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Prima ballerina Olga Smirnova leaves Bolshoi Ballet in protest of Russian invasion

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

I am against the war with all the fibers of my soul. Those are the words of Olga Smirnova, a now former prima ballerina with Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet. Smirnova has announced that she will leave the Bolshoi and Russia. She joins a number of Russian cultural figures who've denounced Putin's invasion of Ukraine. In 2018, my co-host, Mary Louise Kelly, met Smirnova behind the curtain at the Bolshoi after a rehearsal of "Anna Karenina."

OLGA SMIRNOVA: (Through translator) I think it is the best ballet theatre in the world at the moment. I'm not saying this because I work here. This is an objective assessment. No other theatre can present such a diversity of repertoire, such high-quality performances like the ones that exist at the Bolshoi Theatre.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Bolshoi Ballet dates back to 1776. Today, it's the world's biggest ballet company, more than 200 dancers. I asked Smirnova about the role we've just watched her rehearse, about the pressure of performing one of the great Russian classics.

SMIRNOVA: (Through translator) The story is written by Tolstoy, but we are performing it as if it's happening today. This makes it more relatable not only for the performers, but also for our audience. The tragedy of Anna and Vronsky in the book is the impossibility of divorce at the time. But today, because everyone can file for divorce, it is not such a tragedy. So Neumeier shifted the focus, and I think it makes much more sense this way.

KELLY: It's interesting that you're talking about that you want the audience watching you now in Moscow to be able to relate it to their own lives, not just a great story that Tolstoy told many years ago.

SMIRNOVA: (Through translator) Yes, absolutely. It becomes intergenerational. Just like when you're reading a book, you can find the answer to a question you are asking yourself today.

KELLY: Is that, to you the, power of ballet?

SMIRNOVA: (Through translator) Yes. This is the power of art. You forget for a moment about your own problems. This experience has a sort of healing power. And this is my challenge - to capture your attention fully.

CHANG: Smirnova will now capture the attention of audiences in the Netherlands. She has announced that she will join the Dutch National Ballet, where she'll debut this spring in the title role in "Raymonda," a classic Russian ballet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARTHUR FIEDLER AND BOSTON POPS ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF TCHAIKOVSKY'S "STRING QUARTET NO. 1 IN D MAJOR, OP.11: ANDANTE CANTABILE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Megan Lim
Amy Isackson