Igor Schwezoff - Master of the Ballet

©1979 Scott Highton

Note: This story was originally photographed and written in 1979, while Igor Schwezoff was still living and teaching in New York city.


In a third floor dance studio overlooking a small street near New York's Lincoln Center, 25 men and women practice the graceful and strenuous exercises of a ballet barre. Many of them are seasoned dance professionals, but for an hour and a half of the morning class, they will be under the close scrutiny and direction of an elderly gentleman sitting at the front of the studio.

Igor Schwezoff is a tall, slender man whose 75 years seem to have taken nothing from his enthusiasm and love for ballet. He is calm and content, yet his eyes intently follow the movements of every student. Although he is virtually unknown outside the world of dance, many people within that world regard him as one of their greats, both as a dancer and choreographer.

Like many of today's ballet stars, Schwezoff was born and trained in the Soviet Union and defected to the west in search of artistic freedom during his prime as a dancer. The western world hails a long lineage of great Soviet dancers, including names like Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Godonov. Their unrelenting spirit and often dramatic escapes from the Soviet Union are legendary, yet despite their newsworthy drama, are following a trail blazed by Schwezoff and others half a century ago.

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Schwezoff's defection came shortly after the Russian Revolution, which marked the beginning of governmental repression of creativity in the Soviet Union. He was one of the pioneers, who risked all he had on one chance for freedom, and he was one of the first to succeed. "An artist requires freedom to create" he said. "Otherwise, he is not an artist at all."

Now, half a century later Schwezoff still feels that he has found the freedom he sought and has utilized it to its fullest. Although he retired from dancing in the mid 1940's, he has been actively choreographing and teaching throughout the world since. Today, he lives in a large apartment near Central Park in New York and teaches one class a day for professionals at the New York Conservatory of Dance.

Still speaking with a thick Russian accent, Schwezoff talked of his own defection and those of more recent Soviet stars. "Defectors now are welcomed with open arms by western countries" he said. "When I escaped, I was called a communist and considered a pest wherever I went. At the time, I couldn't even get a passport or working papers."

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In 1934, Schwezoff won a prize for the best English language autobiography offered by Hodder and Stoughton Publishers in London for his autobiography entitled Borzoi. In the book, he described his youth, his introduction to ballet, life in Russia during the revolution and his remarkable journey to freedom. He said "I wrote the book because I felt there was a need for people to know what the people in the Soviet Union went through during that time."

Even now, Schwezoff admits that he led a rather spoiled childhood in the pre-revolution era. His father was a genera in the Imperial Guards and his mother was the daughter of a rich banker. "She brought wealth to the family, and he brought rank" he wrote. "I was a proud, difficult boy, and from childhood on, had never allowed anyone to tread on my feet. I always had a certain kind of respect from people ­ the kind of respect one gives to a cactus."

During his teens, Schwezoff was introduced to classical ballet and decided to take it up as a profession. He established himself as an excellent danseur among the many companies and other dancers in Russia. However, after the revolution and the ensuing government takeover of the theater, he began to have difficulties with the managements of some of the companies he worked with.

"Because I thought of art as art, and not as communist art nor even as communist propaganda, I was persecuted. I was actually indifferent to politics of any kind. I only shared the disposition common to all artists that an artist is only an artist by virtue of his intensified individualism. A communist artist is actually a contradiction of terms.

"The grandeur of the Soviet theater" he continued, "lies in the fact that it has become what it is, not because it is a vehicle for communist propaganda, but in spite of it."

For years, Schwezoff endured the the miseries of life in Russia during the post-revolution era. The communist government had taken away the great wealth of his family. Those who were still alive lived a meager day-to-day existence. His mother had died from an illness. His oldest brother was a political exile who was later presumed dead, and his father was hiding from the new regime. Schwezoff and his younger sister survived by living in the bathroom of a small flat in Leningrad. It was the only place they could find warmth during the cold Russian winters. Despite the many hardships, he continued with his study of ballet, and started developing his reputation as a fine dancer and choreographer.

