FIRE AND ICE

 

You know those dreams where you find yourself at an impossibly glamorous party clad in pyjamas, or tracksuit bottoms and runners, or worse? Well, that's roughly how it feels to be a visiting Irlandski, perched clumsily on an upright chair in the wings of the Stanislavski Theatre in Moscow as the first act of the evening's performance of Swan Lake is about to begin. When you're within four feet of a group of Russian ballet dancers you feel like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. You feel oversized and underdressed and, as these incredibly graceful beings swish past you in a glorious whirl of white, you have the distinct and horrifying impression that your feet have grown seven or eight inches in as many minutes.

But you sure do see things. The sweat on the necks of the male dancers. The light dusting of glitter on the bare back of one of the "swans", with a brighter, more intense reflection each time the crucifix she wears around her neck flashes under the spotlights. Knobbly toes inside ballet shoes. The wife of one of the principal dancers, anxious for him because it is only his second appearance in the role, lurking encouragingly just behind the curtain. And the occasional laughing remark which one member of the corps de ballet makes to her neighbour, backs safely turned to the audience. What could they be saying? "Who," - more than likely - "are those plonkers on the chairs?"

But what were we doing on the chairs in the first place? Well, having invited The Irish Times to Moscow for a sneak preview of the company which will bring The Nutcracker and Swan Lake to Dublin's Point Theatre for five performances beginning on December 18th, the people at the Stanislavski were determined that we should see as much as possible. They arranged interviews, provided a charming and efficient interpreter named Olga, gave us a tour of the theatre complex which, to our mixed delight and dismay, involved tramping through workshops in which slim figures in leotards were practising a dizzying number of leaps and spins per second. They did, in short, enough to convince us that Russian hospitality is as warm as the Russian winter is cold.

And oh, boy, is it cold. I had expected it to be like a slap in the face - shocking but invigorating. Instead, the cold in Moscow sneaks up on you on padded grey feet. One minute you're inside, already bundled into your overcoat, scarf, gloves and hat despite the inevitable indoor temperature of somewhere around 75 degrees: the next you're out on the pavement, wondering what all the fuss is about. "Cold? Hey! I can handle this . . . " And then you realise the ache has already begun between your shoulderblades and is spreading to the half-inch of exposed flesh beneath your right ear; a dull, soggy discomfort which makes you wonder for a second if your clothes could possibly have been wet when you put them on. And then, with an unnervingly jolly Russian chuckling into your other ear about how, for goodness' sake, zero degrees and sleety rain isn't cold, no sir; now the year it was minus 26 at New Year's, now that was cold, you walk through some magic doorway into a balmy, brightly-lit 75 degrees and the whole process begins again.

Luckily we were driven almost everywhere. We saw Moscow through the eyes of a succession of drivers: the sardonically amused eyes of the man hired to collect us at the airport in his statuesque American limo who gave us, simultaneously, a commentary on the buildings which flew past in a sleety blur - the military academy on the left used to be a palace where the Tzar would pause on the road to St Petersburg and that, up ahead, is the stadium of Spartak Moscow football team - and on the most recent capers of a government he dismissed as "crazy".

The disdainful eyes of the official taxi driver who stopped in response to our outstretched frozen hands only to pull away again in disgust when we asked him to drive us the two blocks or so to the Kremlin. The large, dark pools of innocence belonging to the Russian teenager who, seconds later, agreed unhesitatingly to drive us the same distance in his Lada for a couple of dollars. The sapphire twinkling eyes of Anton, a young administrator at the ballet company who had volunteered to spend a helter-skelter afternoon driving us around Moscow for the equivalent of a month's wages. Mistaking our exclamations of pained disbelief at the sight of children eating ice cream amid the flurries of sleet which blustered around Red Square for a burning desire to taste an authentic Russian cone, he searched the upmarket GUM shopping centre from end to side for an ice cream parlour, but eventually declared that he "couldn't find". Never mind, Anton, we said. Let's do St Basil's instead. Fascinated by the cathedral's maze-like interior and succession of tiny chapels linked by elaborately painted stone corridors, we lingered inside for almost half an hour - to be greeted, at the exit, by a beaming Anton. He had located the last two authentic ice cream cones in Moscow, and presented them to us with a triumphant flourish.

