Steppe back in time

The Irish like their ballet traditional and Russian.

December 3, 2006



Russia exports ballet the way France exports wine. Russian ballet’s superior reputation emerged more than 100 years ago when the art impresario Sergei Diaghilev took Ballets Russes on the road. He went to Paris first, showing off the artistic achievements of his native land. Back then, when French ballet accompanied opera, audiences were amazed that ballet could stand on its own.

Diaghilev introduced foreign audiences to some of the most beloved dances in the classical canon during the early 20th century. Le Spectre de la rose, based on a poem by Gautier, and Scheherazade, about a Persian queen, were some of the earliest that lured audiences with their romance and exoticism.

“Diaghilev exercised greater influence on the development of ballet in his time than any of the individual creative artists who worked for him, no matter how distinguished,” said the dance scholar Dale Harris. Throughout his career, Diaghilev commissioned musical scores from Ravel, Debussy and Prokofiev, and discovered fledgling choreographers such as Vaslav Nijinksy and George Balanchine.

He also invited artists such as Matisse, Picasso and Miro into the theatre to collaborate, and was the first to showcase male dancers in an art form previously dominated by ballerinas. Without him, Nureyev and Baryshnikov might never have become superstars.

Since Diaghilev, Russian ballet has enjoyed an untouchable reputation. The Kirov ballet, based in St Petersburg, and Moscow’s Bolshoi have spawned some of the greatest dancers in the world. It is no surprise Irish audiences are keen to see performances that hail from what is commonly believed to be ballet’s true home. But although Diaghilev was an innovator, today’s touring companies bring with them something more nostalgic.

When the Tchaikovsky Perm State Ballet arrives at the Point this month, and St Petersburg Ballet Theatre comes to the Helix, it marks the 11th year Russian ballet has landed here. The St Petersburg company, which will be led by the world-class ballerina Irina Kolesnikova, brings its Nutcracker in a programme that alternates with Swan Lake, and the Perm follows with their version at the Point, alternating with Sleeping Beauty. Complete with elaborate backdrops, glittering costumes and decipherable narratives, the performances by both companies are as dependable as the tradition whence they came.

The Perm and St Petersburg companies both have links to the Kirov, which relocated to Perm during the second world war and influenced a generation of dancers there. Many of today’s St Petersburg dancers also trained at the Kirov, home of the traditional Russian Vaganova dance style.

That style highlights dancers’ supple upper backs and high leg extensions, which first caught the eye of Simon Walton, who will present the Perm Ballet here. He had a hunch the tutu and fairy-tale ballets would best showcase Russia’s rich history and technique when he began importing Russian dance.

“Before I had anything to do with ballet I was in the music business,” says Walton. “I used to take Pink Floyd and other bands to Russia, and while I was there, my Russian friends asked me to take their rock bands on tour. I said, ‘No, I won’t do that, but I will take your ballet on the road.’”

During their visits the Russian companies have performed The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Rarely today does any ballet company present only these full-length classics, but in Ireland traditional narratives are what ballet audiences clamour for. “We have tried presenting non-narrative ballets here, but it doesn’t work,” says Walton. “People don’t like it.”

That’s not the case in the rest of the world. Most choreographers now deviate from the traditions set forth by the Russians. Ashley Page, the Scottish Ballet artistic director, is a member of ballet’s new guard, reshaping past technique and tradition to create innovative stories, sets and musical collaborations. It is the kind of boundary-pushing that Irish audiences have eschewed in favour of tried-and-trusted classics.

Since taking over at Scottish Ballet in 2002, Page has made some bold moves. He has choreographed dances to Nine Inch Nails and Aphex Twin, and regularly puts contemporary references in his full-length classics. In his version of The Nutcracker, two spiteful snowflakes run around barefoot during the snow scene, terrorising the other graceful flakes. It is a digression from the usual production, but a welcome one for anyone who has seen the predictable blizzard year after year. “I’ve always been drawn to art that is a hybrid,” says Page. “In my own choreography you can see that kind of juxtaposition.”

In his 18th-century version of Cinderella, which he brings to Belfast in February, the wicked stepmother orders her daughters’ ball gowns by telephone, and the family portrait looks like it has been painted by Andy Warhol. Not very 18th-century, of course, but when Page arrived in Glasgow four years ago, he committed to developing an audience and adhering to his artistic vision.

“When people ask why I put certain things in my ballets that they wouldn’t normally see, of course the answer is ‘Because it’s art, and you do what you have to do to tell the story,’” he says. “If audiences can’t make that jump, well, that’s too bad.”

He’s not alone in wanting to make audiences leap. Within the past 10 years, choreographers have created roles for ballerinas who are pregnant, and it is now common for them to devise scenes, even whole ballets, for an entirely male cast.

Ballet in Ireland has a chequered history, dating back to when Ninette de Valois left the Abbey theatre for London. The Abbey patrons WB Yeats and Lady Gregory had asked de Valois to head a Dublin-based ballet school and company, which she did until she was lured to London by the promise of a better salary. There she started the Vic-Wells company, which evolved into the Royal Ballet. As it turned out, the Wicklow native launched one of the largest ballet companies in the world.

Her departure set a precedent for Ireland’s ballet talent leaving the country, and most large-scale productions now come from elsewhere. Russian ballet companies come to Ireland the way Riverdance travels the rest of the world. So this month the Perm will perform to live music by the RTE Symphony Orchestra in a theatre designed for rock gigs. The St Petersburg company will appear with a smaller orchestra in a hall more suited to dance.

But for most audience members, deciding which company to see will be arbitrary — both will feature a fairy, a prince and snowflakes. Companies elsewhere might experiment with plot twists and set changes, but here what sells ticket is knowing that the companies are Russian — and that would make Diaghilev proud.

Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.