Soviet Communism’s Contribution to World Culture – Igor Moiseyev

Those in the folk dance community who know of Moiseyev’s work may consider this an outrageous opinion, but please notice I didn’t say Moiseyev contributed to folk dance culture.

Igor Moiseyev, (born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1906), did not invent the idea of exhibiting dances of “the folk” to audiences unfamiliar with them. For instance, “in 1893 George Pangalos, a Greek from Smyrna, was the creator and manager of the Cairo Street Exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago…That is where “Little Egypt,” aka Fahreda Mahzar or Bele Baya according to various sources, performed. The performances typical to the Greek Cafe Scene are what Pangalos brought to North America. More than simply bellydancing, the standard musical and dance entertainments presented on a daily basis in any cafe in the Ottoman Empire were brought to the Exposition by Pangalos.”Source:

What Moiseyev did do was to transform simple displays of peasant dance into highly professional spectacles, thus creating an art form on par with the best in the world. To urban Westerners unfamiliar with folk dance conventions of Eastern Europe, a production by Moyseyev or one of its many offspring may have been their first glimpse into an exotic, colorful and compelling world. Though most viewers were dimly aware they were not witnessing the ‘real’ thing, they had no background knowledge to compare just how much a Moiseyev production differed from a village dance. Few could know that a ‘Serbian Dance Suite’ (below) was about 40% ballet, 35% theatre chorus line, 20% Moyseyev-created movements, and 5% Serbian dance (similar distortions ocurred in music and costumes) .

Serbian Dance Suite

Russian Ballet – Moiseyev’s foundation

Once upon a time the word ‘culture’ was considered a capital C word. Culture was associated with refinement, art, nobility, not folk or bacteria. Cultured people attended events that were best understood if the attender had ‘Culture’. A symphony orchestra was not just any band bleating out a tune, and appreciating the meaning of changes of key, instrumentation, harmonic progression, theme and variations, etc. required an education the average person didn’t have. Same with ballet – just to pronounce the word correctly required enough Culture to know the word was French and thus pronounced like French. To enjoy watching ballet, it helped if you knew something of its history, conventions, and the plots of its often mythological depictions.

By the 1700’s Russia was becoming a European power, but its people, even its nobility, were considered backward and uncouth. Tsar Peter the Great was determined to bring Russia into Europe, built St Petersburg on its western border as a city to rival Paris, Vienna & Berlin, and forced the nobility to move there from Moscow. According to Wikipedia “His vision was to challenge the West. Classical ballet entered the realm of Russia not as entertainment, but as a “standard of physical comportment to be emulated and internalized-an idealized way of behaving.”[1] The aim was not to entertain the masses of Russians, but to cultivate a new Russian people… [In 1734 the Empress Anna] ordered the appointment of Jean-Baptiste Landé as dancing-master in the military academy she had founded in 1731 for sons of the nobility. In 1738, he became ballet master and head of the new ballet school, launching the advanced study of ballet in Russia, and winning the patronage of elite families.[2]“.

Ballet in Russia was imported in order to refine the nobility, and for a time the nobility were the only Russians to see ballet. However the dancers were recruited from the lower classes. Eventually ballet became a huge success, Russians soon became known throughout the world as among the best dancers, and Russians of all classes adopted ballet as their art form of choice.


Character Dance

A particular feature ot Russian ballet is what’s known as Character Dance. As explained by Joanne Kealiinohomoku in her article on folk dance in Encyclopaedia Britannica; “Character dancing is a selected borrowing of folk dance movements and styles to provide divertissements for story ballets. It is a specialization taught as part of the classical ballet curriculum. Along with their rigorous training in ballet academies, dancers are trained to perform so-called character dances that use stereotyped gestures and styles selected to portray the idea of a particular nationality, occupation, or personage. This is exemplified by the Chinese, Spanish, and Arabian divertissements in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. When, say, a Polish mazurka is performed by a formally trained classical ballet dancer, that character dance is not considered to be an authentic folk dance by either the dancer or the audience.” Why wouldn’t the ballet dancer simply perform a folk mazurka? Because it contained movements that were considered ‘uncultured’ and therefore unfit for ballet’s purpose of rising artistically above common movement. Character Dance was to become a central element in Moiseyev’s transformation of ballet into folk spectacle.

