MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian ballet troupes trying to wean themselves off the classic repertoire so loved by their countrymen and embrace the minimalism of modern dance, have embarked on an uphill battle.
Some dancers have strayed into modern waters by bringing in foreign choreographers and opting for contemporary pieces, while others remain of the firm belief that Russia should serve as the keeper of the classics.
"It won't happen immediately, (going modern) is a slow process," said Spain's Nacho Duato, who started as chief choreographer of the Mikhailovsky Theater in imperial capital Saint Petersburg on January 1.
Ambitious to renovate Russian ballet, the Mikhailovsky took a risk with Duato: he is the first foreigner to be hired as a choreographer for a leading Russian ballet troupe since the Bolshevik revolution almost a century ago.
"The dancers at Mikhailovsky are talented and learn fast, they just needed someone to tell them they could move freely, that it is okay to express their personality in dance," Duato, 54, told Reuters in an interview.
Duato won over the local audience when he visited Moscow's Bolshoi Theater with his Spanish company last year.
But his relationship with Russia will be put to a new test on March 15 with the world premiere of Nunc Dimittis at the Mikhailovsky, when Russian dancers will perform their first modern dance under Duato's command.
A one-act ballet set to music by contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Part, Duato has said Nunc Dimittis has "no characters as such."
World-renowned French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj said that despite Russian ballet's ties to tradition, Duato's goal could be realistic.
"Dance in Russia... is much more open than we think it is. There are more innovative projects coming out," Preljocaj told Reuters on his visit to the Bolshoi.
"Reflections," a joint Russian-American production created by nine choreographers including Duato, received a mixed response when it premiered at the Bolshoi in January to a sold-out audience.
"It got a stiffer response in Russia than in the U.S.," said Bolshoi dancer Natalia Osipova, who performed in "Reflections."
"People are still suspicious of modern dance here," Osipova, often dubbed 'the world's prima', told Reuters.
Russian audiences, brought up on classics such as Swan Lake and Giselle, have become more open to modern choreography since the country started to host foreign troupes in the 1970s.
But when it comes to their own -- they prefer Russian dancers to stay old-fashioned.
"The classics are an irresistible brand. They sold well for decades, so why give it up?" asked Yan Godovsky, a leading soloist at the Bolshoi in his 18th season.
"Foreigners want to be sure that when they attend a Russian performance, they will see solid classical pas and lifts. They don't want Russian troupes to surprise them with contemporary productions, which American dance companies can easily do."
Godovsky compared Russian ballet to Soviet science, and said Russia has a habit of keeping the young away, which can put a damper on change.
"We don't let young choreographers experiment on a big stage," said Godovsky.
But unlike Russian scientific institutions, which lost the bulk of their state funding and prestige since the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, Russian ballet schools have gained in global influence.
Foreign students flood Russian ballet schools attracted by the prestige, history, and relatively cheap tuition fees.
A year at the famed Moscow State Academy of Choreography, which is affiliated with the Bolshoi, costs a student $1,500 compared to some $30,000 at London's Royal Ballet School.
Perhaps, muses Preljocaj, this will usher in an era of change. "Dancers brought up in Russian schools are very broad-minded. They don't divide dance into parts that are only classic or only modern... it is always combined for something original." (Reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya; editing by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Paul Casciato)