Russian ballerina seeks refuge in Canada, citing threats

DEIRDRE KELLY

The Globe and Mail

Last updated Tuesday, Jan. 29 2013, 10:15 PM EST

As a special guess of the Canadian Ballet Theatre, Ruslan Skvortsov (L) and Svetlana Lunkina (R), from Bolshoi Ballet, play the Nutcracker Prince and The Sugar Plum Fairy during a practice of the Nutcracker at the Winter Garden Theatre, on Yonge St. (Fernando Morales /The Globe and Mail)

Leading Bolshoi ballerina Svetlana Lunkina declared on Tuesday that she is abandoning Russia for the sanctuary of Canada, a move reminiscent of the Cold War, when dancers routinely made headlines by defecting from the harsh political climate of the Soviet Union for greater personal and artistic freedoms in the West.

Ms. Lunkina, a principal dancer for the famous dance company, which was caught up in violence earlier this month when its leader was injured in an acid attack, told a Russian newspaper that she was receiving threats on a matter not related to the dance company.

The dancer already has ties to the country and its dance community.

“I’ve known of her a long time,” said Vanessa Harwood, a former leading National Ballet of Canada principal dancer. “It’s not conjecture that she’d like to settle in Canada; she’s already here.”

Sources close to the couple confirm that Ms. Lunkina and her producer husband, Vladislav Moskalev, have staked roots in Canada for several years.

Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show that, since 2010, they have owned a million-dollar home in Kleinburg, Ont., a wealthy community about an hour’s drive north-west of Toronto.

There, in October, they also registered a business, a dance school that appears to have never opened.

Their two children – a boy who is almost nine and a girl who will turn three in April – were born in this country, making them Canadian citizens.

Sources say Mr. Moskalev, 45, has had a Canadian passport for the past 20 years, and that Ms. Lunkina, 33, is a permanent resident.

Ms. Lunkina did not respond to a request for an interview.

She has work papers, says former National Ballet dancer Kevin Pugh, who has hired Ms. Lunkina to teach the advanced Level 5 class as part of the Dance Teq ballet program he operates at the Walter Carsen Centre in downtown Toronto.

Ms. Lunkina starts on Friday.

She taught the ballet class in late November when she subbed for Mr. Pugh after he fell ill.

Previously, she attended the class two to three times a week to take barre alongside some of Canada’s leading ballet dancers.

Mr. Pugh said he had no prior knowledge of her.

“I didn’t know that she was a principal dancer with the Bolshoi,” he said.

But she stood out. “Everyone was staring at her,” Mr. Pugh continued. “She has beautiful extension, and she’s lyrical and strong. She can turn. Everything about her was perfect – her placements, her legs. Her dancing speaks for her.”

Ms. Lunkina has also taken company class at the National Ballet and there is speculation in the dance community that she is in line to join the Toronto-based company.

“We let Ms. Lunkina take class at the company, as we do for visiting dancers as that is customary in ballet and a courtesy,” said company spokeswoman Catherine Chang, “but have no knowledge of her present situation or plans.”

Ms. Lunkina gave hints of what her plans might be in an interview published on Tuesday in the Russian newspaper Isvestia, in which she said she had fled to Canada fearing for her own future as a ballet dancer.

She said her e-mails and Facebook page have been hacked into, and that in Moscow – where the ethereal dancer, internationally celebrated for her flawless interpretation of Giselle, has been a star dancer since 1997 – she has faced blackmail.

“We need to react to these threats,” she said, explaining why she is taking a leave from the Bolshoi.

Her plight has become linked with that of her boss, the celebrated Bolshoi ballet chief Sergey Filin, who two weeks ago was disfigured when an assailant tossed acid into his face.

Mr. Filin pinned his persecution on the veiled backstage violence of the ballet world where the 42-year old artistic director was once an eminent dancer.

In Ms. Lunkina’s case, the alleged intimidation appears to stem from a dispute involving her husband and a business partner.

Ballerina Survivors

BWW Book Reviews: BALLERINA by Deirdre Kelly

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BALLERINA

by Deirdre Kelly 2013

Greystone Books: Vancouver, Toronto, Berkeley

Reviewed by Seyna Bruskin

Like Emma Livry!” cried Janine Charrat, a French dancer in 1961, as her costume caught fire. She survived, but Livry, one hundred years earlier, had not.

So begins “Ballerina,” a new book by Deirdre Kelly, who vividly describes the treatment of women in ballet from a historical perspective. Ms. Kelly examines the dance form’s roots as an amusement of kings (in France, in the 15th and 16th Century), to today’s amusement for anyone who can afford a ticket.

Ms. Kelly’s two main points are that while dancers have been treated with less than respect and kindness, they have maintained an illusion of poise, purity, daintiness and virtue since the days of Louis XIV, (who established what is now the Paris Opera Ballet), despite the harsh realities of their lives. The illusion often disguised hidden lives as courtesans or even prostitutes. As a result, the public image of dancers is justifiably divided.

One great XVIIth C ballerina, Marie-Madeleine Guimard, maintained a stellar career while building a fortune as part owner of a series of “Pornographic theaters” (Ms. Kelly never quite defines this, though she does detail some tawdry activities in theater boxes). Ballerinas at that time often juggled multiple lovers from business, clergy, and royalty who supported them. Since many originally came from great poverty, they often supported their families with these extra-curricular activities, many of which came to an end with the French Revolution.

