To Russia, With Love

Dance Features   To Russia, With Love
In Russia, the dancers of the Houston Ballet faced terrorist threats, bodyguards, and a sloped stage. But it was worth it to be the first American ballet company to perform at the Bolshoi in 20 years.

To perform at the Bolshoi is every dancer's dream. And it was a dream that came true for Houston Ballet in November 2002 when the company paid its first visit to Russia.

Artistic director Ben Stevenson had nurtured the idea of taking Houston Ballet to Russia since his arrival as director of the company in the mid 1970s.He holds many ties with the country, having staged his Peer Gynt for Perm Ballet, been a juror at Moscow's International Ballet Competition, and invited Nina Ananiashvili, the Bolshoi's prima ballerina, to be a guest with Houston Ballet. But his dream was nearly shattered when, just as the company was preparing to leave, there were reports of the terrifying terrorist attack at another Moscow theater.

"My personal view is that there is heightened security after an event like this," observed Houston Ballet Managing Director C.C. Conner shortly before the company departed for Russia. "When the terrorist attack took place in Moscow, there was a sniper in Washington, D.C. I kept saying, 'We're still going to perform at the Kennedy Center in April. Why wouldn't we go to Moscow?' For the dancers, it's the chance of a lifetime. It's also a feather in the cap of the company and the city to be the first American ballet company to perform on the Bolshoi stage in twenty years."

On arrival in Moscow, the Houston dancers found they now had several bodyguards who had been brought in by the tour organizer, Postmodern Theatre. These poker-faced, dark suited men were ever present in halls, dressing rooms, hotel lobby and on the short walk to the theatre‹though it wasn't long before their hard exteriors cracked with the charms of Houston Ballet's lively young female corps members. (They even squired the dancers around on sightseeing tours of Red Square, and took them to a local Russian disco for a taste of Moscow nightlife.)

Another sign of heightened security was the installation of metal detectors at the main entrance of the Bolshoi Theatre, which slowed the audiences' arrival and caused forty-minute delays on raising the curtain. And on opening night, a little dog with his two camouflaged handlers, wagged and sniffed enthusiastically, checking every corner of the backstage area for bombs.

There were yet more reminders of the hostage crisis when the local orchestra hired by Houston assembled for the first time. Many of its musicians had been working in the orchestra at the Teatralni Center, playing for the popular Nord-Est musical just weeks before. Though they didn't talk of their time as hostages, they reported that eight of their fellow members had been killed.

Then came the news that Ananiashvili was unwell and would not be able to dance as planned. Despite the tense environment, the company rose to even greater heights and received much acclamation from the Russian audiences for its varied repertoire and lively dancers.

The Bolshoi Theatre's historical traditions date back to the same date as the founding of America, 1776, when an Englishman and a Russian Prince were granted permission from Empress Catherine II to start a theater company in Moscow. Their original Bolshoi building burned down, (as did the two subsequent ones). The present day structure dates back to 1856. With its eight distinctive columns and six-tiered red and glittering gold auditorium, the atmosphere inside fills the visitor with awe and excitement. Hammers and sickles still emblazon the huge brocade curtains, though an added drop cloth with the Russian Federation insignia depicts the most recent of the many political changes the theatre has seen. And then there's the stage ‹the huge stage with its vast wings‹on which have performed Soviet and Russian legends from both its ballet and opera companies. Even Lenin has appeared here, haranguing comrades to follow him. Yet despite this impressive pedigree, it's not an easy stage for foreigners to dance on. The rough wooden floor has many dips and cracks and the enormity of its size exhausts even before the dancing begins. Then there's the rake ‹the steep and slippery uphill incline of the floor ‹that can make you wish you possessed mountain goat genes.

However, the dancers of Houston Ballet don't have these genes and consequently had to learn, in just two days, how to cope with the challenging terrain. "It's weird," stated principal Julie Gumbinner in her dressing room alongside that famous rake. "You have to learn to pirouette all over again! And the sight-lines are also so different too. But what a fantastic opportunity it is to be here. When I saw the theater for the first time, my jaw just dropped. I never thought when I was ten years old, that I would ever get to dance on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre."

These thoughts were echoed by Dominic Walsh. "I grew up in the U.S. admiring the Russian dancers‹Misha and Rudolph‹and what inspiration they gave to young male dancers with their integrity, seriousness and passion in their dancing. It's a privilege to be dancing here. You can feel history in its walls and on stage. It's a dream come true and I feel it's so good for us to be here, to share Houston Ballet 's uniqueness, its legacy of having one director choreographing, creating, teaching and coaching his family of dancers for twenty seven years."

Another principal, David Makhateli had an advantage over his fellow dancers ‹he speaks fluent Russian, having been born in, what was, the Republic of Georgia. "The theatre still looks, feels and smells the same," he reported. "With all its history, it has something special about it. You can feel its greatness, and while it has become more westernized since I was last here, it has retained its own identity." While in Moscow David took class each morning in an upstairs studio with the Bolshoi dancers. The teacher was the famous dancer Mikhail Lavrovsky whom David had known from Georgia. "He is a legend in the dance world and his classes are wonderful ‹ lots of big jumps and turns." And since the studio floor is raked, the practice and workout gave David a good head-start for the main stage.

"I'll cherish the experience forever," stated soloist Tyann Clement. "It will be something to tell the grandchildren that I once danced on the Bolshoi stage."

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