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.”
It’s not just foreign companies that come in for criticism – and when Miroshnichenko criticises Russian ballet he is speaking from an insider’s perspective. He studied at the Vaganova Ballet Academy, then joined the Mariinsky in 1992, before moving into choreography.
“We are not the Mariinsky Theatre, who last year had 250 people in the theatre – and now they have grown up to 400 because they have opened three stages. This is crazy,” he says.
“Probably the artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre does not even recognise the dancers. Maybe he sees someone in the theatre and says, ‘Are you working in the ballet company or are you cleaning the theatre?’ ”
The competition for dancers in these expanding companies has become so intense, Miroshnichenko says, that, much like European football clubs, the larger theatres plunder their rivals.
“They steal our graduates . . . In Moscow they have a huge deficit and limitations with the dancers. They are even taking dancers who are pregraduates, which spoils the cycle.”
And then there is the Bolshoi, and the scandal that has engulfed it. In a plot that would look outrageous on the stage, the Bolshoi’s artistic director, Sergei Filin, had acid thrown in his face in January this year. Three men are on trial for the attack, among them Pavel Dmitrichenko, a Bolshoi principal dancer. Dmitrichenko admits to discussing an assault on Filin, because of rivalries at the ballet, but denies organising the acid attack.
“This crime in the Bolshoi, I think this is more a government thing,” says Miroshnichenko, in somewhat bewildered amusement. “Nobody could even imagine this. It’s a shit storm. Now they are cleaning it up, but the smell remains. I hope it will never happen here. This is not a part of political or financial interest, because we have the smallest factory and, thank god, because here we deal with art and with professionalism.” He hints that the scandal at the Bolshoi has more to do with politics than with art and that those working in ballet shouldn’t drift into areas that “are not within your competence. Of course, it’s not theatre; it’s a circus.”
Perm’s great advantage, he says, is artistic. “The main theme for young dancers here is that this is repertoire. When they go there, that is a commercial factory. Here, okay, their salaries are lower, but they have repertoire here; they can grow up and exist as artists and dancers.”
A few streets away, at Perm State Choreographic College, the next generation of dancers are learning the skills of classical ballet. The building looks much like any other local school. Inside, the heat is stifling, and children and teenagers bustle about its halls. (Students, who start at the age of 10, study ballet and regular subjects concurrently.) All of the students seem to be dressed for gym class. Turn a corner and several of them will be doing preposterous stretches. Snatches of music float down the halls, along with the smell of lunch.
Lyudmila Shevchenko joined one of the first ballet classes here, in 1944, and never left. She is now the director of the school, and in a large, stuffy studio she is putting a class of teenage girls through their paces. She signals for them to begin with a chop of her hand. Each dancer rises on to one leg, stretching out the other in an arabesque. Shevchenko’s instructions are constant, cheerful and delivered with a stern, matronly warmth.
The dancers click into shapes with soft, delicate precision, and it is only when the music stops or Shevchenko advises them to rest that they breathe heavily and break out in a sweat. The graceful illusion cracks a little, and the effort of their work is suddenly apparent. Moments later they repeat the positions, precise and focused.
Alexsey Miroshnichenko is not shy about the challenges involved in being a dancer at this level. “Physically, it’s very hard; psychologically, it’s even harder.” He says that even now the images of the Vaganova Ballet Academy, where he trained, are fresh in his mind.
“Can you imagine you are a little boy – education starts from nine years old. You didn’t choose your legs, your hips, your feet, but the teachers, because they are professionals, they look at you as a material. Your body, you can work every day on that, and you can improve it a little bit and adjust it, but not very much. This attitude to you, you cannot change that. Even when I put roses on the coffin of [the ballerina] Ninel Kurgapkina her feet were turned out, because she was born like this.”
Miroshnichenko has finally escaped his office for one of the theatre’s rehearsal studios. He and ballet master Vitaly Poleschuk are working with two of the company’s male dancers, Ruslan Savdenov, a principal, and Marat Fadeev, a soloist. In this scene from Chout, Fadeev will be dressed as a woman and has to fend off Savdenov’s advances. It means performing a complex set of movements, flirting outrageously with each other and mugging for the audience. And all of this has to mesh seamlessly with the music’s intricate framework.
Much as with Lyudmila Shevchenko’s at the ballet school, Miroshnichenko’s directions flow in a steady torrent; minute differences in shape and expression are tightened and corrected. By now the choreography is at an advanced stage, so there is little room for interpretation, and the conversation is mostly one way.
The demands are intense and the work dense, but the atmosphere is professional and relaxed. More than once all four dissolve into embarrassed laughter when Miroshnichenko demands a particularly unsubtle bit of character acting, and shows them how it’s done.
On Sunday, the first show of the day begins at noon. To sit at the side of the stage during the matinee is to see the well-oiled machinery of the production up close, in whirring, synchronised motion. From here the stage seems small, at times thronged with 70 or more dancers in full flight. Between scenes they double as stagehands, whisking props on and off, fixing wigs, adjusting swords, flicking specks of dust off costumes. They jostle and joke, work off preperformance nerves and hone the edges of their energy.
Viewed at this proximity, with their thick makeup rubbed dull by the light of the theatre’s powerful lamps, the dancers look like children playing at being adults. From the main auditorium that evening, though, they look magnificent.
In the epic early sword fight, eight pairs of dancers do battle, the whip and clack of their swords forming a metronomic beat to the orchestra’s music. During the ball scene the Capulets and the Montagues flow gracefully across the stage. The ballet’s frenetic opening scenes are enormous set pieces involving all the dancers, the pomp and splendour of the troupe fuelled by Prokofiev’s swaggering score. Later, as the ballet enters more elegant, emotional territory, it is up to the principals and the soloists to carry the show to its tragic conclusion.
Montagues and Capulets, or Dance of the Knights, is perhaps Prokofiev’s most famous piece of music. Just as it takes to the air, Miroshnichenko slips into the box at the back of the theatre from where we are watching. When the scene concludes he is the first to crack his hand in vigorous applause.