Prominent Russians: Igor Moiseev
“Everything I’ve done, I love.”
He lived through all the revolutions of the 20th century, played billiards with Russia’s famous poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, refused to join the Communist Party 18 times, became a choreographer at the Bolshoi Theater at the age of 24 and at 31 organized his own folk dance ensemble. In 1955 after the company’s performance in Paris, boots a-la Cossack became a hot fashion item among French women.
Born at the beginning of the last century, Igor Moiseyev became a legend in the world of dance. The feast of music and color he brought to the stage left none indifferent. Widely acclaimed as the greatest 20th century choreographer of folk dance, he invented a revolutionary synthesis of classical ballet and ethnic dance. However nothing in his background indicated such a future…
Igor Alexandrovich Moiseyev was born in 1906 in Kiev. His father, Alexander Mihailovich Moiseyev, whose aristocratic family had fallen on hard times, worked as a lawyer, spoke excellent French and was often in Paris. There he met Igor's mother, Anna Alexandrovna, who was half French, half Romanian and worked in fashion. Soon the young family moved to Kiev, where Igor’s father had a legal practice, and their first and only child was born. But the boy’s happy childhood was interrupted at an early age.
Igor's father, who described himself as an anarchist and saw all power as violence, was no friend of the Tsarist regime, and in 1909 he was arrested for inappropriate comments. Igor was three years old when his mother took him back to Paris and placed him in a French boarding house so she could return to Russia to plead her husband's cause.
Moiseyev remembered his life at school as “very hard.” He was the youngest and was always treated badly by the other children while the teachers didn’t make any allowances for his age. Once, little Igor was even locked up in a dark room alone. Luckily for Igor his father appealed successfully against his incarceration and the boy returned home.
But life in Kiev was expensive and the family moved to another town where his father’s sisters lived. His aunts were teachers. They taught Igor, who only spoke French, the Russian language. It was with them that he started visiting different places and villages in the area, gaining his first impressions of folk dance and peoples’ art. Fearing another arrest Igor’s father wanted to return to France, but the First World War intervened and in 1915 the family moved to Moscow.
Moiseyev’s father welcomed the revolution with great enthusiasm but it changed their lives forever. There was hardly enough money in the family so Igor’s father ceased practicing as a lawyer and instead taught French while his mother worked as seamstress to get by. Igor’s studies also finished – all the gymnasiums were shut down – and the boy spent whole days outdoors. To avoid “the boy hanging out in the streets” and falling under bad influences, Moiseyev’s father took his teenaged son to a private ballet studio run by Vera Mosolova, a former Bolshoi ballerina; a lesson with her cost 10 rubles and two wooden logs. However just a few months later she brought the 14-year-old boy to the prestigious Bolshoi Theater ballet school saying she had nothing more to teach him. The story that followed is worthy of a suspense novel.
The competition was huge and out of all the contenders only three were accepted to the school. Igor Moiseyev was among them.
In 1924, fresh out of the ballet school, the talented 18-year-old dancer was admitted to the troupe of the Bolshoi. That same year the theater was joined by Kasyan Goleizovsky, a famous choreographer who liked to experiment with form and content. It was in one of Kasyan Goleizovsky's experimental ballets that Moiseyev made his solo debut on the Bolshoi stage. However, Goleizovsky was disliked by many traditionalists at the theater and it was mainly the theater youth who were involved in his ballets. When Golieizovsky’s existence at the theater came under threat Moiseyev was among those who wrote to the director of the Bolshoi asking for Goleizovsky not to be replaced. The group was dismissed. But they did not give up and followed someone’s advice to speak to Anatoly Lunacharsky, then Commissar for Enlightenment. They managed to get a meeting with him and by chance it was Moiseyev who presented their cause. The ballet rebels gained his support – Lunacharsky also liked Goleizovsky – and the group was reinstated at the theater.
However, the new head of ballet, who used to like Moiseyev, took the case personally and the dancer now found himself under a cloud. Not only was Moiseyev not given any lead parts or solos, he wasn’t involved at all. His make-up kit stayed unopened for a year. He would come and train with everyone and then… he would be free. But he used his time wisely – reading books on art and, on Lunacharsky’s invitation, visiting his “Thursdays” (soirees) where the crème de la crème of Moscow’s artistic circles gathered. Here he met many outstanding people, such as famous Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. He also met the director of the Historic Museum and started using the museum library.
He returned to the stage by chance when the theater’s prima ballerina, Ekaterina Geltzer, chose him as her new partner to accompany her on tour around the Soviet Union.
However Moiseyev’s interests by then went far beyond pure dance. At the age of 24 Igor Moiseyev gave up dancing and became a choreographer.
His first choreography at the Bolshoi was “The Footballer” in 1930, and his last – “Spartacus” in 1954. After “The Footballer” he was allowed to make his own ballets at the Bolshoi– a unique case (usually dancers finish their dancing career before moving on to choreography).
His free time was devoted to roaming the Russian provinces. Traveling on foot or on horseback, he trekked across the country learning its traditions; all the local dances he observed in places such as Pamir, Belarus, Ukraine and the Caucasus, eventually made their way into the repertory of his own folk ensemble.
In the meantime his career took an unexpected turn – in the early 1930s he was the first to stage acrobatic parades on the Red Square. It started as a favor that Moiseyev afforded to a sports training college – he had agreed to choreograph their performance for the Red Square parade. The show was only seven minutes long – but it was noticed by Stalin. Prior to the next parade Moiseyev received a phone call: “You see, Comrade Stalin has asked why the Institute of Sports named after Stalin has not received any awards for three years in a row…”
When he was summoned to Lubyanka, where the headquarters of the most feared Soviet organization, the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB), resided - he feared he’d be arrested. Instead he was given a task – to stage another parade – this time for the team favored by Lavrenty Beria, the head of the NKVD. It was a polite request but one he could hardly refuse: “Dear Comrade Moiseyev,” he was told “if you need one hundred assistants, you’ll have them, if you ask for a hundred rubles, you’ll get them. But to refuse our organization… well, you understand…”
In the end Beria liked the parade and even thanked Moiseyev over the phone. Moiseyev described it in his memoirs: “I heard Beria’s dry and unfriendly voice: ‘Comrade Moiseyev, I thank you for a good performance.’ ”
However the idea of bringing folk dance to the professional stage never left his mind. Having acquired a reputation as a connoisseur of dance folklore he wrote to the government suggesting the creation of the Theater of Folk Art. In 1937 the first professional folk dance ensemble in the world was founded with Moiseyev in charge. The new company soon became known worldwide as the Moiseyev Ballet. In 1943 a professional school was added – quite an achievement, considering it was done in the middle of the WWII.
Moiseyev had a rule for his artists – they had to start every day at a ballet bar - wherever they were. Even during the war when they were evacuated from Moscow and traveled east in three train wagons – they rehearsed in carriages and performed en route.
Moiseyev’s professionalism allowed him to stay apolitical in a highly politicized society – more than once he was summoned to various Communist Party members’ offices to be asked again and again why he refused to join the Party. But as his performances were favored by Josef Stalin, no one dared touch the ensemble.
“From 1938 we danced at the Kremlin receptions about 10 to 12 times a year. Once after a concert I felt an arm on my shoulder – everyone went quiet. ‘So… how are things?’ – Stalin spoke to me. Was it my youth or ignorance but I didn’t feel any fear – thrill of course, but not fear. ‘Not too well, Iosif Vissarionovich,’ I said and complained that we didn’t have a place of our own. ‘The dance that you like so much was put together in a stairway.’
The next day Moiseyev was offered any place on the map of Moscow. Two months later the War started (WWII).
Throughout his life Igor Moiseyev choreographed about 300 performances. Moiseyev attributed his dancers’ virtuosity and versatility to their knowledge of classical ballet, which he described in an interview in 1970 as “the grammar of movement.” He believed that “with ballet technique as a base, one can do anything.”
The peak of Moiseyev’s popularity and the company’s international recognition came after World War II. Moiseyev’s dancers were the first Soviet artists to represent the Soviet Union abroad.
The New York Times critic John Martin wrote after seeing the troupe's acclaimed 1958 New York debut, "No folk ever danced like this."
Almost half a century later Britain’s The Guardian wrote, “This is a company that lives up to its hype as a national treasure, potently demonstrating the Russian genius for dance.”
All dances in the ensemble's repertory - bright and colorful fantasies - are based on genuine folklore: Russian, Spanish, Polish, Argentinean, Bulgarian, Mexican, Venezuelan, Hungarian, Mongol, Czech, Slovak, Japanese, Vietnamese and, of course, numerous Russian ethnic groups.
But Moiseyev didn't just copy folk dances; he studied the region or nation's music, history, traditions and customs and then selected the details that most vividly reflected their character and created his own unique theatrical interpretation. Very often, people from other countries were astounded at how sensitively he captured their culture.
Once, he visited Belarus at harvest time and heard a song sung by a group of women heading into the fields. Later Moiseyev turned the song into a dance called Bulba ("Potato"). When he returned to Belarus 15 years later – his Bulba was danced everywhere. However Belarusians claimed it had always been their national dance.
"Bringing various peoples closer together is the bottom line of our efforts," Moiseyev used to say. And so it was - even in times of ideological confrontation between the West and the East.
After the company’s performance in Paris in 1955, French fashionistas started wearing high boots and hats a-la Cossacks from Kuban, Russia’s southern region. In 1971 Moiseyev’s company became the first and only folk ensemble to ever dance on the stage of the Paris Grand Opera.
“After a performance in 1958 in New York, a beautiful well dressed middle aged woman came up to me asked for permission to kiss my hand. When she did so I asked for her name. She said: ‘My name is Marlene Dietrich.’”
In the early ’60s his dancers amused American audiences by performing the Virginia Reel and a parody of rock’n’roll. Although back in the Soviet Union rock’n’roll had been forbidden as it was considered “bourgeois.”
Italians called Moiseyev’s Tarantella a true renaissance of their dance. The Aragonese Jota, a Spanish folk dance, earned Moiseyev The Order of Civil Merit conferred on him by Spanish King Juan Carlos II.
In 1996 Moiseyev wrote in his memoirs: “It’s easier to make a (travel) guidebook out of my life than a biography. Eight months out of twelve our company would spend touring the world. We’ve been to 60 countries –many of them more than 10 times.”
Moiseyev is a cavalier of other prestigious medals from different European countries, a laureate of the American “Oscar” for dance and an honorable member of the French National Assembly. Moiseyev’s 95th birthday was marked with the UNESCO Mozart Medal for outstanding contribution to world music culture.
Despite his numerous refusals to join the Communist Party, Moiseyev was treated kindly at home too: he is People’s Artist of the USSR, a laureate of the Order of Lenin and numerous other state awards. On the day of his centenary, Moiseyev became the first Russian to receive the Order for the Merit before the Fatherland, 1st class — the highest civilian decoration of the Russian Federation. But of the numerous national and international awards conferred on Igor Moiseyev during his life-long career, the Order Of People's Friendship was said to be especially dear to him.
He died in Moscow in 2007 – two months short of his 102nd birthday – but his legacy created with all his love lives on – on stage and in people’s hearts.
Written by Darya Pushkova, RT correspondent