At the Mariinsky, dreams do come true.
The Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg – November 2013.
Dancers of the Mariinsky Ballet narrate the most touching moments of our lives. With their finely-tuned technique, they embody the many characters of our identity, from the fragility of our dearest friend to the strength of our favourite hero. Our stories lie within them, inherited through the Mariinsky Ballet’s nearly 300-year legacy.
The Mariinsky Ballet was born from Peter The Great’s ambitious dream to turn a scarcely populated swampland into a refined, aristocratic city. It became St. Petersburg, the capital of the Russian empire and a place of intellectuals and artists. Fashioning after the court of King Louis XIV of France, Peter, and Empress Elizabeth and Catherine the Great who ruled after him, imported a delightful court dance called ‘ballet’ and established the Imperial Russian Ballet in the 1740s. It was complimented by the Imperial Theater School, predecessor to today’s distinguished Vaganova Ballet Academy from where the Mariinsky still selects most of its dancers.
Frenchman Marius Petipa arrived over a century later, appointed as the Imperial Russian Ballet’s director in 1869, a post he held for over 30 years. Through Petipa, ballet became Russian. His choreography, Tchaikovsky’s scores and skilled dancers produced the most iconic ballets of all time including The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker and his revival of Swan Lake, in which he collaborated with Lev Ivanov, a Russian choreographer. Paquita, Raymonda and La Bayadère are also to Petipa’s credit. Nothing within his imagination was impossible; his penchant for drama and opulent, large-scale productions redefined classical ballet. Though he never spoke Russian fluently, the dancers understood him well and brought his fables to life. To this day, almost every ballet company in the world has at least one oeuvre of Petipa, or a derivative of, in its repertoire; no other choreographer can say that.
Under the Soviet Union, it was renamed the Kirov Ballet to conceal its imperialist roots but it never denied its nobility as an institution of high culture. Nor would the Russian people have allowed its ballet to wane. Soviet times inspired different stories; its dancers took that inspiration and danced them into socialist themed ballets like The Flames of Paris and dramatic narratives like The Fountain of Bakhchisarai. The Kirov toured successfully abroad, where it left audiences in rapture and occasionally, left without a dancer or two, who defected while on tour. Many of ballet’s most famous names can all be traced to the Kirov including Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, George Balanchine, Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinksy, the latter two who fled earlier to join the infamous Ballets Russes.
The Iron Curtain parted and presented a renewed Mariinsky Ballet. Its dancers stretch their range in contemporary choreographies while holding their trademark in classics. To watch them, is to witness a cumulative lineage of artistry, passed down through generations of dancers and teachers. Night after night, they capture our timeless stories in ephemeral beauty, through an unbroken line to our past. Their artistry, honed through the Mariinsky’s rich history, is becoming richer still.
Heel. Ball. Toe. My right foot made contact with the stage. Toe. Ball. Heel. I got a good feeling of it with my left foot. Two dancers and their répétiteur were rehearsing on the stage; they were the Flower Sellers in Don Quixote. They smiled and waved their Spanish fans at me to come closer, “it’s okay, we’re finished,” said one. I took a few steps more until no one could deny that at that moment, I was standing on the stage of the legendary Mariinsky Theater.
The stage curtain was open and it framed the view of the house. The orchestra pit was a large, dark chasm, and beyond it, rows of turquoise velour-padded seats stretched to the back of the horseshoe shaped theater where the center box seat hung imposingly, drawn open with its light-blue scalloped curtains and gold-embellished frame. This was the same view that Rudolph Nureyev had when he made his debut as Prince Albrecht in Giselle, and the view that Mathilde Kschessinska turned to 32 times when she spun out her 32 fouettés. This was the same stage that launched Vaslav Nijinsky’s lofty jumps and the careers of so many dancers, for whom their first steps on this stage will always be one of their most vivid memories. The cupids painted on the ceiling are those who watched over a young Anna Pavlova in the audience of The Sleeping Beauty, the evening that inspired her to pursue ballet. So many of dance’s most pivotal moments took place in this theater, which has stood since 1860.
As is the inevitable fate of old theaters, it will be torn down in the next couple of years for reconstruction. “A new theater won’t be the same,” said Islom Baimuradov, Principal Character Artist, who has lived out his career in this theater. It won’t be the first change in venue in the history of the Mariinsky Ballet, but it becomes all the more important that its legacy is passed down from dancer to dancer, as it has been for so many generations.
The Mariinsky II Theater is a modern theater completed in 2011 and sits across the canal from the historic Mariinsky Theater. It’s look is clean and natural, with an illuminated onyx wall in the lobby and abundant wood paneling that reflects the inspiration of the Canadian architectural firm who designed it. Between the two venues – the Mariinsky Ballet presents about 20 performances a month of rotating shows. Such a demanding schedule requires dancers who can jump into roles within shorter rehearsal periods and a highly organized company that can keep up with all the production tasks. For audiences, it means the chance to see a different ballet almost every night.
“Sometimes in class, I don’t know who the girl is standing next to me,” confessed Elena Yevseyeva, Second Soloist. The company has added so many new dancers in the past couple of years, in part to meet its demanding performance schedule spanning two venues, the historic stage and the new Mariinsky II Theater. Last count estimated 280 dancers, plus a reserve troupe of about 40. More than two-thirds are in the corps de ballet, enough to fill the stages with over 50 dancers at a time. That’s a lot of sylphs, swans, townsfolk, court gentry, bell-ringers, sword holders, guests of the ball…….
The Mariinsky is known for the uniformity of its corps de ballet, but in class, I noticed that physically, the dancers are not cookie-cutter forms of each other. Certainly, many had the typical lithe proportions, but then there were some with slightly bigger shoulders, fuller hips, some taller, some shorter. Once the barre exercises started, they all fell precisely in line. They held their port de bras in identical curvature and height, and their heads positioned over their épaulements were mirror images of one another. The rare few who are not graduates of the Vaganova Academy confess they must work extra hard to assimilate with the style when they first join the Mariinsky. Said one of the dancers, “you can line up the dancers in a row, and point them out like this – academy, academy, not academy, academy….”. The consistent training in the Vaganova technique gives the dazzling uniformity in Mariinsky’s large-scale performances. For the dancers, it gives them a well-developed artistry from which they can articulate themselves in soloist roles.
His belly rose like a speed bump from the level line of the stage and jostled as he lay on his back laughing. A female dancer, wearing a plain leotard and a tutu, and a princely-looking male dancer, with a bandana around his head holding back his fringe of dark brown bangs, stood over the bellied man and laughed along with him. He continued to speak through his chuckles as he pulled himself up, then pretended to throw his water bottle into the orchestra pit while recounting the story that induced this belly-laugh. He was in his fifties, balding with a stout build and dressed in a tracksuit; I wasn’t sure how he fit into this scene. Behind him on the otherwise empty stage, hung the painted backdrop from last night’s performance of the Nutcracker, and to his right, the pianist peered from behind a glossy white grand piano, grinning, as the stocky man sputtered out the punchline of his story. Taking a deep breath, he walked, head high with an easy straight posture, to the center of the stage. He turned sharply to the pianist and in a few words, explained the tempo of the music. She played the first notes and his arms danced along, suddenly light and graceful. With a precise flick of a pointed foot, arched inside a flexible-soled shoe, he demonstrated to the two attentive dancers the accent he wanted to see in the frappé.
If I had seen this répétiteur on the street, I would’ve walked right by ignorant of his artistic pedigree. St. Petersburg surrounds us with many unsuspecting treasures.