Years later, while on tour with one of the Russian Ballet companies, he seized an opportunity to escape. Unfortunately, what was to be only a three-day trek across the frontier to freedom in China, turned into a harrowing, month-long journey for Schwezoff and a few companions. During their ordeal, they were captured and escaped from border patrols, nearly froze to death, and lost their few valuables along the way in trades for guides, food and places to hide.

In Borzoi, Schwezoff tells how, with only the clothes on his back and ballet shoes on his feet (he accidentally burned his boots one night on the trek while trying to dry them), he reached freedom in China. This was in November, 1930. His troubles were not over though, as he was a complete unknown in the dance world outside the Soviet Union. The task of proving himself to the rest of the world still lay ahead.

Several months later, however, he arrived in Paris to dance with the Original Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. After a short time there, he went to Argentina and the National Theater of Buenos Aires, where he worked under the direction of famed Russian choreographer Michael Fokine. When Fokine saw Schwezoff dance in Argentina, he immediately promoted him from corps de ballet to first dancer. Schwezoff's steps to freedom seemed to finally have paid off.

In the following years, he worked with Madame Nijinska in Paris and opened his own successful studio in London. His work as both dancer and ballet master of a new company in Amsterdam was so successful that he is today considered one of the founding fathers of the dance movement in Holland.

For several years, Schwezoff again worked with the Original Ballet Russe, both as a dancer and choreographer. In 1945, he was granted citizenship in the United States, after having served briefly in the US Army. Then, at the age of 41, he retired from dancing to devote all his time to choreographing and teaching. That year, he became the artistic director of the National Theater in Rio de Janero, where he choreographed and produced a remarkable 13 ballets in nine months.

Subsequent years brought Schwezoff back to the United States, where he taught at the American Ballet Theater in New York. In 1961, he moved to Washington, DC to teach at the Washington School of Ballet. A short time later, he opened his own studio nearby. Over the next five years, he divided his time between his Washington, DC studio and both the Asami Maki Ballet Company and the Tachibana Ballet School in Tokyo.

A long illness forced him to close his Washington studio, so he returned to New York where he taught with the Harkness Ballet Company, The Metropolitan Opera Company and the Youskevitch Dance Studio. Now, at age 75, he has limited himself to teaching one class a day at the New York Conservatory of Dance.

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Schwezoff spoke in his apartment one afternoon about his long career, his love of ballet and his teaching techniques. His apartment is quite large and has a distinct flair of Russian aristocracy about it, perhaps similar to the surroundings in which he grew up. The walls are lined with photographs and paintings of old Russia, as well as pictures and drawings of himself, given to him by students and friends. The busy sounds of West 72nd Street several floors below drifted up through the open window.

"There are two basic elements to classical ballet" he said. "They are quality and quantity. Quantity is how much a dancer can physically do, while quality is how he or she does it. The two elements must always go hand in hand.

"Quality is the most difficult phase in the development of an artist, and requires long and arduous training. It is the element that gives finish and significance to a dancer's movements. Quantity however, is the element that gives an artist the freedom to concentrate on quality. If you have the ability to do many skills and movements, then you can stop worrying about doing them and concentrate on the expression and quality of movement.

"The technique and amount of impressive skills are only secondary in classical ballet" he said. "It is the expression by the dancer which is most important. Being able to do many tricks and dancing are two entirely different things. Art is not just being able to do 102 fouettés or 35 entrechats in the air, nor is it the number of pirouettes, tours de force or acrobatic tricks that a dancer can do. Art is more than that.

"Some dancers have the facility for tremendous beats, jumps and turns, but that doesn't mean they are good dancers yet. Classical dancing is something more. It involves the quality of movement. Take for instance, Natalia Makarova. She is not a strong technician, but when she comes on stage, she has a quality of movement which absolutely takes the audience in." He added, "the more difficult the movements a dancer does, the easier he or she should make them look."

