A mainstay of the society calendar, the debutante ball is traditionally where upper-class young ladies, escorted by eligible bachelors, are presented to society. Although the debutante ball, with hundreds of years of tradition behind it, has never fully disappeared in Western culture, it has experienced something of a revival in recent years, with the young people taking part citing its tradition and strict etiquette as its attraction. Now in its fourth year, the Russian Debutante Ball in London took place on November 19, 2016 in the opulent ballroom setting of The Great Room at Mayfair’s Grosvenor House.
For Magnum president Martin Parr, the evening was an opportune moment to continue his study of society balls, which has seen him producing a book on the Vienna ball circuit. Reflecting on the event, he said, “I liked the Russian ball, and although it was quite similar to the many balls I have shot before, it was good to see the debs and the assorted Russian aristocracy.” The project fits into his wider, career-spanning documentation of cultural rites: “All events tell us things about society and I am aware of the Russians in London, so I wanted to taste what they were like,” he said.
"I think it’s interesting to go into this environment and feel that history"
- Pavel, debutante escort
Entertainment was a classically high-brow affair, with music from the Symphonic Orchestra Russian Virtuosi of Europe conducted by Andrey Lebedev, who played as the debutants descended the stairs in pure white dresses, flanked by their debutante escorts, who included a number of the Household Cavalry in traditional formal uniforms known as mess dress. After performing their choreographed routine, which couples had been rehearsing since the previous day, they were joined by Prima Ballerina of the Royal Ballet Roberta Marques, who performed the Dying Swan, accompanied by music by award-winning violinist Yury Revich.
The old-world pomp and ceremony provided the young women taking part with a chance to fulfil something of a fairy-tale fantasy. “I wanted to feel like a princess. My name is Anastasia, like the Disney movie and I’m a redhead as well, so for me it is that moment – and I think it is quite an honor to be a debutante,” said one deb, as she prepared in the dressing room. She, like the other debutantes this evening, had passed a rigorous interview stage to be here, where musical skills, the ability to speak several languages, and an academic or professional career are taken into consideration.
Another debutante, Irina, 27, a civil engineer from Latvia who has lived in London for eight years, gave equally old-fashioned reasons for her taking part. When asked why she wanted to be a debutante, she replied, “Well, I’m not married at the moment.” Her escort, Michael, 33, living in Vienna but from Munich, whom she only met the day previously, said, “I like this old-fashioned elegance.” “It’s good to go back in time,” concurred debutante escort Pavel, who is Russian but has lived in London for some time, where he works in finance. For him, such rigid tradition feels almost convention breaking when set against the current youth culture landscape: “If you read War and Peace, Tolstoy actually talks about a girl being introduced to society for the first time, so I think it’s interesting to go into this environment and feel that history,” he said.
In attendance were members of the British and Russian aristocracies, British Military, and cultural figureheads. Patron of the ball, H H Princess Olga Romanoff, was the guest of honor. “My father, Prince Andrei Alexandrovich of Russia, was born at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, and he used to entertain us with tales of glittering balls that took place in Imperial Russia and all over Europe in times long gone by,” she said in a statement.
Amongst the guests looking for a glitzy evening surrounded by society’s elite were business people hoping to network and cultural representatives looking to do some self-initiated international reactions between Britain and Russia. David Pountney CBE, managing director of the Welsh National Opera, was in attendance in order to promote the company’s upcoming Russian season next year; and Lord West, who wanted to pay respect to Russian soldiers who died in WW2 on behalf of Britain. “About two years ago, I discovered that since the commemoration of the Second World War no senior [British] officer had [paid their respects to Russian solders that died] because of tensions between the countries. I thought that was completely inappropriate,” he said. “So I phoned the foreign office and said I’m going to this event unless you tell me not to.”