One of the most well-known of all these dancers, nearly anonymous until now, was used in the 19th Century as a model by Edgar Degas in his paintings, and most famously, his statue, “The Little Dancer.” One casting is in our Metropolitan Museum. It is quite a coincidence that a new historical novel, “The Painted Girls,” by Cathy Marie Buchanan has just been published. It features the model for the sculpture, Marie van Goethem, who became a soloist in the Paris Opera Ballet and then vanished from historical record.

In the 20th century, the great choreographer, George Balanchine, was a benevolent dictator to many of his dancers, particularly in New York City Ballet. His taste in body type was taken as law by many dancers, who starved themselves or had plastic surgery to conform to Balanchine’s tastes. Ms. Kelly, who details some of the criticisms that have been leveled against Mr. Balanchine, feels that the dancers’ sacrifices went too far for their well-being. At least they didn’t set themselves on fire.

(First published at BroadwayWorld.com, January 14, 2013)

 

 

Deirdre Kelly Gives the Dirt on Ballerinas

Book review by Lauren Warnecke

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Last weekend I saw Les Miserables in the movie theater, and it was ironically appropriate given the book I was reading at the time: Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection by Deirdre Kelly. Les Mis theatrically reveals the squalor that was the French Revolution, a period in which ballet was undergoing a great deal of development.  Going to the ballet, at that time, was like going to the movies in ours. It was part of the social construct.

And…

… the lives of the dancers were pretty terrible.  In order to survive, professionally and financially, they were essentially working a second job as high-brow “ladies of the night” – playing with the hearts of the aristocrats to gain housing, a nice wardrobe, and higher professional standing.  Some did this willingly, and others did it to avoid the miserable (pun) life that was the working class in Paris in the 17- and 1800′s.

It was with apprehension that I started reading Ballerina, mostly because I had the inclination that Ms. Kelly and I disagree on a few points, and I already knew that the life of the early ballerina sucked.  Ballerinas’ lives sucked because everyone’s lives sucked.  I would have been a prostitute too if it meant getting to dance, staying off the street, and having pretty clothes, because the alternative was really, really (really) bad.

Kelly’s proclamation, in a sentence, is that ballet has changed since then.  Sure it has.  But is the ballerina’s life better due to the evolution of ballet, or simply because the human condition is better?  People are no longer dying of consumption and typhoid living by thousands in the streets of Paris, but being a dancer is, arguably, STILL really hard.

But I’ve already stated my opinions on this.

Ballerina makes a really good case that ballet has changed for the better – not just since the French Revolution, but in the past 20 years.  Our history is tainted with unfair administrations, poor working conditions, and blatant disregard for and destruction of the body that we claim is our instrument.  While I have to concede that brilliant and important strides have been made in the field, it’s not enough, and frankly, I don’t know that ever will be.

“Ballerinas will probably always have to endure pain and suffering to attain ecstasy, transcendence, intoxication, flow (or whatever other term describes such peak experiences).”

As far as I’m concerned, ballet may never change completely, and it doesn’t actually have to.  It’s ballet.  There’s something to be said about learning same dances and combinations just as they’ve been for hundreds of years.  What draws me to a ballet class is the feeling of grounding – the connection to the root of where all Western dance comes from – from the very first plié.

For anyone who watched Dance Moms last week, Holly made a pretty interesting point: Abby Lee Miller (a woman) is a tyrannical dictator who rules with an iron fist.  She teaches the way she was taught.  She does nothing to advance or change the field, and simply perpetuates the stereotype by reminding the general public that “everyone is replaceable”.  She does a good job carrying on every bad habit that dance has ever formed.  But… her dancers, given diplomacy, a nurturing environment, and a carpeted platform in the mall…. well… they weren’t as good.

So I’m torn.  On the one hand, ballet is ballet.  On the other, people are people, and people who chose ballet as their profession (or, as Deirdre Kelly suggests, ballet chooses them) should be offered the same working conditions, wages, and basic respect as baristas and receptionists.   The ballerina courtesan of the twenty-first century might not be filling the beds of aristocrats, but they are certainly filling their coffee cups.

Deirdre Kelly effectively opens the reader’s eyes to the fact that the ballet world is not, historically, the chaste and virtuous world we once imagined it to be.  Let us not continue to delude ourselves by thinking it’s changed to the point that 200 years from now someone else has to write the same shocking book about us, and on this point, Kelly and I agree:

“Motherhood, muscle building, and healthy weight gain are changes directly affecting the ballerina’s body, making it feel more in balance.  But ballet is not composed of just one body; it is also a social body, a tightly knit network of human relationships where imbalances have for a long time been allowed to proliferate unchecked.”

Deirdre Kelly

I think, in the end, we approach the same opinion from different sides of the coin.  Kelly claims that ballet is not perfect, but it’s changed; I claim that ballet has changed, but it’s not perfect. So maybe my glass is half empty and hers is half full, and I hope, in 20 years, Kelly’s next book is the one that proves me wrong.  Either way, Ballerina is a well-written, thought provoking, fun jaunt through ballet’s darker history.  It’s a great read for ballet enthusiasts and dancers, and, no doubt, eye-opening for all.

(First published January 13, 2012 on Art Intercepts, a dance publication based in Chicago.)