In an article Schwezoff wrote on the subject of quality and quantity, he said, "personally, I do not believe in art that does not convey to one some feeling. Art is not something nice, sweet or pretty. It is more than that. Art is something vital. It may be beautiful or even hideous, but it must be deep and strong in its expression. Art is not, and should not be mechanical. It must always be alive."

Schwezoff emphasized that quality by itself is also not enough to make a good dancer. "Emotion alone is not sufficient, and in fact, is bad in dancing," he said. "Emotion has to be controlled. Until the dancer is the full master of his body and is well able to control his emotions, he is neither able to display them to full advantage, nor is he able to convey these emotions to the audience. The stronger one's technique, the easier one is able to devote oneself to the emotional and artistic side of dance. This is the reason why in class, one often does exercises and steps far more difficult than one will ever dream of performing in front of the public. The development if the body is required in order to be able to exercise more control over emotions."

With his emphasis on the importance of both expression and strong technique, one would rightly believe that Schwezoff's dance classes would be difficult and demanding. This is confirmed by the exhausted dancers collapsed onto chairs and benches outside of the studio after class. Schwezoff himself even admits that his classes are difficult.

"For the first half hour or so, I give a strong barre to get them warmed up" he said. "Then, for the remaining hour, they move to the center of the studio where I give corrections on movements and sequences. Occasionally, I give a completely different movement to let them throw themselves like crazy up and down. I try to get them to use what they've learned. Otherwise, they get stiff and forget what dancing really is." The students are not the only ones who are tired after one of Schwezoff's classes. "At my age" he joked, "one class is about all I can take in a day."

In his writings, Schwezoff previously said "the teacher should train his pupils to use their bodies not only to be mechanical instruments, but to live, vibrate and respond to the mood an rhythm of the music. My point of view is that if one has a perfectly trained body, it should be able to express anything and speak for itself in movement."

Schwezoff said that he has only seen one "perfect" dancer in his life ­ Olga Spessiva, another Russian who was a star of the Paris Opera Company. "She was perfect in every aspect of dance... her technique, lines, movement, everything. I danced with her while I was in Argentina. She was absolutely marvelous."

When asked if he thought of himself as a perfect dancer, Schwezoff quickly replied "no, I never was. I was too tall and too long. That was a handicap. People liked me very much because it was beautiful to watch such long movements. I looked very good because I was so tall and was able to cover up poor technique, but no, I was never perfect."

Despite his imperfection, Schwezoff has still met with many successes throughout the world. Yet, he is not nearly as well known nor recognized as many other ballet greats. That fact seems to strike a slightly sour note within him. He explained "in order to be well known, you have to be pushy. I was always spoiled because I never had to ask for a job. They were always offered to me. I was not pushy enough when I was young" he said, "and I am too old to be pushy now."

"Had I stayed in the Soviet Union, I probably would have been more successful, because I think in the United States, I am not much appreciated. However," he was quick to add, "I am quite glad that I left. I have been very satisfied with the places I have been and the work I've done." He did add, "I wouldn't mind going back for a visit sometime, though."

Looking back on his reasons for leaving Russia, Schwezoff summarized his feelings. "I left because I would always be watched. They told me that I had no future, that I would never be trusted by the management of a company so that I would never have a free hand to choreograph as I wished. If you had an idea there, it always had to be approved and must always include a touch of communist propaganda.

"That is why dancers and artists are still defecting from the Soviet Union" he said. "They are artistically dissatisfied because they have to do old ballets that they don't like and there is not much creativity in the companies. Maybe now, after the more recent defections, the Soviets will pull up their artistic level. They'll have to. Otherwise, they'll continue to have more and more artists defect."

But what about the artists that have already defected? Will they find the freedom that Schwezoff has found? Will they be as satisfied with their opportunities outside of their homeland as he has been? "Yes," said Schwezoff with a smile, "I suppose they probably will."


In the early 1980's, several years after this story was originally written, Igor Schwezoff died in New York. He never did get the chance to return to his Russian homeland or to see the collapse of the former Soviet Union, which occurred shortly after his death.

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