There were plenty more flourishes from Dmitri Bryantsev, artistic director of the Stanislavski Ballet and hunter of wild boar, a People's Artist with a soulful expression and a plentiful supply of enigmatic one-liners - "A woman is a mystery; we men are an open book", "The last time I saw Rockefeller, he complained he needed money", etc, etc. The present ballet company, he told us, dates back to the 1920s, when a company called Art Ballet merged with the opera company of Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Art Ballet had been founded by the former Bolshoi star Victorina Krieger, who was determined to abandon what she saw as the hackneyed cliches of the art; her dancers quickly became known as dancing drama actors, and her productions recognised for their originality and integrity.

Nowadays, reform takes second place to reverent restoration. "Stanislavski," declared Dmitri, leaning back in the leather chair of his comfortable, crammed office in the depths of the Stanislavski building on Moscow's Pushkin Street, "staged the opera Eugene Onegin here and it is still in the repertoire, preserved the way it was originally staged. We try to preserve it because it's a museum piece. Maybe someone could stage it in a more interesting way? Let them do that" - the black eyes flashed, reflected in the glint of the hunting knife he was casually fingering as he spoke - "somewhere else."

The Stanislavksi productions of Nutcracker and Swan Lake which will be coming to Dublin are similarly traditional in character: Swan Lake, in particular, preserves the choreography of Nemirovich-Danchenko's pupil Vladimir Burmeister - who, in turn, preserved the entire magical second act as choreographed by the legendary Ivanov. Not that contemporary dance doesn't get a lookin: on the contrary, Dmitri Bryantsev made his name as a choreographer of contemporary pieces like Cowboys, a one-act ballet to the music of George Gershwin, and Bravo, Figaro, which uses the music of Rossini - and the artistic policy of the theatre is, officially, half and half. And which is most popular in Moscow nowadays, contemporary or classical? "All over the world," says Dmitri with a little sad smile, "the most popular ballet is Swan Lake. Nothing else can compete."

We saw this for ourselves when we emerged into the packed auditorium of the Stanislavski Theatre for the second act of Swan Lake; at the final curtain, when joyous waves of applause brought the wonderful young principal couple back for call after call, devotees pressed forward until they practically fell into the orchestra pit in order to get as close as possible to the dancers they clearly regard as heroes. When it comes to touring, too, everybody wants to see Russian dancers in white tutus bringing the great classical repertoire to life with other-worldly grace. In the tough commercial climate of the new Russia, however, ballet companies can't afford an otherworldly approach if they are to survive. Dmitri Bryantsev has managed to wangle the highest salaries outside the Bolshoi for his 140 dancers, but he still depends on the generosity of the mayor of Moscow for the municipal grant which pays for the upkeep of the theatre and for new productions, so the money from tours abroad is absolutely vital. "Yuri Rishkov," he says, "is the only mayor who understands that the economy starts with culture and not with figures."

And what if the next mayor takes a different view? He shrugs. "In 1985," he says, "perestroika started here and only a crazy director can sleep peacefully since then. Here we have a very complicated situation. If we have too many tours we will turn into a bank, so then we lose creativity. If we have just creativity - well, it is very difficult to explain to a poor person how to dance the role of a rich prince. In any production you have to find a balance between the music, the light, the timing, the colours - otherwise it will be either boring or very long or not comprehensible. It's the same for the theatre.

"And," he adds somewhat gloomily, "in life, too." It is a truism that seems particularly true in the frenzied streets of pre-Christmas Dublin: but for a few days at least, that other world of elegance and beauty will grace the stage of the Point Theatre when the Stanislavski comes to town. Don't, whatever else you do, let it glide past without you seeing it. Even - especially - if Russian ballet dancers make you feel like a plonker on a chair.

The Stanislavski Ballet performs at the Point Theatre from December 18-22