Army Beckons for Boys of the Bolshoi
It survived the revolution. It shrugged off the Cold War defections of some of its biggest stars. It emerged unscathed from the Soviet repression of the performing arts.Yet Russian ballet today is facing perhaps the biggest threat of its 300-year history thanks to planned government legislation that would force young male dancers into the army for the first time.The move has prompted an unprecedented confrontation between the Kremlin and the country's most famous dance companies, the Bolshoi and the Kirov, who say that the bill will rob them of all their up-and-coming male dancers - forever.
"The passing of this law could spell the destruction of ballet in Russia," said Yekaterina Novikova, a spokesman for the Bolshoi. "A year in the army without practice would be hard on a musician, but for a ballet dancer it would be next to impossible to return."
Until now Russian dancers have been exempted from conscription thanks to a presidential decree allowing 800 "talented performers" to indefinitely defer their army service.
But that is about to change after the defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, introduced a legislative package to reform Russia's armed forces.Although conscripts will have to serve only one year instead of two from 2008, Mr Ivanov is determined to end deferments for other groups and to clamp down on the widespread practice of doctors issuing bogus sick notes, that result in a high proportion of eligible males - all those aged between 18 and 27 - missing the draft.
With the Duma due to debate the bill as early as next week, the ballet community has frantically been trying to make its case for continued dispensation.
"It is important to understand the specifics of ballet," said Makhar Vaziev, the artistic director of the Kirov. "Dancers have to rehearse for several hours a day. It's the only way to ensure compliance with the gruelling standards of modern ballet."
Mr Ivanov has remained unmoved. The minister's approach would no doubt surprise even his most hardline Communist predecessors.Even during the decades of Soviet rule the Kremlin regarded ballet as a sacred art. It was a recognition that, of all the performing arts, ballet was what made Russia justifiably famous around the world.Ballet lovers in Russia and the West revelled in the performances of Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. It would have been unthinkable for either to be forced into the military.But it is a fate that a new generation of potential stars such as Denis Savin, a member of the Bolshoi's corps, is unlikely to avoid.The 22-year-old is just beginning to reap the dividends of more than a decade of rigorous training. With several solo parts and a nomination for Russia's most prestigious dance award to his name, he is being tipped for great things.But if the new law is passed - and given the Duma's reputation for doing everything it is told by the Kremlin, it almost certainly will be - that hard work could be in vain."It takes eight years in the [Bolshoi] Academy, plus prior training, plus daily rehearsals after graduation to become a ballet dancer," he said."One year without practice, one year running in military boots, and your joints will turn back in. Without training, the kind of gait demanded by the aesthetics of ballet disappears in a month and takes years to recover."