I’ve always been a huge fan of ballet. I stopped dancing in middle school (ballet really hurts, FYI) but even now, I occasionally catch myself watching snippets of Kirov Ballet’s Swan Lake on YouTube. It’s beautiful with a sprinkle of breathtaking.
If you live in the West, you probably know at least a handful of neighbors or friends who dance ballet, if you don’t already dance yourself. Ballet has become so common in the last few decades that it’s easy to ignore the fact that it had been Soviet propaganda way back when. It had been the one thing that Americans should have been afraid of, yet which they ended up adopting unquestioningly.
So the question is, how? After communism took over Russia in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, millions of Russians fled the state and sought refuge abroad. This included the more than 30,000 aristocrats and higher-ups who entered the USA. In their new home, they continued to dance ballet, and soon enough, they were able to mesmerize their American neighbors with their art.
American capitalist propaganda at the time included things like James Bond movies, which explicitly portrayed Soviets as enemies and communism as a sort of terminal disease. Compared to this, I’d say ballet was a much less forceful form of communication. Consequently, it was a much more effective piece of propaganda. I mean, I was born years after the end of the Cold War but I do love ballet, and I know many friends my age who do. But none of us have ever watched a single James Bond movie.
When you’re dancing ballet, everywhere in your body hurts so much that you’re left with no choice but to focus on how beautifully you are dancing at the moment.
The beauty of ballet, in my opinion, is in its sheer abstraction. Ballet is entirely non-verbal: light, effortless-looking movements of the body, flowing and pirouetting in time with the orchestra. Interpretation of ballet is almost completely up to the audience — in essence, it really has no meaning except the appreciation of beauty. (Yes, there are stories associated with it sometimes— Swan Lake, for one — but the plotlines are only really there to serve as glue to the many individual dancing numbers.)
The abstract, seemingly non-political quality of ballet allowed the art to be used as Soviet propaganda and simultaneously be danced by the very Soviet defectors residing in America, as well as by many Americans themselves. The art form held different meanings to different people but was held in high regard by all.
Now, you may be wondering, but how could ballet have been communist propaganda if it wasn’t political to begin with? Ballet doesn’t transmit any solid meaning. It doesn’t paint American businessmen in suits and hats as tentacled monsters, taking over the entirety of Europe and the Third World.
To be honest, I don’t really know, but I have an inkling. While capitalist America was all about running towards money and material, never letting your focus stray and never letting go, communist USSR was about repressing any dreams and hopes that you had. Despite all its dark undertones, communism may have had a part in helping the Soviet people to live in the present rather than obsess about the future (and dream about taking over the communist government).
When you’re dancing ballet, everywhere in your body hurts so much that you’re left with no choice but to focus on how beautifully you are dancing at the moment. (Think: Black Swan the film.) You can’t think about what you’ll have for dinner, or about the other dancers vying for your part, or about the possibility of slipping and hurting your hip and being forced to stop dancing forever — because then you’ll actually slip. Even if you’re the one watching ballet, though, it’s still the same thing. Ballet doesn’t make you think or feel too hard — since the dancers aren’t talking and there are no lyrics to the music, you’re essentially left with nothing to do except sit there in awe at the beauty.
Only by letting go can you truly dance; can you live.
While ballet most likely didn’t encourage any Americans to flee to the Soviet Union to escape the grasp of capitalism, it is still one of the world’s most popular dance forms because of how it truly embraces the present moment. Of course, if the government’s intention was to stop you from thinking about the future, you probably should be thinking about the future. But these days, some of us are thinking too hard and worrying too hard. Some of us — myself included — forget to live in the moment once in a while.
Anton Pankevich, a life-long dancer and a lecturer at Stanford, says, “The most difficult thing about ballet is letting go,” but I disagree. The most difficult thing about life is letting go: whether this takes the form of forgiving your dark past, setting free your anxieties, or stopping the thoughts of your annoying sibling from consuming your every brain cell. Ballet only reminds you that you need to let go. Only by letting go can you truly dance; can you live.
I’d say the Soviet propaganda worked, in the end. The world has yet to tip over irrevocably to the right, and for right now, ballet and classical music are continuing to preserve socialism — and with it, abstract art — in its purest form.
Information credits to AJ+ on YouTube: