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Exceptions will clearly be made for Putin victims, opponents

For Russia’s dancers, opera singers, conductors, a cultural iron curtain slams down

As the West disconnects from Russia over Putin’s assault on Ukraine, a cultural boycott far more stringent than during the Cold War is falling into place

In this file photo taken on September 18, 2020, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev performs on stage with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra during the Summer Night Concert at Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria, on September 18, 2020. The Munich Philharmonic on March 1, 2022, said it was parting ways with star Russian conductor Valery Gergiev 'with immediate effect' after he failed to respond to a request to denounce Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. (Georg Hochmuth/Pool/AFP)
In this file photo taken on September 18, 2020, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev performs on stage with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra during the Summer Night Concert at Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria, on September 18, 2020. The Munich Philharmonic on March 1, 2022, said it was parting ways with star Russian conductor Valery Gergiev 'with immediate effect' after he failed to respond to a request to denounce Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. (Georg Hochmuth/Pool/AFP)

PARIS, France (AFP) — Even during the darkest days of the Cold War in the 20th century, Russian opera and ballet stars still came regularly to the West for performances.

But this time, things are different: a cultural boycott far more stringent is falling into place.

In barely a week, some of the world’s leading dancers, opera singers, and conductors have been stripped of their jobs in the West, their shows canceled and careers curtailed, in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Even at the height of the Cold War, cultural exchanges between Russian, American, and European artists continued. There were of course always tensions, but it was possible,” said Peter Gelb, director of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

“What’s happening today is different, it goes beyond the Cold War, it’s a real war,” he told AFP.

Gelb, who had been in Moscow to discuss a joint production with the Bolshoi just days before the invasion, knows what he is talking about.

In this file photo taken on February 13, 1990, Russian-born cellist and conductor Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich rehearses in Moscow. Even at the height of the Cold War, Russian artists, albeit under close scrutiny, performed regularly in the West. But with the war in Ukraine, Europe is not about to see companies like the Bolshoi again or a collection of the magnitude of the recent Morozov exhibition in Paris. (Pierre Verdy/AFP)

As a young talent agent representing the legendary Russian-American pianist Vladimir Horowitz, Gelb organized his client’s return to Soviet Russia as the country opened up in the 1980s.

Gelb also filmed the concert of Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich during his return in the same period.

Soft power

Ballet was a particular source of “soft power” for the Soviet Union, and tours to the West began in the 1950s — though always under tight surveillance by both their hosts and their KGB minders.

Some of those trips have gone down in history: the Bolshoi’s visit to London in 1956, or the first tour by the Kirov (later renamed the Mariinsky) to Paris in 1961, during which the legendary dancer Rudolph Nureyev defected.

The West sent its emissaries in the other direction: the American Ballet Theater performed for the first time in Moscow in 1960, followed two years later by the New York City Ballet, in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis.

After the collapse of the USSR, exchanges intensified, with star Russian dancers invited everywhere and even becoming lead members of companies in the West, such as Svetlana Zakharova, the “tsarina” of dance, who had principal dancer roles at both the Bolshoi and Scala in Milan.

Once unimaginable, an American, David Hallberg, became a principal dancer of the Bolshoi in 2011.

Suddenly, it has become unimaginable once again.

“In the current context of brutality against innocent citizens, there is no possibility of making exchanges like those during the Cold War,” said Gelb.

The Met has ceased its collaboration with the Bolshoi, and will boycott all pro-Putin artists, a decision also taken by the Paris Opera and many other venues around Europe.

The Bolshoi’s trip to London this summer has been canceled.

In this photo taken on Tuesday, June 11, 2019, the ballet director of the Bolshoi Theater, Makhar Vaziev, gestures as he conducts a rehearsal in the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, a former head of the Bolshoi who grew up in Kyiv, abandoned a new ballet he was putting together in Moscow and rushed back to his home in New York.

Laurent Hilaire, the French head of the Moscow Stanislavski Ballet, quit his post of five years.

Stars canceled

The wrath fell especially on two superstars seen as close to Putin.

In this file photo taken on September 22, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) presents a medal to then Mariinsky Theatre’s Artistic Director, Valery Gergiev, during an awarding ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow on September 22, 2016. (Ivan Sekretarev/Pool/AFP)

Conductor Valery Gergiev, considered among the greatest of his generation, was stripped of his role as head of the Munich Philharmonic, and declared persona non grata in many theatres and by his own agent.

And the soprano Anna Netrebko, international queen of opera, is canceling her performances at the Met.

In this file photo taken on February 21, 2020, Russian opera soprano singer Anna Netrebko performs during the 27th annual Victoires de la musique classique (Classical music award) ceremony at the Arsenal de Metz, in Metz. northeastern France. Netrebko said on March 1, 2022, she is taking a step back from performing, as controversy rages over her pro-Kremlin stance despite her condemnation of the war in Ukraine. (Christoph De Barry/AFP)

Laurent Bayle, former director-general of the Philharmonie de Paris, said it leaves little for these artists to do outside Russia, especially since China remains almost entirely closed off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They will remain in their own country,” he told AFP. “Three-quarters of their activity has been called into question.”

If the current war ends in a long-term occupation of Ukraine, “it is certain that no one will risk inviting Russian artists,” he added.

Exceptions will clearly be made for those who have themselves been victims of Putin’s regime or openly denounce it.

But state-backed institutions like the Bolshoi and Mariinsky are unlikely to get a pass.

“They have public funding and in the eyes of the world, talking about the Bolshoi and talking about the Russian state is the same thing,” said Bayle.

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