Striking poses: behind the scenes at the ballet
At the prestigious Tchaikovsky Perm State Ballet, a two-hour flight east of Moscow, in Russia, dancers are preparing to bring ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Giselle’ to Ireland
Montagues and Capulets: the Perm production of Romeo and Juliet
Montagues and Capulets: principal dancers Ruslan Savdenov and Natalia Domratcheva in the Perm production of Romeo and Juliet
Montagues and Capulets: principal dancer Natalia Domratcheva
Montagues and Capulets: young ballerinas from the Perm and other Russian companies prepare for a competition at the Bolshoi Theatre, in Moscow. Photograph: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty
‘My mind,” says Alexsey Miroshnichenko apologetically, with a wave of his hand. “Half of me is already in the rehearsal studio.” Unfortunately for him, the other half is still behind his desk, in his small, comfortable, wood-panelled office.
Miroshnichenko can be forgiven for being distracted. As artistic director of the Tchaikovsky Perm State Ballet, he is immersed in choreographing Chout, a ballet by Prokofiev that has not been performed in full since the 1920s. (His production of it premieres in Madrid this week.)
Miroshnichenko is a dark, intense, athletic 39-year-old. His office is one of dozens of rooms off the labyrinth of corridors that surround the main auditorium of the Perm Tchaikovsky Opera and Ballet Theatre. From here he negotiates the daily challenges of leading one of Russia’s most famous ballet schools.
Tomorrow, a Sunday, there will be two performances of the company’s latest production, Romeo and Juliet; hours after it ends, two trucks will arrive, and the task of breaking down and transporting its enormous set across Europe to Ireland, for shows in Dublin and Galway, will begin.
Fifty-five dancers and 15 technical staff will then follow, travelling by train and ferry. The logistics of moving the troupe alone are formidable. “To be honest, dancers are really disciplined, and we have a great ballet manager who knows how to organise them,” says Anastasiya Kolchanova, the company’s touring and production manager. “Usually the ones who go missing are the orchestra musicians.”
Despite all this effort, touring is not a cash cow for the company. As a state-funded organisation, “there are 200 days a year when we have to be in Perm”, says Kolchanova. “It’s not very profitable for us to be on tour; it’s more profitable to present Romeo and Juliet at a local theatre – but it’s more to present our ballet to other countries . . . It’s very good for the company to be a part of European dance.”
Outside the rain is teeming down. This is an unlovely industrial town, a two-hour flight east of Moscow. There’s nobody on Ulitsa Sibirskaya, a nearby street named because prisoners would march along it from Moscow en route to exile in Siberia. During the cold war, visitors were forbidden in Perm; this was one of the Soviet Union’s closed cities, its military industry making the city a sight too sensitive for foreign eyes.
In recent years, though, Perm has set about turning itself into a cultural capital. Its most famous former citizen – and one-time resident of Ulitsa Sibirskaya – is Sergei Diaghilev. This visionary impresario founded the Ballets Russes, helped bring Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to the stage, and introduced Vaslav Nijinsky to the world.
Tchaikovsky was born in the region. During the second World War the then Kirov Ballet was moved here from the Mariinsky Theatre, in St Petersburg, to keep it out of harm’s way. After the war the company returned to St Petersburg, but the ballet never left.
Now the Tchaikovsky Perm State Ballet counts itself among Russia’s finest, and Miroshnichenko is fiercely proud of its position at the top of the table, along with, he says, the Bolshoi and the Stanislavsky, in Moscow, and the Mariinsky.
“We kept our traditions, which is good. Ballet needs to be conservative,” he says. “We have a ‘golden middle’ to be conservative enough to keep our tradition, especially in classical ballet, and also in character dance. Character dance doesn’t exist in the world on the level it exists in Russia. ”
Miroshnichenko puts this strong tradition in Russian ballet down to the country’s relatively recent isolation. “The 20th century was crazy. Every 10 years everything was completely different, and this had a huge influence on art. Because of the Iron Curtain, we have kept the tradition.”
He is unimpressed by foreign ballet companies’ attempts at the classics that Russian companies have made their forte. “When I see Paris Opéra dancing Swan Lake, with this huge suite of characters, it makes me laugh a little bit.” He claps loudly and does a little jazz-hands routine for comedic effect. “It’s not noble, this transcription.”