Igor Moiseyev, 101; elevated folk dancing into a theatrical art

Times Staff Writer

Igor Moiseyev, the ballet-trained dancer and choreographer whose pioneering vision of theatricalized folk dance not only created an acclaimed Russian company but influenced artists and audiences around the world, has died. He was 101.

A proud, ambitious man who once said the aim in his work was “to give the public a spiritual portrait of a people,” Moiseyev died Friday in a Moscow hospital. He had been in poor health in recent years and was rarely seen in public. Looking frail, he did appear at a Moscow performance celebrating his centennial last year. For the last three days, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported, he had been unconscious.

Moiseyev virtually invented folk dancing as a professional stage spectacle, insisting that he had both a right and a duty to change a participatory endeavor to a serious choreographic idiom worthy of standing beside classical ballet and modern dance.

“Folklore in the strictest sense is confining,” he told Times music and dance critic Martin Bernheimer in 1970. “I never was interested in that. I merely take the folk dance and its related customs as a point of departure for fanciful interpretation.


“My dancers are classically trained at our own school,” he said. “The choreography I give them would defeat the amateurs they are called upon to impersonate.”

The Moiseyev company’s success led to copycat ventures in Russia and abroad, troupes that filtered national idioms through the prism of ballet, modern dance or contemporary show-dancing, emerging with impressions of folk culture more than actual transcriptions or adaptations.

Few of them, however, matched Moiseyev’s “Partisans,” in which a smattering of folklore and an abundance of choreographic imagination produced a stirring tribute to the guerrilla fighters who defended his homeland during World War II.

But the same formula could also generate blatant kitsch, such as his “Yurochka,” in which an indecisive womanizer wooed six finger-in-the-cheek village maids, or his “Night on Bald Mountain,” which descended to coarse comic mime and then sank even further to pseudo-demonic dance-charades of no choreographic distinction.


Like many of his imitators, Moiseyev may have brought a new audience to folklore by harnessing it to existing theatrical dance traditions. But some of those traditions were artistically bankrupt long before he adopted them, and they gained no credibility from their new context.

Igor Aleksandrovich Moiseyev was born on Jan. 21, 1906, in Kiev, the capital of what is now Ukraine, to a lawyer father and a mother of French origins.

He lived in Paris from ages 4 to 6, then moved back to Russia, where he saw his first ballet at age 13 in Moscow. Either that year or the year before, he started ballet studies, first privately, then at the Bolshoi Ballet School, where he became a pupil of ballet reformer Alexander Gorsky. He also studied at the Moscow School of Choreography.

He graduated from the Bolshoi school in 1924, joined the company and danced leading roles in ballets such as “Joseph the Beautiful” (1925) and his own first major work, “Salammbo” (1932), to music by Andrei Arends that had previously been choreographed by Gorsky. He also formed a partnership with leading Bolshoi ballerina Ekaterina Geltser.

His choreographic association with the Bolshoi continued long after he left the company in 1939, most notably with a 1958 version of “Spartacus” to music by Aram Khachaturian (not the choreography the Bolshoi currently performs). But he felt restricted by that company’s aesthetic throughout his career there. “I left without regret,” he told Bernheimer. “The Bolshoi is very beautiful, but I have managed to survive quite adequately without ‘Swan Lake.’ ”

In 1936, Moiseyev was asked to head the choreographic department of a new Theater of Folk Art in Moscow, and he soon helped organize a nationwide folk dance festival. At a program of works from all parts of the country, he formed the plan of creating a professional company dedicated to folk dancing, edited and adapted for the stage.

In 1937, the State Folk Dance Ensemble -- soon also known as the Moiseyev Dance Company -- was founded with the participation of 35 dancers, most of them amateurs. Moiseyev had to train them and also re-choreograph the Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Byelorussian, Armenian, Kazakh, Azerbaijani and Moldavian folk dances that were seen for the first time in Moscow’s Hall of Columns. Other regional specialties were soon added.

At the time, his creative objectives included “perfecting” traditional ethnic dances using the aesthetic principles and technical disciplines he had gained from classical ballet.


His success in achieving this goal proved not only a major reason for the growing popularity of his company with audiences unfamiliar with his source-idioms but also, much later, for controversy over the extent to which he had adulterated them. “We are not a folklore collective,” he always insisted. “We are a creative collective.”

By 1941, the company had 70 professional dancers trained under Moiseyev’s supervision at either the Bolshoi Theatre School or its National Dance Department. It continued to expand and began to tour internationally after World War II ended -- the first major Russian company to do so -- visiting England and France in 1955 and making its American debut three years later.

One of the chilliest junctures in the Cold War found Moiseyev playing goodwill ambassador, wooing the U.S. public in 1958 with his company’s energy and professionalism but also with prime Americana -- the Virginia Reel -- danced as a finale year after year. “No folk ever danced like this,” New York Times dance critic John Martin wrote admiringly after the company’s debut, and he was right in more ways than one.

In 1966, Moiseyev founded a smaller company, the Concert Dance Ensemble, to develop talented young artists. Along the way, he picked up the Lenin Prize, the Stalin Prize and the State Prize and was officially named People’s Artist of the USSR (1953) and Hero of Socialist Labor (1976).

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought him greater creative freedom but also new financial realities. “The government supports the company, pays monthly salaries and pays for our studios,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2002. “But it isn’t enough to cover all our expenses.” Another important upside: “Now we can decide what to do with the money we can earn from our performances.”

More than once, Moiseyev attributed his longevity to staying busy and productive. “Follow a healthy routine with uninterrupted creative work,” he advised in the same 2002 interview. “The most important thing in life is to do what you love.”

Survivors include his second wife, Irina Alekseevna Chagadaeva. A funeral is planned for Wednesday in Moscow.



The Associated Press contributed to this report.