Russian ballerina quits the Bolshoi over war in Ukraine

Olga Smirnova, a star of the internationally renowned Moscow-based Bolshoi Ballet decided to follow her conscience and quit when her country invaded the neighbouring Ukraine.

“I had to follow my conscience,” said Olga Smirnova about her decision to quit the world-famous Bolshoi Ballet.

Now 30, Smirnova was recruited into the Bolshoi immediately after graduating from ballet school in 2011. Her career progressed quickly, and she became the ballet’s prima ballerina in 2016.

Her country’s invasion of Ukraine was a shock to her, but she hoped the war would end soon. When it did not Smirnova could not stop thinking about the millions of people displaced by the conflict. Before the war had lasted a week she posted on Telegram how she felt about the situation: “I am against the war with all my soul. I never believed I could be ashamed of Russia.”

She left Moscow and travelled to Dubai to treat an injury. After that, she applied to join the Dutch National Ballet. She said that only its artistic director, Ted Brandsen, and her husband, knew of her decision to do it.

Smirnova said that her parents, who remain in Russia, were shocked by her decision. “For them, it's still not really acceptable that I left the country and left the Bolshoi."

As for her colleagues, she said that there was barely any reaction from them. She said that she feels she lost almost all contact with the other members of Bolshoi, and does not know what they think about the war. She can only speculate. “Maybe they didn't understand my decision. Maybe they are just protecting themselves from the truth... just thinking ‘I'm a dancer, I am far from these political things.’”

“History changes, but the Bolshoi stays,” said Smirnova, and expressed concern for her former colleagues’ careers, in spite of not being in touch with them anymore. “For the Bolshoi 20 years is nothing, but for a dancer, it's their whole life.”

Not a splendid isolation

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has made it increasingly isolated on the international stage, and this affected artists as well. All Bolshoi scheduled tours have been cancelled. “Now the Bolshoi is also isolated from the world,” said Smirnova, and adds “I had an amazing 10 years working at the Bolshoi, because the best choreographers in the world could come to the stage, to create original ballets.” Now choreographers, who have previously collaborated with the Bolshoi, asked it to suspend the performance rights of their ballets. The prima ballerina fears that Russian dancers are losing a chance to “discover new worlds”. She herself and her generation were lucky to work with great choreographers from around the World, such as Americans John Neumeier and William Forsythe, France's Pierre Lacotte, or Britain's Christopher Wheeldon.

Ms Smirnova says that she had been welcomed very warmly by the Dutch and that she is slowly beginning to feel at home in Amsterdam. She already had a chance to perform, when in April the Dutch National Ballet staged “Raymonda”, a classical ballet in which she played the part of titular. She was very glad to begin dancing again. She said it “saved me from too much thinking,” and made her feel normal again, back to doing what has been her life for so long. Now she is trying to focus on the future, and hopes that one day she will achieve her dream of dancing on the stage of the Paris Opera.