional expression and austere sculptural majesty are still today characteristic of male Russian dancers who train in Gorsky’s repertoire.

Contrary to the claims of bourgeois dance historians, the classical ballet vocabulary used by Soviet choreographers did not become restricted, reflecting the genre’s preoccupation with using dance to express the narrative plot of a ballet; the use of dance was not ‘pantomimic’ as western reactionary critics describe it, but expressive and reflective of real emotion and a desire to show realistic details of life on the ballet stage.

Soviet dancers trained in the school of psychological realist theatre developed by the great director Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938). Stanislavsky left a wise definition of two types of ballet dancer that was representative of two types of dance.

Some perform, he said, without being the least concerned with the content of the dance, creating forms that are devoid of all essence and merely reproducing movement shapes. Stanislavsky was highly critical of such art, for it cannot, he said, realise its purpose, which is to make the invisible creative life visible.

But there are dance artists of another type, who have once and for all worked out a technique that is their second nature: “these do not dance, do not play – they live”, he said. (Our emphasis)

Ballet requires coherent movement of the whole body, and in dance the main thing is ‘melody’, an unbroken line of movement that is very characteristic of Soviet-era dancers, a harmony (candilena in Russian) of all parts to the very fingertips.

Dancers such as the celebrated people’s artist Galina Ulanova (1909-98) made visible this harmony that gives birth to truthful art, and her visible music appealed to millions, still moving us today through its assertion of dignity, love and heroism, upholding the collective convictions of an era and its people as she sang them with her body; itself a product of the cultural and political conditions of her time and not just of an individual genius.

Class warfare masked as aesthetic debate

Despite these tenets of meaningful art for the people, many reactionary dance producers tended to support ‘symphonic dance’ or ‘choreographic symphonism’, and after Stalin’s death they began to call for a return to a complex classical structure that was deemed to have been lost to what they labelled as ‘black and white simplicity’ that failed to take into account the specificity of ballet as an artform.

The socialist striving after content and its depiction are to this day taken by critics as a denial of the leading role of the dance, when in fact dance itself does not lose any of its power and beauty by serving a subject and a message. Exactly the opposite is the case, in fact: dance becomes enriched through this creative striving, and its own traditional canons evolve.

It is simply not true that narrative ballets lacked the expressiveness of ‘pure’ classical dance and were less innovative. The false dichotomy presented by bourgeois critics between free expressive abstraction and restricted narrative content serves to caricature dramballet and portray socialist realism as something monotonous and lifeless in juxtaposition to the choreographic symphonism that was later promoted by Khrushchev’s revisionist policies.

Classicism and socialism

Bourgeois critics attribute artistry only to non-representational dance, which they claim is ‘more persuasive’ when it offers an abstract allegory of human emotion in a general, often mystified and metaphysical way. They deny the universalising power of the human body on stage, which is able to express both the very concrete and the historically specific simultaneously with that relating to the history and experience of humanity in general.

Ballet is an artform that uses conventionalised aesthetic norms, and it is classical because these norms are bound to the physical reality of the individual human body that dances, both in its present form and its historical connection, establishing continuity with other bodies in society.

In fact, classicism and socialist realism are completely compatible, as it is also in fine arts such as painting and sculpture. The critical confusion over how a highly-codified artform was able to embody socialist realism expresses the refusal of bourgeois idealists to grasp realism as a material representation of the human experience.

What baffles these poor souls is the idea that a non-verbal artform such as ballet can have a social mission, and that socialist realism exists as a renunciation of the bourgeois tropes of western modernism and formalism. This trammelled bourgeois mentality maintains that capitalist production is somehow separate from ideology, never recognising how its beloved artistic abstraction serves capitalism’s mental enslavement of the people.

Class struggle and the art of ballet

In his book The Art of the Choreographer (1954), the choreographer Rostislav Zakharov – the main practical theoretician of drambalet – repeatedly warned against seeing classical dance technique as a goal in itself.

Zakharov wrote that a choreographer should only use those movements of classical dance that correspond to the plot of the ballet in question. This is the art of choreography, and non-Soviet choreographers like Fokine were praised by western critics for innovating and creating movement that corresponded to character rather than being an ossified repetition of steps and combinations. However, when such innovation is enshrined as state policy, this freedom to create is portrayed by the enemies of socialism as being something alien and forced.

Zakharov condemned abstract choreography that does not serve a plot as mindless after-dinner entertainment, declaring that Soviet ballet had parted with this ‘tradition’ for good. To have a meaningful plot, recognisable and relatable by the audience, expanded the scope of ballet’s expressiveness. Zakharov showed that there is no ‘pure’ dance, and that dance needs to be consciously aware of the reality to which it refers.

Zakharov called critics who supported the experiments of ‘formalist’ choreographers of the 1920s and 30s “cosmopolitans, devoid of any feeling of patriotism”.

According to Zakharov, the ballet-formalists had rejected the necessity of creative links between ballet and the dramatic theatre, insisting instead that ballet was a unique art that had to develop according to its own laws, and independent of any wider context.

Proponents of choreographic symphonism argued that, in a similar way to symphonic music, the expressive strength of classical dance lay not in the representation of concrete situations but in its capacity to operate on a level of poetic, nonverbal generalisation. They considered drambalet to be too didactic (moralising or educational).

But the truth is quite the reverse: drambalet was able to represent human activity, story and feeling precisely through poetic nonverbal conventions. The difference was that it did so not to serve an individual genius but to serve the people. Bourgeois exponents clearly had great difficulty accepting that no art should function independently of the needs of the proletarian dictatorship.

Socialist realism for cultural production began to be debated during the era of ‘de-Stalinisation’, something Stalin had predicted might happen – hence the anti-formalist campaigns and what became known as ‘Zhdanov doctrine’, which aimed at reigning in those individualistic tendencies that in the end proved to be so detrimental to the achievements of the Soviet people.

Reformists present the struggle over ballet’s content and direction as a purely aesthetic debate, but in fact it was political – a battle between western-style formalism and Soviet realism, expressions of two opposing class philosophies. Nothing less than the essence of the Soviet system – as expressed in Soviet ballet – was at stake.

In 1960, during a conference in Moscow, Leonid Lavrovskii, choreographer of the Soviet drambalet classic Romeo and Juliet, gave the keynote address. In an effort to defend the tenets of drambalet, Lavrovskii argued against the so-called ‘theory of the world of agitated feeling’.

Singling out the second act of Grigorovich’s The Stone Flower, he accused Grigorovich of using the formal means of modernised acrobatics typical for this style of the ‘world of agitated’ feeling to approach this hallowed topic of Russian nature.

Lavrovskii contrasted Soviet ballet’s elevation to a serious artform, rich in content, with pointless demonstration of dance technique. He stressed that some people had a simplistic view of ballet as something where one needed to jump around non-stop from curtain up to curtain down.

Lavrovskii stated that the champions of this ‘danciness’ had a champion in the west, George Balanchine, who led the technically accomplished New York City Ballet company, “which didn’t dance music but naked rhythm without any content”.

In his concluding remarks, Lavrovskii stated that there was a struggle between western formalism and Soviet ideology. The dancer and choreographer Konstantin Sergeev agreed, stating that in the struggle with the west, it was especially important to keep the Soviet Union’s ideological weapons in order.

He was worried that modernist tendencies represented a surrendering to bourgeois aesthetics, and disturbed by theories that tried to rally everyone to an art of emotions and abstract images, devoid of biographical particulars or context.

Zakharov explained: “Two currents were outlined in the discussion: one defends realism in the art of dance, the other – anti-realistic tendencies adversarial to these concepts. After all, the most agitated feelings, if they are separated from ideas, lead to a completely incorrect abstract conception – ‘the world of feelings’ in general.”

Khrushchev’s revisionist rule led to the restoration of ‘dance’s primacy’ – the endless copying by Soviet choreographers of Balanchine, with his jazzy American syncopations, as well as a series of defections to the west, most notably that of Rudolf Nureyev to Britain and Mikhail Baryshnikov to the US; a world of celebrity dancers with very agitated individualistic feelings indeed.

Flames of Paris, a socialist realist ballet

The drambalet Flames of Paris, choreographed by Vainonen in 1932, fulfils all the criteria of a successful socialist-realist ballet, and is still being performed by the Bolshoi and Mariinsky dancers in Russia and abroad today.

