When Simon Morrison heard that ballerina Svetlana Lunkina had left Russia’s famed Bolshoi Ballet and was living outside of Toronto, he knew he wanted to figure out a way to bring her to Princeton. Mr. Morrison, a professor of music at Princeton University and a well-known authority on 20th century Russian and Soviet music and dance, approached Michael Cadden, who heads the University’s Lewis Center of the Arts.
“I talked with him and he immediately offered funding to bring her here,” Mr. Morrison said last week. “I thought it would be great to have the University community talk with her about her career. And we saw right away that she was a natural pedagogue.”
Ms. Lunkina agreed to travel to Princeton, staying here four days and teaching at both the University and the Princeton Ballet School. What was off limits, though, was any discussion of the bizarre situation at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. It was there that, last January, the Bolshoi Ballet’s artistic director Sergei Filin was attacked by someone who threw acid in his face.
Ms. Lunkina, whose husband Vladislav Moskalev is a producer of cultural events, left Russia with her family after receiving death threats. Whether there is a connection between those threats and the acid-throwing incident is something Ms. Lunkina was not willing to talk about, so it remained off the table both at the University and the ballet school.
“We stayed away from the topic,” said Douglas Martin, artistic director of the American Repertory Ballet company, which is affiliated with the Princeton Ballet School. “We didn’t want to burden her with asking about details.”
While students at both schools steered clear of the Bolshoi drama, there was plenty to observe, discuss, and learn. “We had a public discussion about her career,” said Mr. Morrison of Ms. Lunkina’s time at the University. “She taught Tina Fehlandt’s advanced dance seminar, and she was just a wonderful presence.”
When he spoke to Town Topics last Friday afternoon, Mr. Morrison recalled having breakfast in New York City with Ms. Lunkina that same morning. The night before, he had attended a gala performance to benefit the Youth America Grand Prix organization at Lincoln Center, and Ms. Lunkina had been among the stellar group of performers. “She’s the last Romantic ballerina,” he said of her solo from La Bayadere. “It’s a kind of dancing that’s really disappearing.”
Mr. Martin was enthusiastic about Ms. Lunkina’s visit to the Princeton Ballet School, where she not only taught but also took class with the dancers of American Repertory Ballet. Mr. Martin taught the class.
“This is someone who was considered the number one ballerina at the Bolshoi,” he said. “She lives an hour and a half outside of Toronto and she has small children, so it hasn’t been easy for her to get to class every day. Life is not normal for her right now. But here she was in class with us, this tiny, thin ballerina with all of the attributes Russian ballerinas have. She jumped at least as high, if not higher, than any of the men in class. Our mouths just dropped open.
“She was like a kid in a candy store, doing every combination [of movements] six or seven times. She wasn’t showing off, she was just thrilled to be working. She is special. She has the wonderment still left in her, a desire to get better. And it’s a beautiful thing to see.”
Mr. Morrison has been working on an article about the unrest at the Bolshoi Theater for some time and recently traveled to Moscow to do research. He has talked extensively with Ms. Lunkina, who after some persuasion agreed to give him exclusive interviews. Her husband has provided him with documents. The Bolshoi’s 200-member ballet company is only one arm of a huge operation, where there have been allegations of corruption in recent years over artistic policies, the $1 billion-plus renovation of the historic theater, and the way tickets are sold, among other things.
“One thing I have learned about this is that once you pull the lid off the story, there are so many layers,” Mr. Morrison said. “People have often said that the Bolshoi Theatre is a reflection of Russia. But it’s not. It’s a reflection of the absence of control of the governing of the theater, and of its history.”
For Mr. Martin’s students and ballet company members, having Ms. Lunkina in the studio for two days provided a rare opportunity. “They had exposure to a world class ballerina,” he said. “We have a lot of excellent dancers who have come through Princeton and either work or retire here, like Kyra Nichols from New York City Ballet and Kathleen Moore from American Ballet Theatre. But dancing is a very ephemeral thing. The students we have now don’t remember those dancers’ careers. But here is a 33-year-old ballerina from the Bolshoi, a huge celebrity. It’s so rare to have the chance to meet someone like this, go to dinner with them, talk to them. And in class, she imparted things that gave them a bit of a different perspective.”
At 33, Ms. Lunkina should be at the peak of her dancing career. She is teaching at a studio in Toronto, Mr. Morrison said, and she makes guest appearances such as the one in New York last week. But her future is uncertain.
“You’d think that ballet companies would jump at the opportunity to hire her, but it’s not that easy,” Mr. Martin said. “A lot of companies are set in who they have and what they present, including the National Ballet of Canada, which would be closest to her.”
In the meantime, he would love to have her return to Princeton. “We’re hopeful that as long as she stays in this part of the world, we can get her back,” Mr. Martin said. “That would be wonderful.”