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De Volkskrant, Netherlands

Colleagues from Russia call her a traitor. "On the contrary, my country betrayed us," says former Bolshoi Theater performer Olga Smirnova

24.06.2022

The star dancer spoke out against the war, which resulted in her having to leave Russia. Now she will be performing choreography by Hans van Manen at the Dutch Festival and is happy to “have been so wonderfully received here".

Olga enters the foyer of the Dutch National Opera with a bouquet of blooming chives that her friend gave her. "What a wonderful smell! She grows it right on her balcony, it's so pretty." A few days later, after intense rehearsals, she shows a picture on her phone: purple flower buds in her apartment among fresh tulips. Prima ballerina Olga Smirnova adores flowers, even her training costume is decorated in a floral theme and her fans in Moscow also recognise this as a key part of her personality and style.

After unbelievable performances at the Bolshoi Theater, she was invariably showered with bouquets.

"In Russia, we get applauded and bow in front of the stage curtain, then we take the flowers and leave. This is repeated as long as people keep clapping. We competed with each other to see who could get five curtains."


Olga Smirnova rehearsing a choreography by Hans van Manen with James Stout at the Dutch National Opera and Ballet.

However, this Russian adoration ended exactly three months ago with Olga's March 1 post on her Telegram channel triggering the start of a very different narrative.

Smirnova, who was born in St. Petersburg, said she was deeply ashamed of her homeland's aggression and openly opposed the war in Ukraine.

Her message quickly spread on social media.

The star dancer, who had only recently been adored and called "Supernova," was forced to pack her bags - and within a week, Olga was already sitting at a table discussing a one-year contract with the artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet (HNB), Ted Brandsen.

In April, her debut in the Netherlands in the title role in "Raymonda" was rewarded with a standing ovation, as a soloist’s performance should be.

"Here the audience stands up when they applaud, in Russia they don't."

All noted Smirnova's impeccable technique, straight back, flowing lines and the upward-facing strength of her chiseled figure.

"Every inch of her body breathes ballet," as fellow soloist Remi Wertmaier described her talent.


Soloists of the Dutch National Ballet Olga Smirnova and James Stout during a rehearsal of "Trois Gnoissiennes" (1982) by choreographer Hans van Manen

Smirnova and her husband, an investment banker, now live near the Dutch National Ballet. She knows she will be dancing lead roles in Amsterdam next season, for example, in such classical ballets as "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty."

As long as Putin remains in power, a return to Moscow is not an option.

"Only three dancers from the Bolshoi Theater sent me words of support. The rest, apparently, do not share my point of view or simply decided to ignore my departure."

There have been angry reactions on Instagram from Russians who consider Smirnova a traitor.

"I intentionally leave angry messages. This is history. I follow my conscience and feel the opposite: my country betrayed us."

Her father and mother don't understand her choices either.

"They only hear what the Kremlin wants, and they still think the Bolshoi Theater is the best place in the world for me," Olga says. Her older sister and younger brother do not speak English and have no international connections that would help them start a new life elsewhere.

According to Smirnova, Bolshoi dancers still perform in front of audiences as if everything were fine, but they are becoming increasingly isolated. Foreign audiences are being left out, the international exchange is increasingly dying. Four dancers from the Mariinsky Ballet, for example, who were invited to perform at the Hans van Manen Festival in Holland this month, have had their invitations withdrawn. Olga regrets that Russian dancers are victims of sanctions.

"Ballet, by definition, is a cross-border art form. Dancers are rarely nationalists, they are cosmopolitans. However, nothing else can be done. Those who remain silent by default are a passive part of the aggression."

Smirnova sees a great future for herself at HNB: "I have been so wonderfully accepted here. And I'm already discussing next year's performance schedule with the artistic director. I also have invitations from abroad, which I gladly accept. And here at HNB, that's taken into consideration, too."

Choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot has invited Smirnova to perform in Monte Carlo, and she can be seen at La Scala in Milan at the invitation of Manuel Legris, a former Paris Opera star dancer. She is also discussing with Paul Lightfoot, former artistic director of the Nederlands Dans Theater, the possibility of participating in a charity gala for the benefit of victims in Ukraine.

"At the Bolshoi Theater, I was usually kept waiting on decisions for so long that it was often too late to accept invitations."

Although Olga receives many invitations from other countries, the National Ballet of the Netherlands has become her new home. For example, she has already begun an online course in Dutch and is rehearsing five new productions by the great master Hans van Manen in honor of his approaching 90th birthday for performances in four programs at the Dutch Festival.

Van Manen's work was perhaps the most important reason for HNB's choice. Her idol, Diana Vishneva, prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Ballet, advised Smirnova to look closely at his style so she could continue to grow as a ballerina.

"The tension in the dance is completely different. It's readable in the movement of the body, in the posture, and in the interaction and relationship between the dancers and the music. I need to learn to move more freely."


Soloists of the Dutch National Ballet Olga Smirnova and James Stout during a rehearsal of "Trois Gnoissiennes" (1982) by choreographer Hans van Manen

The dedicated attitude Olga takes to her work is shown by her intense concentration during rehearsals under the direction of the choreographer Larissa Lezhnina, a fellow soloist with the Dutch National Ballet and from St. Petersburg. Working with Larissa is another reason Smirnova chose Amsterdam. Whilst the Russian pianist Olga Khozyainova is performing one of Eric Satis's Gnossiennes in the studio, Lezhnina says something to Smirnova in Russian.

The pianist translates: "Van Manen's genius lies in his simplicity. Move simply, relax your neck muscles. Pay attention to where your gaze is directed, make it easy."

Then, after repeated splits, pirouettes, and lifts, the compliment follows: "Yes! Now the tension comes not from the muscles, but from within!"

Van Manen himself only met Olga once in the studio, however "He immediately made a pointed remark: 'You dance too much alone.' So now I pay more attention to my partner, to his every move."

And straight as an arrow, "Supernova" rushes into the arms of her partner, first soloist James Stout, to begin her perfect spin.

Article by: deVolkskrant

Photos: Renée de Groot

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