It exhibits a clear sense of time and place – revolutionary France in 1792 – and makes extensive use of folk motifs that educate and delight audiences. Composer Boris Asafyev and choreographer Vasily Vainonen conveyed the characteristics of the French provinces: the Basques, the Auvergnat, the Marseillaises, and even though the story was not based on a contemporary theme from the life of the Soviet people, it was fully comprehensible to them because it reflected the revolutionary spirit of the times.

Combining romantic and heroic elements, Flames of Paris played an important part in the rehabilitation of romanticism in ballet – especially following the experimentation of the 1920s.

At the time of its creation, there was a debate over whether ballet was justified in anticipating a future social reality in dreams, or whether it should reject all idealistic tendencies and stick to real life. There is a whole literature available from that period, with very subtle arguments from a broad basis of Marxism and dialectical materialism.

Writing on the question of the difference between dreams and reality one critic, Dimitri Pisarev, said: “There are differences and differences. My dreams may run ahead of the natural progress of events or may fly off at a tangent in a direction to which no natural progress of events will ever proceed.

“In the first case, the dream will not cause any harm; it may support and strengthen the efforts of toiling humanity … Divergences between dreams and reality cause no harm if only the person dreaming them believes seriously in his dreams, if he attentively observes life, compares his observations with the airy castles he builds, and if, generally speaking, he works conscientiously for the achievements of his fantasies. If there is some connection between dreams and life then all is well.” (Quoted by Benjamin Kohlmann in Committed Styles, Modernism, Politics and Left-Wing Literature in the 1930s, 2014, p175)

Both approaches, the heroic-romantic and the historical meet in Flames of Paris. The liberation of the oppressed – that is, class warfare – carried out by the French people during their revolution awakens the revolutionary fervour of the audience. In its finale, 400 people storm the stage as they take the Bastille. The combined efforts of a talented choreographer and composer have given us a genuine Soviet spectacle.

Vaganova wrote on preparing for the first production of the Flames of Paris: “The entire theatre staff is in the midst of great creative fervour. The demands of the Soviet spectator strengthen to the utmost our alertness and caution. Ballet has a responsible theme. To capture the heroic quality of the French Revolution in ballet is not easy. We prepare an exciting and accurate show for the audience.

“Our artists, masters of dance, masters of music, undoubtedly might show in realistic, artistic form the contemporary life of Soviet people, utilising their creativity, songs, folk dances and games. But for this, it is necessary to work persistently and conscientiously study the new way of life of the people of our country, avoiding naturalism and aesthetical formalism in productions and presentations.

“Some apparently consider that our public has simple tastes, that it accepts anything that clever and indifferent people concoct. Actually, only our artistic critics are undemanding. They often overload with praises productions that do not deserve them”. (Quoted by Iris Morley, Soviet Ballet, 1945)

Artistic self-criticism, accountability to the people, and responsibility towards the social function of art were clearly at the forefront of the creative process in the Soviet Union, and the level of critical appraisal, historical accuracy and aesthetic standards were extremely high in terms of intellectual discussion and the quality of public discourse and democracy.

People’s artist and Stalin Prize winning ballerina

Olga Lepeshinskaya (1916-2008) was born in Kiev to a noble family. Her grandfather – Vasily Pavlovich Lepeshinsky – participated in the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will, a peasant-based revolutionary movement of the 19th century), and later built a school on his estate and taught peasant children there. Olga’s father, Vasily Vasilyevich, was a famous civil engineer who continued his work after the revolution.

From childhood, Olga, who for her temperament and boyish habits was nicknamed Lesha (a boy’s name) by her family and friends, adored dancing. In the summer of 1925, the Lepeshinskys were in Crimea, where the family of Bolshoi theatre artist Fedorov was also holidaying.

One day Federov’s wife, who had been a ballerina herself, saw the girl’s ‘performances’ and persuaded her mother to take Olga to a choreographic school. Olga’s mother duly took her to audition for the Moscow ballet school, which rejected her as unsuitable for a career in dance. Undaunted, Olga continued to dance, and her perseverance was ultimately rewarded.

Olga went on to become the first pupil to graduate from the Moscow ballet school in 120 years with the title of prima ballerina. This extraordinary achievement set the note for her entire career. Her apparently effortless virtuosity enabled her to perform steps that were considered to be ‘only for men’, and she was one of the greatest exponents of Soviet technique, combining skill and feeling with accomplished acting.