Soviet Dilemma

The Russian Revolution of 1917 found itself in a dilemma concerning Russian ballet. The revolution was supposed to be about cleansing the state of the decadent tastes of the oppressive nobility and creating a new culture elevating and reflecting the tastes of the masses. Ballet was very emblematic of the nobility, and yet was beloved by all Russians. Outside of Russia, ballet was seen as one of its highest cultural achievements, and the Soviet government was desperate to maintain what cultural prestige it could claim. Russian ballet emigrés were creating a sensation in Paris, while dissing the Soviet usurpers. So the government swallowed hard and maintained ballet companies, concocting tortured rationales for how Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty were really dances of the proletariat.

Meanwhile the Soviet Union was all too aware that it wrested from the Tsars an empire consisting of over 100 different ethnic groups; only half of its roughly 300 million inhabitants were Russian. In order to keep this conglomeration of ethnicities loyal to a single leadership, that leadership had to allow them some expression of identity and pride, while maintaining subtle control.

I will now be quoting extensively from Anthony Shay’s authoritative book on folk dance performing groups Choreographic Politics, 2002, Wesleyan University Press. “After 1936, folk dance, with its connotations of ethnic identity and “the people’s” art, became a focus of Soviet Government interest. Folk dancing from that period became almost a cottage industry. Throughout the former USSR, considerable government backing and financial support were given to create vast folk dance festivals and to establish myriad professional and amateur folk dance companies…Folk dance companies were found on collective farms and factories, and even the NKVD, the secret service agency, had one...”

Moiseyev’s takes charge

In 1936 Igor Moiseyev was charged with the job of organizing an all-USSR folk dance festival… Margareta Isareva, in the International Encyclopedia of Dance, states that Moiseyev, ‘spent his childhood and adolescence travelling around Russia with his father, who was a lawyer, and becoming acquainted with the cultures of various ethnic groups’ thus suggesting for Moiseyev an almost mythic interest in folklore and researching authentic sources. Such an interest must have lain dormant, for he was attending rigorous ballet classes by the age of twelve, and was a member of the Bolshoi Ballet Company from 1924 to 1939, where he was a soloist in several productions. He also produced several choreographies, including Spartacus, for the company…”

For Moiseyev “organizing an all-USSR folk dance festivalwas clearly a major turning point in his professional life, for the following year…he formed the professional company that [was]…a combination of professional artists from the Bolshoi Ballet and dancers from among the participants in the festival.

The impact of this company was barely felt in the beginning years, most likely shadowed by the outbreak of World War II. Following the war, however, the impact of the Moiseyev ensemble was immense for every republic of the USSR. After several successful tours throughout the entire Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, all of the satellite states and several groups in the West formed companies that emulated the Moiseyev model.

Bulgarian Dance – Moiseyev (USSR)
Bulgarian Dance – Khoutev
Bulgarian Dance – Aman (USA)

Moiseyev’s innovations

Again quoting Shay “A movement analysis of Moiseyev Dance Company performances reveals that Igor Moiseyev has taken character dance, which is a sub-genre of classical ballet, and reshaped and expanded it to create a unique movement vocabulary…a certain repertory of steps, poses, and gestures that were recognizably associated with a particular culture – with technical virtuosity and the choreographers’ own artistry being added to the mix...He often created dances from whole cloth, utilizing his own unique character dance vocabulary. Further, in his pan-ethnic repertoire, the same movements, figures, solos, and athletic solos function in works from all over the Soviet Union…As in nineteenth century ballet, Moiseyev uses considerable miming elements, The movement vocabulary features very simple footwork such as pas de basques steps and similar simple step patterns, spectacular and highly athletic virtuosic solo figures, rapid spinning, and extremely fast tempi…The movements rarely derive directly from dances in the field.

