Anna Zheng
Mariinsky Ballerina Dances to Save the Real Swan Lake, 2021
New Haven

Standing en pointe on the frozen snow-covered ice, Ilmira Bagautdinova arches her back and extends her elegant swan arms towards the vast horizon. She flutters her hands, gazes at the ice, then to the sky, in full control. Her assertive movements contrast from the typical heartbroken Odette we see that loses her Prince. Here she is the heroine helping to save all the swans in the bay.

The ballerina present is a current dancer with Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg. She endures the frigid temperatures donning her white tutu and pointe shoes, performing to the music of White Swan’s entrance in the classical ballet Swan Lake. Here she is protesting the construction of a port in Batereinaya Bay, a beach about 100 km west of St. Petersburg, Russia, and hopes to rewrite the tragic ending of the famed ballet into a happy one. Born into a family of ballet dancers who were soloists at the Kirov Theatre before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bagautdinova graduated from the prestigious Vaganova Ballet Academy in 1999. She is known for the delicate lightness of her movement, subtle lines, and the immaculate technique and praised for her performances of Giselle, Odette, Masha, and Aurora onstage. However, in February, instead of gracing the Mariinsky Stage, she was on the frozen Gulf of Finland, hoping to save the real swans that live in the bay. She invokes feelings of strength and determination, willing to sacrifice comfort to save these sacred lands.  As the ballerina explains in one of her Facebook posts accompanying the video: “A unique natural and historical place where swans nest in spring, families with children rest in summer, hundreds of fishermen go out on the ice in winter, and the forest has trails for quad bikes and skiers. Nature in harmony with people. All of this is at risk of extinction.” According to Russia’s TASS news agency, the Baltic Grain Terminal company, which received the lease of the land for the 10 years without a public tender,[1] planned to start building a $35B rouble ($477M USD) terminal on Bataringaya Bay last year. The threat of turning these waters into an industrial port had been looming since May 2020, and hundreds of protesters gathered at the area months earlier to express their concern for the development of the bay into an industrial zone. Had the construction proceeded, hundreds of hectares of pine forest would be cut down, and the highest dune in the Leningrad region would be destroyed. While locals understood that the region was in need of new jobs and infrastructure investments, in the online petition they issued they argued that citizens still needed resting places, clean water, and natural habitat for animals. Bagautdinova bravely took on this artful protest in hopes of stopping construction of this port, posting the video online, her solo to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.[2] Additionally, she urged viewers to sign the petition that was addressed directly to President Vladimir Putin.

With the Mariinsky ballerina’s help, the protest garnered more media attention both domestically and internationally. She was most recently seen speaking at the International Forum of Ecology to support this protest, in which she described as an “unusual role for her” while being hailed as “nature’s most beautiful defender.” Had it not been for her support, protest against the construction of the port would not have garnered so much attention, nor prompted such a swift decision in stopping the development of the area.

Ballet in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe has undergone a remarkable change, from becoming nearly banned during the Bolshevik Revolution to becoming the symbol of Russia’s strength and beauty. During Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to Los Angeles in 1959, he proudly stated that “the best ballet is in the Soviet Union. It is our pride.” In particular, Swan Lake has stood out as a timeless classic, which has evolved from representing a symbol of change to a symbol of protest in the last decade. As the  Soviet Union was collapsing real time with the GKChP’s [The State Committee on the State of Emergency] attempted coup on August 19, 1991, all television channels were shut down,  and Swan Lake was played on loop instead for hours, distracting citizens from the turmoil. According to the Bolshoi Revolution: the Bolshoi Archives, “The appearance on their television screens of the great classic work was the standard harbinger of regime-changing news during the regular deaths of ailing Soviet leaders throughout the eighties.”[3]

Ironically, Swan Lake is now used as a symbol of protest against regime change, as seen through recent protests in Ukraine to protest Russian military intervention. In 2014, to protest the influx of Russian troops in Ukraine, ballet dancers performed excerpts of Swan Lake (Dance of the Cygnets) outside of the military history museum in Odessa. While regional lawmaker Oleksiy Honcharenko introduced the performance in front of Ukrainian television cameras, he proclaimed “for millions of Soviet people, televised performance of the world-renowned ballet ‘Swan Lake’ always signaled a change in the country’s leadership—either the death of the Secretary-General, or his ouster as a result of a coup.”[4]

            Ultimately, Bagautdinova’s captivating performance captured the attention of millions, going viral around the world. Her efforts were not in vain, as the government has since halted the construction of the industrial port in Battery Bay. Her protest, taken in one shot, showcased the beautiful frozen lake that the government threatens with destruction. As musician Demidov once stated, “Swan Lake is a conflict between dreaming and being, and how character is shaped through conflict.” For Bagautdinova, her dream turned into reality as she was able to grace the ice en pointe in the frigid cold in an artful protest to save the real swans inhabiting Battery Bay.

[1] https://www.dp.ru/a/2021/02/20/Protestujushhaja_protiv_zastr

[2] Interestingly, not too long after another Swan Lake protest performance–staged by a group of ballerinas–took place in France. In December 2019, twenty-seven ballerinas from the Paris Opera Ballet performed excerpts from Swan Lake to protest French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposition that would have ceased a special pension plan that allowed dancers to retire early. What seemed like thousands gathered in front of the Paris Opera House to watch as the dancers performed en pointe and in white tutus, with two banners behind reading ‘Opera de Paris Greve’ (Paris Opera on strike) and ‘La Culture en danger’ (Culture in danger). In the end, the French government withdrew its controversial pension plan, with pension reform continuing to be discussed and a topic of contention. (https://www.classicfm.com/composers/tchaikovsky/ballerinas-dance-protest-france-pension-reform/)

[3] http://activatica.org/actions/view/id/2133/title/narodnyy-shod-v-zashchitu-buhty-batareynoy-v-lenoblasti?fbclid=IwAR3OJen8WlWYdjGUYUnEj2DMrTUFVaQdPvUhPGjRjzQEP-PbjgIOeOLNXMU

[4] https://jessicamusic.blogspot.com/2014/05/cygnets-in-odessa.html