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Finally! Back to the roots: Live ballet performances in Russia

Aktualisiert: 12. Aug. 2021

While in my two home bases, Switzerland and Germany, as well as in the neighboring countries, digital stage remains the only possible solution to perform for ballet companies, I decided to take advantage of the open border between Switzerland and Russia and travelled to Moscow & St. Petersburg to see what is up there. This meant going back to the roots literally as I grew up in Moscow and from the standpoint of cultural life as from what I was hearing: everything is more or less back to normal in Russia since last summer! There was basically no real second lockdown like in Europe and theaters are open to a reduced masked audience from 50% up to 75%.

”The Fountain of Bakhchisarai” on the historical stage of Mariinsky Theatre

One of the things which have been on my bucket list for a long time was to see one of the big classical ballet productions on the historical stage of the Mariinsky Theatre. During my last trip to St. Petersburg I was lucky to admire the so-called “white nights” during which it practically does not get dark at all and be a guest at the White Nights Festival’s Swan Lake presented in the new Mariinsky II built in 2013. When visiting the historical stage I definitely wanted to see one of the opulent classical productions which was originally created on it. The choice fell on ”The Fountain of Bakhchisarai”, originator of the Soviet dramballet genre created in 1934 based on the poem of the same title by Alexander Pushkin. Needless to say that the joyful anticipation was hitting a record high. After all, it was to become the first live ballet performance I was about to see since October 2020. What a wonderful feeling to cross things on your bucket list despite the pandemic and enjoy an art form of classical ballet at its best - LIVE!

When a ballet is based on a literatic source, I try to read it before seeing the performance. Pushkin wrote the poem ”The Fountain of Bakhchisarai” in 1823 after visiting the Bakhchisarai Palace in Crimea and hearing the legend of its famous Fountain of Tears which is known as the embodiment of love of one of the last Crimean Khans, Qırım Giray Khan, for his beloved young concubine, and his grief after her early death. The Khan was said to have fallen in love with a Polish girl Maria in his harem. Maria is presumed to have been stabbed to death by the Khan's former favourite Zarema. Despite his battle-hardened harshness, he grieved and cried when she died, astonishing all those who knew him. He commissioned a marble fountain to be made, so that the rock would cry, like him, forever. The narrative poem delivered an excellent base for a powerful dramballet libretto written by Nikolay Volkov. Volkov added some facts and characters and made Maria a Polish Countess who was about to marry a certain Polish Count Vazlav (non-existent in the poem) before she got kidnapped by the Crimian Tatars and was brought to the Bakhchisarai Palace to be one of Khan’s concubines.

fontain of bakhchisarai

Interesting fact for those who study the inspiration sources of ballet productions before seeing the performance like myself: the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has four replicas of the Fountain of Bakhchisarai in its Pavillon Hall, where also a must-see golden Peacock Clock is exhibited.

I discovered it by accident when strolling through Hermitage in the morning before the ballet evening, which was as impressive as I expected: sumptuous oriental decor and beautiful costumes, excellent classical technique and interpretation of characters left a remarkable impression on me, especially Alina Somova whose Maria interpretation reminded me of the first cast for this role: Galina Ulanova. Staying true to the title of this blog, I found this YouTube video which captures a fragment of the old film version of the ballet, featuring the legendary cast - Ulanova as Maria, Maya Plisetskaya as her rival, Zarema. This is a poor-quality recording made in 1953, yet it is filmed like a movie and contains the celebrated scene of the heated confrontation between Maria and a jealous wife of Khan Ghirei, Zarema, which culminates in Maria’s tragic death. It si definitely worth watching for all fans of opulent historic dramballet productions. This is also the only known footage of Ulanova and Plisetskaya, who succeeded Ulanova as prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi Theatre, dancing together.

Ekman / Kaydanovskiy / Naharin at Stanislavsky Theatre in Moscow

Having enjoyed one of the historical ballet classics at the Mariinsky, I decided to see a contemporary triple bill at Stanislavsky Theatre in Moscow, where the ballet AD Laurent Hilaire has been enlarging contemporary ballet repertoire since the beginning of his tenure in 2017. This is how I ended up on stage myself in my last evening in Moscow.

But first let me introduce you the triple bill which contained three works of very interesting contemporary choreographers - two big names which are Alexander Ekman and Ohad Naharin and an emerging one: Andrey Kaydanovskiy.

The ballet evening opened with Ekman’s "Tyll", a one act ballet originally created for the Royal Swedish Ballet in 2012 and premiered at Stanislavsky in 2017. "Tyll" is the first and one of the few ballets of Alexander Ekman danced on pointe focused on exploration of what ballet is and where it comes from. In the role of so-called “baleographer” Ekman created a puzzle of steps based on classical vocabulary of feet and arm positions. The sheer dance puzzle is enriched with pertinent video installations, in which some facts of ballet history are narrated. Tyll turned out to be an interesting melange of classical ballet, contemporary dance, spoken theatre, video installation and even a tiny bit of circus.

Andrey Kaydanovskiy started his collaboration with Stanislavsky in 2016 by presenting a one act ballet “Tea or Coffee?” in the frame of its project dedicated to young choreographers: The Intersection Point. The production immediately gained great success among public and critics and was repeatedly shown on the Small Stage of Stanislavsky. In 2017 its former ballet director, Igor Zelensky, invited him to choreograph within a similar project at his new Company, the Bayerisches Staatsballett. This is where I got to work with Andrey in the role of EA to Igor Zelensky and production manager of the ballet evening entitled “Young Choreographers”. Since then, I try to follow his career and am happy that he was recently appointed as House Choreographer in Munich. His Tea or Coffee is another proof of his great talent as expressing a clear narrative in contemporary dance by using sometimes humoresque, sometimes grotesque forms. I enjoy the filmic nature of his ballets, so rare in today’s quite abstract dance world.

The culmination of the evening was not only the oldest work created in 1999 for NDT by the Father of Israeli contemporary dance, Ohad Haharin, but it was also bearing the biggest surprise for the audience. "Minus 16" promises to break the border between the audience and the stage. So it started with improvisation of a dancer selected by Ohad Naharin himself, in this case it was highly talented Maxim Sevagin, whose plasticity is incredible. To my surprise it was exactly this Maxim who invited me to be his dance partner in the Grand Finale, in which the promised border-breaking is happening. Basically the unprepared chosen ones follow the dancers and dance together with them or just improvise. There was even a gaga moment and I always wanted to try this famous dance technique invented by Naharin, but I would never have expected the first try to be this special. Sometimes unprepared is the only genuine and the most joyful way and I guess, this was exactly the goal Naharin might have had in mind when creating "Minus 16". This experience made my last evening of this 2 week trip to Russia unforgettable. Thank you, to my lucky fairy who made this possible ;-) As you can see in the footage below, I was even wearing the right costume in the mother of all colors: black.

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