MOSCOW – The American Ballet Theatre has returned to Moscow for the first time since the 1960s and the first time since the defection of Mikhail Baryshnikov, who left Russia's famed Bolshoi Theatre to bring his luminous star power to the U.S. ballet company.
ABT opened a three-night run Tuesday on the new stage of the Bolshoi Theatre, whose company was touring Canada when Baryshnikov defected from the Soviet Union in 1974.
Artistic director Kevin McKenzie said the dancers certainly are feeling the pressure of performing in a country with such a rich ballet tradition.
"The performers are all very aware that this is an audience that knows what they're looking at," he said during a break in Tuesday's dress rehearsal. "They're very knowledgeable in ballet and have opinions, so yes they're on edge, as they should be."
What the U.S. company brings to Russian audiences is versatility and an ease with changing styles, McKenzie said.
The ABT program includes "Fancy Free," a Broadway musical-like ballet choreographed by Jerome Robbins to music by Leonard Bernstein, and two even more modern pieces, including the world premiere of "Troika," which is dedicated to Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich.
But the program begins with "Theme and Variations," a classic George Balanchine ballet with music by Tchaikovsky that harks back to the imperial Russian ballet of the 19th century. "Theme and Variations" was performed by ABT during its first appearance in Moscow in 1960, and again when it returned in 1966.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev turned up unexpectedly at the ABT's final performance in Moscow in 1960 and spontaneously invited members of the company to join him for a late dinner, where he raised a toast to the American dancers and to "art and friendship," The New York Times reported at the time.
The mood was less warm six years later because of the Vietnam War, but the performances were sold out and hundreds of people waited in the streets to greet the dancers and present them with bouquets, the newspaper said.
Even today, dancers see themselves as "cultural ambassadors," McKenzie said. "You're not just on tour, you're representing your country."
While it was Russian culture that initially brought ballet to the world, "Americans hold a certain amount of pride with adapting ballet to the 20th and 21st century," he said.
The new ballet "Troika" was choreographed by Benjamin Millepied, who choreographed the ballet scenes in the Oscar-winning best movie "Black Swan" starring Natalie Portman, who is expecting their child.
The piece found an appreciative audience Tuesday. "The classical elements are used in a very innovative way, very unexpected," said Maxim Kachilin, a ballet regular. "It is a kind of a merger of the past into the present."
Three men dance the "Troika," accompanied by a lone cellist, Alexander Knyazev, on stage playing selections from Bach.
One of the dancers Tuesday was Sascha Radetsky, an American who spent a year in Moscow as a teenager studying at the Bolshoi Ballet school.
"So to finally come back and perform in the Bolshoi Theatre is a realization of a dream of mine since I was a little kid," Radetsky said following the afternoon rehearsal. "Even though this isn't THE Bolshoi Theatre, it still counts in my book."
The main Bolshoi Theatre, built in the early 19th century, has been closed for renovations since 2005. All performances are now held on the new stage, which opened next door in 2000.
As for Baryshnikov, even though he left ABT two decades ago, "his presence is felt everywhere still," Radetsky said. "He's the guy who all young male dancers especially look up to ... his tangible presence isn't there any more, we never see him, but his legacy still exists."
Baryshnikov was a principal dancer with ABT from 1974 to 1978, and its artistic director from 1980 to 1990.