Obituary: Igor Belsky

IGOR BELSKY was an outstanding dancer who became one of the leading choreographers of Soviet ballet in the 1960s and 1970s and the artistic director of the Kirov Ballet for four years. As a choreographer he made a particularly big impression with his first two pieces: The Coast of Hope (1959) and Leningrad Symphony (1961). These were viewed as highly original in the way they forged a new classical language and dealt with modern themes and music.

He was born in 1925 in Leningrad, the son of well-known vaudeville dancers, and entered the Leningrad Choreographic School (now the Vaganova Ballet Academy), which has traditionally supplied dancers to the Kirov Ballet. Here he learnt character dancing under one of its greatest exponents, Andrei Lopukhov.

In 1942 he joined the Kirov before graduating from the school because of the short supply of male dancers during the war. (Later he married the fellow Kirov dancer Lyudmila Alekseeva.) His official debut was the following year, dancing the chief warrior in the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor. This ensured his future career as a leading character dancer.

He did not fit the category of classical princes, but neither did he restrict himself to character or national dance. Possessing a colossal stage personality and extraordinary acting gifts (refined at the State Institute for Theatrical Art in 1957), he sought roles requiring strong characterisation. He was acclaimed as Shuraleh, a sylvan devil half-man, half-tree, from Tartar folklore, in the ballet of that name re- created by Leonid Yakobson in 1950. He also made an enormous mark in the important role of the Negro Mako in Konstantin Sergeyev's The Path of Thunder, premiered in 1958.

In 1959, still in the midst of a dancing career, he choreographed his first major work for the Kirov, the two-act The Coast of Hope, using a scenario by Yuri Slonimsky and a score by the Leningrad composer Andrei Petrov. It was an immediate success and singled him out from other choreographers in Soviet ballet. Here was someone who from the very start was boldly addressing contemporary subjects, whereas peers such as Yuri Grigorovich preferred to look for fresh elements in the fairy-tales and folklore traditional to ballet.

The idiom of The Coast of Hope was equally exceptional. It was conceived as a dance poem rather than as storytelling in dance, and Slonimsky and Belsky presented a narrative simple and clear enough to dispense with elaborate programme notes. Gone was the conventional clutter of heavily built props; the dancing shared the stage only with a blue cyclorama and two large sails fluttering in the breeze.

Yet Belsky's choreography left no doubt he was presenting the young Soviet folk of a fishing village. He incorporated visual metaphors and concepts into his choreographic language; work gestures such as bending over imaginary oars or dragging nets were transformed into an integral part of the dance. He used seagulls, embodied by the darting corps de ballet, as an important symbolic image. These had their own musical theme and represented the notions of strength of spirit, freedom and the motherland.

Such heroic Soviet themes imbued other works by him. The one-act Leningrad Symphony (1961) was an innovation for the Kirov Ballet, a powerful evocation of the Soviet struggle for freedom against fascism, the Nazi invaders shown as universal, anonymous oppressors in horned helmets. It was set to the first movement of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, dedicated to Leningrad during the 900 difficult days of the blockade during the Second World War, and Yuri Solovyov and Alla Sizova performed the central roles.

Belsky retired as a dancer with the Kirov soon after becoming chief choreographer of Leningrad's Maly Theatre Opera and Ballet in 1962. He choreographed new versions of The Hump-Backed Horse in 1963 (to a new score by Rodion Shchedrin), Swan Lake in 1965 and The Nutcracker in 1969. He also made Eleventh Symphony (1966), again to Shostakovich, and The Gadfly (1967), to music by Mikhail Chernov. But none matched his two early triumphs. Perhaps one reason was that the Maly tended to favour lyrical-comedy ballets, while Belsky was more comfortable working on epic themes.

In 1973 he was appointed artistic director of the Kirov Ballet and choreographed Icarus in 1974 to a score by Sergei Slonimsky, with Irina Kolpakova and Yuri Solovyov dancing. He left the Kirov in 1977 to head the Cairo Ballet for a year. In 1979 he became chief ballet master at the Leningrad Music Hall and in his last years was the artistic director of the Vaganova Ballet Academy, where he had trained and in the 1940s taught character dance.

As a student there he had gained a reputation for boisterousness and mischief. Meeting him a few years ago, though, I saw a dignified man with an elegant cane and wonderful old-world courtesy.

Nadine Meisner

Igor Dmitrievich Belsky, ballet dancer, choreographer and director: born Leningrad 28 March 1925; artist, Kirov Ballet 1943-63; chief choreographer, Maly Theatre 1962-73; Artistic Director, Kirov Ballet 1973-77; Artistic Director, Cairo Ballet 1977-78; married Lyudmila Alekseeva; died St Petersburg 3 July 1999.