Why this Perm will never go out of fashion

Thu, Dec 6, 2012, 00:00

‘See the music, hear the dance”, an oft-quoted remark from the celebrated US choreographer George Balanchine, was his invocation to think anew about ballet, as he himself did, reinventing and reinvigorating the classical tradition in which he was trained in early 20th-century St Petersburg.

It is a mantra familiar to Alexey Miroshnichenko, another ballet graduate from that former imperial city, as he leads his full ballet corps to Dublin this week from the Tchaikovsky Perm State Ballet to perform The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

Miroshnichenko is artistic director, ballet master and house choreographer of this leading Russian company. He understands the need to continue to re-energise an interest in ballet and is passionate about the future of the classical form and the distinctive place of Perm. In this tradition, Perm seems to have had its destiny written in the stars; there are coincidences and interconnections that have led to this Ural city, 2,000 miles east of Moscow, taking its place with St Petersburg and Moscow as a third focal point in the Russian territories of ballet.

Tchaikovsky was born in a neighbouring town. Diaghilev, the innovator and founder of the Ballets Russes, had his roots in Perm. During the second World War, the famous Kirov ballet decamped and headed for artistic shelter and sustenance to Perm’s theatre, a move that would have a profound influence upon the establishment and development of the Perm ballet.

Alexey Miroshnichenko is an embodiment of this interconnected tradition. Although born in the Ukraine (his family had moved there during the second World War), he trained in the famous Vaganova Academy, danced and choreographed in the Mariinsky ballet company, and has created works for other companies in Russia, as well as forging relationships with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet.

Invitation to Perm

In 2009, Miroshnichenko accepted an invitation to go to Perm where he has been guiding the company through the classics while reinvigorating the tradition with new and recovered works. He is conscious of the heritage of Tchaikovsky, whose music is synonymous with the theatre (they renamed it in honour of the composer in 1969). He recently created Variations on a Rococo Theme with music by Tchaikovsky and recreated a new version of the little seen Chout by Prokofiev.

Nurturing talent

Perm, in common with the Mariinsky, has its own training academy. Monica Loughman, one of a group of young Irish students who trained in Perm in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was the first Westerner to be invited to join the full company. She then set up her own academy in Ireland.

These associations between the training schools are one of the ways in which the style and classic tradition is conserved in a “live” connection, as Miroshnichenko says, not just in historic fact. Teachers and dancers interchange not only between the Vaganov and the Perm academies but are also dispersed across many of the Russian republics, keeping the style alive.

We will have a chance to see this in action as two of the principals for the Dublin performances – Alexandra Surodeeva and Ruslan Savdenov – are recent additions to the Perm company. Both are winners of the prestigious Arabesque open ballet competition, which is hosted in Perm.

Miroshnichenko is positive about the future appeal of classical ballet, for dancers and for audiences. He believes “it is the scale of the company, that full Russian experience of the ballet that attracts the audiences . . . We have a cast of 60 dancers and a live orchestra [here accompanied by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra].”

This is a company on a roll; among its members are many nominees and recipients of the coveted Golden Mask for theatre arts and dance performances in Russia.

The versions of the ballets are important for Miroshnichenko’s conservation mission. There are many versions of The Nutcracker but Irish audiences will be treated to that recreated for the Kirov by Vasili Vainonen, a choreographer of some note during the Soviet years.

Nutcracker nerds might like to note that this version does not include a Sugar Plum Fairy, is strong on the dream elements of the ballet, and creates stronger dance roles for the two principals, Masha (the young girl, sometimes known as Clara) and the nutcracker/prince. For Swan Lake aficionados, this is the version staged by Natalia Makarova, with additional choreography by Frederick Ashton. And that is because Makarova is synonymous with that great Mariinsky/Kirov tradition, even though she defected to the west in 1970 and subsequently danced with the Royal Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre.

Fresh perspectives

But while Miroshnichenko seems steeped in the classic tradition, he has also been alert to developments in modern ballet. He acknowledges that performing the works of Ashton or Kenneth MacMillan, Royal Ballet signature dance makers to the Mariinsky and Perm, offers a fresh perspective and opportunities for dancers. He was also for a period at the helm of Australian choreographer William Forsythe’s productions at the Mariinsky.

Forsythe, a radical modernist, is credited with having breathed new life into the classical lines and style of ballet and Miroshnichenko is a fan. “I find him challenging but so satisfying and want to do more,” he says.

His own moves into dance-making have drawn on literature, as often happens with the narrative form of ballet; his successful Du Côté de Chez Swann was performed internationally, although he rather disarmingly says The Lady with the Little Dog, his take on a Chekhov short story, “wasn’t quite right”.

Return visits

Most recently, his recovery of Chout by Prokofiev, with new choreography, was shown at the Diaghilev festival of arts, which takes place in Perm every two years.

He is keen to nurture the talent of young Russian choreographers and next year he intends to give them a platform for their work at the festival, which has adopted the motto of “See the music, hear the dance”.

Will Irish audiences get to see the Perm company perform any modern ballet? “Unfortunately, and understandably, the impresarios want us, the classic Russians, to bring the classics,” he says. “That is our forte and what audiences, of course, want to see. But yes, I would like us to bring more.”

The Tchaikovsky Perm State Ballet performs The Nutcracker tonight and Sunday and Swan Lake on Friday and Saturday at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin

Ballet Ireland is also currently touring a production of The Nutcracker, including the Civic Theatre, Tallaght, until Saturday. See balletireland.ie

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