Igor Moiseyev

Ballet dancer and choreographer who transformed the folk dances of Russia into a theatre art form

Igor Aleksandrovich Moiseyev, dancer, choreographer and director: born Kiev, Russian Empire 21 January 1906; Director, The Moiseyev Dance Company 1937-2007; twice married, first 1940 Tamara Zeifert (one daughter); died Moscow 2 November 2007.

Igor Moiseyev was remarkable for transforming the national dances of the Soviet Union into theatre art of the highest calibre, which he toured around the world. His company, the Moiseyev Dance Company, was the Soviet Union's first professional folk-dance troupe. It achieved great international success with programmes that merged folk tradition with Moiseyev's choreographic artistry and the performing skills of classically trained dancers.

Also notable was Moiseyev's energetic, innovative eminence in classical ballet, as a dancer and choreographer in the Bolshoi Ballet and as the founder in 1967 of another troupe, the Young Ballet. He continued to work into his late eighties, and died aged 101. Last year, on the day of his centenary, at a gala performance in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin awarded him the Order of Merit, the highest civilian honour of the Russian Federation.

Igor Moiseyev was born in Kiev in 1906, the only child of a Russian lawyer and French-Romanian seamstress. He lived in Paris until he was eight – he retained his fluent French – then moved to Moscow, where he began to study ballet with Vera Moslova. Aged 14, he was accepted into the Bolshoi Ballet School, graduating into the Bolshoi Ballet four years later in 1924.

During the 1920s and early 1930s, Moiseyev was part of the avant-garde that exploring new dance forms before being stifled by the Stalinist orthodoxy of Socialist Realism. He created the title role in Sergei Vasilenko's Joseph the Beautiful (1925). He danced leading parts in ballets by Kasyan Goleizovsky, the experimental choreographer who was an influential figure in the making of George Balanchine. He attended the literary salon of Anatoly Lunacharksy, the ballet connoisseur who, as a minister, had invited Isadora Duncan to start her school in Moscow.

Soon he was doing his own choreographic experimentation. He created several ballets for the Bolshoi: among them The Footballer (1930), which showed a gift for humorous satire, Salammbô (1932) and Three Fat Men (1935). His last ballet for the Bolshoi, premiered in 1958, was a version of Spartacus – their first – but it was not a success, receiving only nine performances.

By then, though, he had long moved on. In 1939, having displeased the authorities with his modernist attitudes and participation in an organised protest against the stifling of creativity, Moiseyev left the Bolshoi. Already, he had been staging acrobatic parades on Red Square, and in 1936, was appointed dance director of the Moscow Theatre of Folk Art. During his ethnographic travels on foot and horseback around the Caucasus and Urals, he became convinced that folk dancing needed a new life on stage. Whereas conventional folk dance is essentially a participatory activity, more interesting to do than watch, he wanted to create a theatrical form that would find its natural place before an audience.

Out of this emerged, in 1937, the State Academic Folk Dance Ensemble of the Soviet Union (simplified in the West as the Moiseyev Dance Company). The dancers were mostly amateurs, but were gradually replaced by others trained in the affiliated school, which continues to this day. With time, all his dancers would be classically trained, adding a polish and virtuosity to the material performed. "With ballet technique as a base, one can do anything," he said.

Moiseyev's vision met opposition from ethnographic purists who criticised his modifications and distillations of authentic dances. But Moiseyev persevered, managing to keep his company going through the Second World War, touring and collecting material. During those years, the company often travelled along mountain trails on horseback, so that dancers were sometimes engaged for their horsemanship as much as anything else. They performed in forest clearings, on the decks of warships, on lorries fastened together to form a stage. From that period came one of the company's signature pieces: Partisans, both a homage to the bravery of Soviet guerrilla fighters and a bravura display in which the performers move as if on horseback.

After the war, Moiseyev gradually expanded his repertoire to include dances from other countries – Mongolia, Yugoslavia, Korea, China – often performed as a tribute while appearing in those countries. In 1955 the company performed in Paris, the first Soviet ensemble to appear in the West after the war, and scored an enormous success. In 1957, they came to London, and in 1958, by then numbering 100 dancers, they made their New York début, at the Metropolitan Opera House – the first major Soviet ensemble to appear in the United States.

That season was accompanied by an hour-long appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and was followed by regular American tours in which the company would finish a programme with a square dance, or include a version of rock'*'roll. The more widely they travelled the more they embraced other national folk dances – from Sicily, Argentina, Cuba. In 1991, collaborating with the composer Mikis Theodorakis, Moiseyev staged a suite of Greek dances; and in 1994 (aged 88) a suite of Jewish dances. He also choreographed his own version of the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin's Prince Igor and several dramatic ballets.

In 1967, he found the time to start the Young Ballet, an attempt to introduce an experimental strand of choreography to classical Soviet dance. The company made its début in 1968, but as in the 1930s, Moiseyev's ballet innovations were not appreciated. In 1971, under a new director, Yuri Zhdanov, the company was renamed the Classical Ballet and given a repertoire that included extracts of 19th-century works. (Later, under the name Moscow Classical Ballet, its dancers would include several future stars, including Irek Mukhamedov, who became the leading male dancer of the Bolshoi and the Royal Ballet.)

Igor Moiseyev saw himself as a choreographic portraitist of nations. "I try to understand a nation not only through its dances, but also from its music, history, traditions and customs," he said. "And after this I try to use my own abilities to stress specific details which help reflect the character of the nation ever more vividly." He was named a People's Artist of the USSR (1953); he received many other honours at home and abroad including the Lenin Prize in 1967 and the Order of Merit last year. The Moiseyev Dance Company continues under the directorship of Yelena Shcherbakova.

Nadine Meisner