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Alla Osipenko
Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet

By Joel Lobenthal

Oxford University Press

(Osipenko Book Purchase Page)

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
May 15, 2016

(See a video of Kirov Ballerina, Alla Osipenko.)

Joel Lobenthal, ballet critic and balletomane, has eloquently expanded on his forty in-person interviews, conducted in Hartford, Connecticut from 1995-2000, with famed Soviet ballerina, Alla Osipenko (b. 1932). Osipenko, once a star of the Kirov, now known as the Mariinsky Ballet, spoke to Lobenthal about her personal and professional world during her Soviet years, at home and abroad, with no political filters and a great deal of humanity. Lobenthal describes Osipenko’s early ballet training and burgeoning potential in Leningrad, under Agrippina Vaganova, at a school now called the Vaganova Academy. The author was magnetically drawn to this Soviet star, as he watched a video of Osipenko dancing the role of Odette in “Swan Lake’s” adagio, lakeside scene. Osipenko had been promoted to Prima Ballerina in 1954, four years after joining the Kirov, beginning what would be a two-decade-plus affiliation with this internationally acclaimed company.

In the late 1990’s, Lobenthal and one of various translators would meet with Osipenko at her home in Hartford, Connecticut, where she had been working with the Hartford Ballet since 1995. Lobenthal first published an article about these visits in a ballet journal and later expanded his work into this detailed and fascinating book. The forty visits, in which Osipenko warmly hosted Lobenthal, ended in 2000, when the retired ballerina returned to St. Petersburg. A high point in my reading was Lobenthal’s retelling of Osipenko’s 1961 performance in Paris, at the time of Rudolf Nureyev’s shocking defection from the Kirov, on the tarmac of Le Bourget Airport, prior to the company’s flight to London. As one who watched with ardor, as Nureyev danced with European and American ballet companies on his trips to New York, I could well relate to Osipenko’s memories of this ravishing danseur. Nureyev was the first of three Kirov stars to defect to the West, the second being Natalia Makarova in London (1970), and the third, Mikhail Baryshnikov in Canada (1974). The Bolshoi had performed in the West since 1956, and now the Kirov arrived in 1961, ready to showcase its youngest stars. Osipenko and Nureyev danced “La Bayadère” during this Paris tour, with Nureyev adding choreographic fireworks to his partnering.

On June 15, 1961, the eve of Osipenko’s 29th birthday, these two Soviet attractions, prima ballerina and danseur, were featured in “Swan Lake” to sensational acclaim. On returning to her hotel, Osipenko and her roommate, Natalia Makarova, shared a box of chocolates, a gift from an admirer of Makarova. The next day, on the tarmac at Le Bourget, Nureyev was standing behind Osipenko, planning their tour of London, just before a KGB agent pulled him off the line and ordered him onto a plane back to Moscow. Nureyev, fearing jail time for any of a series of perceived offenses, dashed to his freedom in France. Lobenthal notes that Osipenko never acquiesced to the Soviets’ pressure to denounce her dance partner and soul partner. Decades later, after missing Osipenko’s 29th birthday celebration, Nureyev met her in Paris on June 16, 1989 for her 57th birthday. Nureyev hosted a dinner for ballet critics and balletomanes, who reminisced about Osipenko’s earlier, Kirov performances in the City of Light. Lobenthal also notes that Nureyev, similarly, returned to the Kirov in 1989 to dance, with difficulty, the role of James in “La Sylphide”. While back in the Soviet Union, Nureyev was asked about his luxurious wealth. He responded that although he owns an island, he had nobody waiting; just the stage waited for him.

Lobenthal brings out the humanity in Osipenko as well, describing her attentive involvement with her mother’s final days and with her son, during his legal agony. Alla Osipenko is portrayed in Lobenthal’s enriching book as a sophisticated, worldly, courageous woman, who also happens to have been a virtuosic ballerina with proud Russian roots. .

Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet
By Joel Lobenthal
Oxford University Press
Photo Front Cover Courtesy of Roberta Zlokower

Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet
By Joel Lobenthal
Oxford University Press
Photo Back Cover Courtesy of Roberta Zlokower

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at