Our Russian Ballet Experience

When I was a kid, (almost) every Christmas season, my mom and I would get dressed up and head to the Atlanta Civic Center for the Atlanta Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker.  It was a tradition that I loved so much that when I moved to New York, once I could afford it, I would treat myself to a similar Christmas season treat of either the New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theater’s production of The Nutcracker.  Because of these moments with my mom, I grew to enjoy ballet on a very basic level.  That enjoyment grew exponentially as my close friend Matt, who LOVED the ballet, took me as his plus one whenever he was able to get free tickets through work.  The moment that changed my enjoyment into true love for ballet happened when Matt took me to see the American Ballet Theater’s production of Swan Lake.  Swan Lake is one of, it not the most, iconic ballets of our times, and one that I’d seen on a few occasions.  However, the performances given by members of ABT that night were different.  It was as if I was seeing ballet for the first time ever – the dancing was clean and crisp as it always was, but there was a passion in the movements beyond the technical.  I could feel the emotions of the performers, the heartache, the longing and the love in a way I hadn’t before.  It made me realize that ballet is more than impressive jumping and twirling.  Ballet tells a full of raw emotion and that experience changed the way I viewed the art forever.  From that moment on, I never missed a season of the ballet in New York.

Fast forward to our travels and the potential of going to Russia, and the first thing I thought of was the Bolshoi in Moscow and the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg.  The Bolshoi is world renowned for its history and the dancers that it has produced, while the Mariinsky was home to Marius Petipa for almost half a century, the choreographer who forever changed ballet and dance.  After a quick search, I found that the Bolshoi would be in season and would be performing Romeo and Juliet on the dates we were in Moscow.  Romeo and Juliet is not my favorite ballet (other than the pas de deux just before intermission, I feel that the choreography is nothing remarkable), but I was nonetheless excited to hear Prokofiev’s score come to life.  With those tickets in the bag, I searched for the Mariinsky.  Sadly, it appeared that we would just miss the season for the Mariinsky, so I would have to be content with just the Bolshoi.

Getting ready for Romeo and Juliet to begin.

After a few conversations with Matt (who is my go to ballet guru) I discovered that, despite its storied history, the quality of the Bolshoi’s dance and choreography has been sliding in recent years.  Undeterred, I walked into the Bolshoi Theater – dragging a somewhat reluctant Jesse along – and waited for the magic to begin.  What I was met with was a mix of mediocre dance quality, a well-executed orchestral performance, and incredibly disruptive audience members.  

Before going into the Bolshoi, when I was so full of hope

First, the dance quality.  Sadly, Matt had been right.  The quality of the dance was fine, but when you go to one of the most iconic ballet companies in the world, you expect it to be exceptional.  I also experienced a ballet first.  In all of the professional ballet productions I’ve been to, I have never seen anyone fall mid-performance until this day.  Most ballets have scenes involving large members of the corps weaving in and out of each other dancing in complicated patterns.  Usually it’s a celebration scene, but in this case it was a scene of villagers gathering as Montagues and Capulets fought in the center of town.  There was dance conflict, and dance fighting, and dance threats.  And then there was a member of the corps falling.  Whether she slipped or just missed the landing is unclear.  What was clear was that this performance was not going to be the dance experience I was hoping for.  It was surprising and disappointing.  The one highlight was the excellently performed score – hearing the iconic booming strains of Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets sent chills down my spine.  

While the combination of sloppy dancing and exceptional music left me with an ambiguous feeling about the ballet itself, the other audience members were what ultimately tipped the scale on my overall Bolshoi experience from mediocre to hugely disappointing.  Audience members were constantly entering and exiting the theater, my view was half ballet and half people walking up and down the aisles.  Maybe I’m a snob, or maybe I’m just a purist, but I always thought that once you leave the theater, for whatever reason, you’re stuck outside the theater.  Having had to watch at least half of a ballet from a TV in a theater lobby, I can attest to the agreement that once you leave, you can’t go back in, no matter how badly you had to go to the bathroom.  I left Moscow and the Bolshoi feeling disappointed and dejected that this would be my Russian ballet experience.  