Olga’s extroverted personality made her very popular with audiences. The heroines she portrayed were joyful, vivacious, and with a marked sense of humour that could occasionally switch to authoritativeness.

Fascinating in the assurance of her attack, she always was thoroughly ‘Komsomol’ in her sunny disposition. Contemporary accounts describe how people who saw her for the first time emerged from the theatre in a state of stunned adoration, dazzled by her brilliance – especially by her high jumps and risky landings in the arms of her dancing partner.

Lepeshinskaya had always been politically conscious and was a delegate to the Supreme Soviet. On the eve of the Patriotic War (WW2), the Stalin Prize for services to the socialist state was established, and Olga Lepeshinskaya was among the first laureates in March 1941.

When the Nazis invaded in June, Olga ran to the district committee and asked to be sent to the front. She passed all the exams with flying colours and received the badge of a ‘Voroshilovsky shooter’ on the rifle range, but was advised to attend the nurses’ course, before it was decided that it would be better for the ballerina to continue to dance.

Soon Olga, along with the entire ballet troupe of the Bolshoi theatre, was evacuated to Kuibyshev (southwest Russia). Despite this inconvenience, the dancer’s work did not stop. Throughout the war years, she continued not only to perform on the ballet stage, but also to participate in concert tours to cities, towns and hospitals across the USSR, performing at the frontline with the front brigade of the Bolshoi to encourage the soldiers.

Stalin greatly admired Olga’s dancing, and affectionately called her a ‘dragonfly’. After his death, she suffered several personal and health setbacks. Her dancing career ended in 1962 after the sudden death of her third husband Alexei Antonov, a prominent Soviet military commander.

The shock of losing him was so strong that Olga became blind. After treatment in Italy, her vision was restored, but she decided to leave the stage. “Joy has left my dance,” she said.

After Stalin’s death, artists popular with the new government replaced the old guard. For 25 years Olga taught abroad – in Italy, Hungary, Germany, Japan and other countries, helping to form their national ballet companies, and becoming an honorary citizen of East Berlin.

Olga was a four-time laureate of the state (Stalin) prizes of the USSR. She was awarded, among others, the Order of Lenin, the October Revolution, two Orders of the Red Banner of Labour, the Order of the Badge of Honour “for services to the fatherland” of the third degree, medals “for the defence of Moscow” and “for valiant labour in the Great Patriotic War”. The ballerina was honoured with the Grand Cross of amber of the Russian Academy of Art and musical performance “for talent, work, honour and constancy”, and a further Russian state award was presented to her in 2006 by President Putin.

Despite the diversity of her creative activity, Lepeshinskaya remained faithful to the Komsomol ideals of her youth. Even in the 1990s, when the political situation changed and such loyalty evoked a smile at best, Lepeshinskaya performed at a solemn meeting in honour of the 80th anniversary of the Komsomol with stories about her Komsomol past. In December 2008, Olga Lepeshinskaya died at the age of 93.

The examples of socialist-realist ballets like Flames of Paris and of people’s artists like Olga Lepeshinskaya clearly demonstrate that Soviet ballet was synonymous with creative depth and accountability towards the society it served.

Firmly based on the great and uninterrupted traditions of the past, drawing sustenance from 160 million Soviet citizens, receiving generous funding from the state and being fed by schools that produced a galaxy of unrivalled dancers, Soviet ballet remains incomparable – a glory to the nation, the people, and the age that produced it.

This is the reason why rebuilding the Mariinsky theatre after the siege of Leningrad was prioritised. As a worker involved in its restoration in 1944 said: “If we cannot open on 1 May I don’t know what the people will say.”

Ballet, art and all forms of culture were truly meaningful to the Soviet people; the theatre was a place where the aspirations of workers could find their fullest expression in a way that can never happen under capitalism.

For the Soviet people, who endured hell during the second world war, theatres were not mere places of amusement – they represented the vibrant popular culture and humanism they were fighting for and defending against fascism. They were for poetry, for beauty and for the glory of living; for the greater understanding of human history and society; of what it truly means to be human.

Ballet was part of this culture – a serious humanistic art with a rich legacy that today’s communists need to reclaim. Its poetry of movement still has the ability to illuminate new realms for the masses and enrich their imaginations.

For, as Lenin said: “You cannot build socialism without imagination.” (What is To Be Done?, 1902)