Raisa Struchkova

Bolshoi star who became the Western epitome of the Soviet ballerina
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The Independent Online

Raisa Stepanovna Struchkova, ballerina, teacher and editor: born Moscow 5 October 1925; married Alexander Lapauri (died 1975); died Moscow 2 May 2005.

In a career that spanned more than 30 years with the Bolshoi Ballet, Raisa Struchkova became the epitome of the Soviet ballerina, technically brilliant and excitingly athletic, yet also richly expressive and utterly dedicated to her art.

She imprinted herself on British minds in 1954, when she appeared with a concert group two years before the entire Bolshoi Ballet's first ground-breaking visit. On that precursory occasion, she and her husband Alexander Lapauri danced Vasily Vainonen's Moscovski Waltz, a spectacular pas de deux of flying catches and upside-down lifts, the likes of which had never been seen before by Western audiences. It caused a sensation and became her signature piece, along with other similar bravura displays such as Dunaevsky Waltz (by Lapauri). Yet there was a great deal more to her talent, as evidenced by her interpretations of important dramatic and classical roles.

She was born in Moscow in 1925, the daughter of a factory worker. Artistically inclined, she gained entry into the Moscow Choreography College aged nine. There she came under the tutelage of the former ballerina Yelizaveta Gerdt, scion of a famous dancing family in the Imperial Ballet of St Petersburg, who was to become her lifelong teacher. And there she became acquainted with Lapauri, a fellow pupil.

During the Second World War, the school was evacuated from Moscow to a small town called Vasilsursk, situated on the Volga. The children lived in a small wooden house, one room adapted for ballet classes where they trained during the day. At night, they slept on the floor, huddled close together to keep warm.

In 1943, after two hard years in Vasilsursk, the school returned to Moscow. They had to restore their building, heavily damaged by bombing, and endure cold which caused the studio floors to become slippery with ice. After graduation in 1944, Struchkova and Lapauri joined the Bolshoi Ballet. Struchkova's first big role, accorded just two years later, was not in some untried one-act ballet. She danced Lise in the much-loved Vain Precautions (better known in Britain as La Fille mal gardée), which allowed her to explore character and comedy, as well as classical dance technique. In 1947, she took the titular role in Cinderella, following in the path of artists as Galina Ulanova and Marina Semyonova.

The ballet was her personal landmark. Acclaimed at her début, she became a star and she received a gift from Ulanova - a pair of court shoes as a substitute for the crystal ones. When the Bolshoi decided to film Cinderella in 1960 (now available on VHS), they chose her to dance Cinderella. And, when the company returned to the Royal Opera House in 1963, she danced the role there.

Good-looking, with a perfect dancer's proportions of long legs and arms, she was loved for the clean, graphic qualities of her line and soft, feminine grace. Her other leading parts included Maria in The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, Jeanne in The Flames of Paris, Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, Giselle in Giselle, Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Kitri in Don Quixote. She also created roles, among them the titular character in Vainonen's Gayaneh (1957), Tamara in Leonid Lavrovsky's Pages from a Life (1961) and Leili in Kasyan Goleizovsky's Leili and Medzhnun (1964).

Although she created an unforgettable impact in virtuoso showpieces such as Moskovski Waltz, she was also outstanding as both a dramatic dancer and a pure classicist. The Russian historian Natalia Roslavleva, writing in Era of the Russian Ballet (1966), described her in the following terms: "A strong ballerina possessing a perfect school acquired from her teacher, Yelizaveta Gerdt, she is also a first-class actress, possessing a great sense of humour."

Roslavleva's focus on Struchkova's sense of humour referred to Lieutenant Kijé, a ballet set to Prokofiev's film score and co-choreographed by Lapauri and Olga Tarasova (another Bolshoi dancer). Premiered as part of a triple bill at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1963 (and filmed in 1969), it featured an impish and provocative character known as the Lady-in-Waiting which was danced by Struchkova. "The role . . . fits her like a glove," wrote Roslavleva.

Straight after their Royal Opera House run in 1956, the Bolshoi Ballet appeared in Croydon, giving three performances of a mixed programme which was filmed and included Lavrovsky's Walpurgis Night where Struchkova danced another bravura pas de deux. Straight after their second visit to London in 1963, the Bolshoi divided into two groups, one headed by Maya Plisetskaya, the other by Struchkova, and toured the UK.

In 1975 both her husband and Gerdt died, but she still performed roles such as Maria in The Fountain of Bakhchisarai and Giselle. In 1978 she retired, becoming a company ballet mistress and coach whose protégées included the international stars Yekaterina Maximova and Nina Ananiashvili. She had already been teaching since 1962 at Gitis, the State Institute of Theatrical Art. In 1993 she mounted Swan Lake for English National Ballet.

From 1981 to 1995, she exploited another side of her abilities, by working as editor-in-chief of the magazine Soviet Ballet (renamed Ballet in 1992). In an interview last year, she lamented today's focus on money in matters of creativity. In Soviet times, she said, it was different. "All we thought about was art . . . Though we were poor, and badly dressed, we were happy nevertheless."

Nadine Meisner