“Moiseyev’s choreographies most often feature masses of corps dancers in highly precisioned and disciplined formations. These formations utilize simple, basic geometic elements with many lines and circles common in folk dances. His genius lies in his adroit transitions and his signature precision timing, clearly appropriated from theatrical dance sources…Igor Moiseyev turns the ballet format upside down by featuring the corps and punctuating the choreographic maneuvers of the corps with brilliant, generally multiple, and very brief solo gambits within the contexts of the group. Unlike classical ballet, the soloists step out from the corps with whom they have been dancing to execute a bravura movement, and return immediately to the corps’s anonymity….”

Russian ‘dance’ Polyanka
Gopak, (Hopak)

Isareva claims that Moiseyev’s ‘basic goal was to develop perfect traditional folk dances’. These were to be an ‘improvement’ on the dances that the peasants actuallly performed in the field. ‘Moiseyev reinterpereted folk dances, integrating them into a single choreographic scheme. Moiseyev became a genuine composer of folk dances…He created a new Byelorussian dance “Bulba” in 1937. Moiseyev wrote in 1937 that his intent ‘was not to reproduce exact examples from the body of more than 3000 existing national dances, but to raise the skill of performance to the highest artistic level in order to influence the creation of new national dances. He sought to establish a unique style for his company that would be at once dramatic, entertaining in a theatrical sense, and larger-than-life.”

Colorful and visually striking dance companies were formd to show the multicultural, multiethnic composition of the USSR. They showcased all the Soviet people living in brotherly peace and friendly coexistence under the benign but careful eye of Mother Russia, whose dances would receive pride of place. This was an important message to send to people in the undeveloped world whom the Soviet Union wished to influence. The ‘State Academic Ensemble of Folk Dances of the Peoples of the USSR’, known in the West as the Moiseyev Dance Company, rapidly became the most important and visible manifestation of the Soviet Union’s interest in folk dance as a political tool…[and] reflected the typical publicity output of the former Soviet Union in tourist brochures and the popular magazine Soviet Life: all-smiling, all-happy, all-working–all the time.


By John Uhlemann: This is a very nice, balanced portrayal of this form. Still, Moiseyev’s contribution is highly controversial from an aesthetic and cultural point of view. He did not simply turn ethnic dance into an art form, he produced a sort of “cultural genocide through dance”. The non-Russian dances he depicted were always too cute, too non-respectful, of the culture in question. His Greek suite, which my wife and I had a chance to see in Moscow some years ago, depicted Greek men as foppish and silly. The stylized movements of the dances in the Serbian suite you included bear no relation to style or comportment of Serbs. This is not just for artistic license – look at the difference between the 2 Bulgarian suites included in your essay – both Moiseyev and Kutev subscribed to same artistic ends (folk ballet as distilling a national character into an artistic form), but look at how much more effective the Kutev version is than the Russian one. Despite the marvelous technique and choreographic artistry here, the stench of cultural hegemony creeps in.

Moiseyev once said that if one truly understood the ethos of a people, one did not have to actually know what dances they did in order to effectively express that ethos through dance. Looking at his choreographies though, I am thinking about how we would feel if someone said that really well-done Blackface minstrelsy could adequately portray African American dance culture. Is it that impossible to portray things accurately, yet artistically? I think not. The groups “Lado” and “Tanec” and the Hungarian national ensemble (after Sandor Timar took over) proved you could have high art and not denigrate traditional dance.

My problem is not about “authenticity”, or Folk ballet as an art form, it is about Moiseyev’s attitude toward other culture’s dance forms, and how he could have done better, if he had really wanted to.

Don’s reply: I agree completely, and would add that he did no favors to Russian dance, either.

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