MOSCOW — The American Ballet Theatre has returned to Moscow for the first time since the 1960s — and the first time since the defection of Mikhail Baryshnikov, who left Russia's famed Bolshoi to bring his luminous star power to the U.S. ballet company.
ABT opened a three-night run Tuesday on the new stage of the Bolshoi Theatre, the company Baryshnikov was touring with when he defected from the Soviet Union in 1974.
Artistic director Kevin McKenzie said the dancers certainly are feeling the pressure of performing in a country with such a rich ballet tradition.
"The performers are all very aware that this is an audience that knows what they're looking at," he said during a break in Tuesday's dress rehearsal. "They're very knowledgeable in ballet and have opinions, so yes they're on edge, as they should be."
What the U.S. company brings to Russian audiences is versatility and an ease with changing styles, McKenzie said.
The ABT program includes "Fancy Free," a Broadway musical-like ballet choreographed by Jerome Robbins to music by Leonard Bernstein, and two even more modern pieces, including the world premiere of "Troika," which is dedicated to Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich.
But the program begins with "Theme and Variations," a classic George Balanchine ballet with music by Tchaikovsky that harks back to the imperial Russian ballet of the 19th century. "Theme and Variations" was performed by ABT during its first appearance in Moscow in 1960, and again when it returned in 1966.
"Although ballet came from France, really it's the Russian culture that put ballet into the world," McKenzie said. "Americans hold a certain amount of pride with adapting ballet to the 20th and 21st century."
The new ballet "Troika" was choreographed by Benjamin Millepied, who choreographed the ballet scenes in the Oscar-winning best movie "Black Swan" starring Natalie Portman, who is expecting their child.
One of the three male dancers performing the ballet is Sascha Radetsky, an American who spent a year in Moscow as a teenager studying at the Bolshoi Ballet school.
"So to finally come back and perform in the Bolshoi Theatre is a realization of a dream of mine since I was a little kid," Radetsky said. "Even though this isn't THE Bolshoi Theatre, it still counts in my book."
The Bolshoi Theatre's early 19th century building has been closed for renovations since 2005. Performances are held on the new stage, which opened next door in 2000.
As for Baryshnikov, even though he left ABT two decades ago, "his presence is felt everywhere still," Radetsky said. "He's the guy who all young male dancers especially look up to ... his tangible presence isn't there any more, we never see him, but his legacy still exists."
Baryshnikov was a principal dancer with ABT from 1974 to 1978, and its artistic director from 1980 to 1990.