However, a few days later, as we were waiting to board our flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg, I decided to use the airport WiFi to put in one last college try for the Mariinsky.  And, wouldn’t you know, not only had they posted new performances for the days we’d be in St. Petersburg, but they were performing Swan motherf*@!ing Lake.

The Mariinsky Theater on a rainy, gray St. Petersburg day.

Now, a quick aside for some ballet history (feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you don’t care).  Swan Lake, as iconic as the choreography and Tchaikovsky’s music may be now, it was actually a bust when it was first performed in Moscow (by the Bolshoi) on March 4, 1877.  The roles of Odette and Odile, now always performed by one dancer (the Darren Arronofsky film Black Swan famously portrays this duality, for which Natalie Portman would later win an Oscar), was at the time performed by two separate dancers.  Some thought the score was too complicated for a ballet, while others felt the choreography was forgettable.  After a string of performances of this lackluster staging, as well as a restaging that included new choreography in 1894 (which was tabled not due to poor quality but to Czar Alexander III’s death and the subsequent mourning period), famed choreographer and Head of Ballet for the Mariinsky, Maurius Petipa, along with second ballet master, Lev Ivanov, set out to create a new ballet.  This version premiered on January 25, 1895.  Interestingly, for this restaging, the music was retooled by a composer named Ricardo Drigo as Tchaikovsky had passed away at this point.  Though it is often referred to as Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, most modern companies use Drigo’s score.  And thus, with Drigo’s score and choreography from Petipa and Ivanov, a classic was made.*

So as we began boarding, I asked Jesse if there was any reason we couldn’t see the ballet on the one night we were in St. Petersburg.  When Jesse said no, I pounced on a pair of tickets quicker than you could say “pirouette.”  We were locked in, and Jesse would go from seeing no ballets in 38 years to two within four days.  My expectations were tempered going into the Mariinsky; after having such high hopes for the Bolshoi, and having said hopes brutally dashed, I braced myself for mediocre work.  Though we were seeing Petipa’s iconic choreography in the theater where it debuted, I kept my expectations medium, at best.  

Of all the gin joints in the world…. Jesse runs into his buddy Ahsan from Singapore before the curtain rises at the Mariinsky

Holy shit, was I wrong.  Maybe it was because it’s a better ballet (in my opinion), maybe it’s because I know the music and choreography better, but good God was this a performance of a lifetime.  From the beautiful opening strains of the overture, to that picture perfect pas de quatre, to THOSE pirouettes, everything was beautiful and spot on.  Even Jesse, ballet novice and ambivalent attendee at best, looked at me after those infamous fouette pirouettes and mouthed “WOW!”  And on top of all of that, there was little to no audience movement.  It seemed the Mariinsky adhered to the rule that once you were out of the theater, you were out until intermission.  Which meant I got to enjoy the inspired dance with minimal interruption and truly experience the childlike joy that a good ballet inspires in me.    

Dancers of the Mariinsky at the curtain call for Swan Lake

One interesting note, the famous ending I am familiar with, in which [spoiler alert!] the heroine Odette jumps into the lake to kill herself after Prince Siegfried mistakenly commits to Odile was not to be.  Instead, what we experienced was a happy ending in which the villain, von Rothbart, is vanquished and Siegfried and Odette live happily ever after.  Curious about this change, I looked up alternate endings to the ballet and found that there are in fact several alternate endings used by companies around the world.  But most interestingly, I learned a fun little fact about Russian history – Swan Lake was shown on USSR television channels for 3 days straight during the infamous August Putsch (attempted coup of Gorbachev and his government) in 1991, and the ballet is now frequently associated with this famous moment in Russian history.  Maybe it’s a good thing that it has a happy ending now.


*Thanks for the specifics, Wiki!

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