IN RUS­SIA WITH LOVE

The Na­tional Bal­let of Canada brings con­tem­po­rary works to Moscow and St. Peters­burg,

Toronto Star - - ENTERTAINMENT - MICHAEL CRABB

It’s been a long wait, al­most 67 years to be pre­cise, but the Na­tional Bal­let of Canada is poised to make its first tour to Rus­sia, the dance-lov­ing land where such pop­u­lar clas­sics as Swan Lake, Sleep­ing Beauty and The Nutcracker were born. All three Tchaikovsky-scored mas­ter­works are the be­drock of the com­pany’s clas­si­cal reper­toire, but Canada’s flag­ship bal­let troupe won’t be tak­ing old­school tu­tus and tiaras to Rus­sia.

When it opens at Moscow’s Stanislavski and NemirovichDanchenko Aca­demic Mu­sic The­atre on Oct.15 it will dance a pro­gram of con­tem­po­rary works, two of them chore­ographed by Cana­di­ans specif­i­cally for the com­pany and all made within the past decade. It’s the fact that the Na­tional Bal­let bal­ances tra­di­tion and in­no­va­tion that has earned it a ticket to Rus­sia.

The com­pany has been in­vited by Diana Vishneva, the 42year-old Rus­sian su­per­star bal­le­rina, to ap­pear in Con­text, a multi-pronged an­nual fes­ti­val she launched in 2013. Vishneva, un­usu­ally for a bal­le­rina reared in the strict clas­si­cism of what was once Rus­sia’s Im­pe­rial Bal­let, has al­ways hun­gered for new artis­tic ter­ri­tory. She has ven­tured abroad as a peri­patetic guest artist, chal­leng­ing her­self with the kind of con­tem­po­rary chore­og­ra­phy that’s lit­tle­known in Rus­sia. Vishneva founded her Con­text fes­ti­val with the goal of open­ing Rus­sian eyes to the rich­ness and va­ri­ety of con­tem­po­rary dance from beyond. In 2015, in a his­toric mo­ment, Vishneva brought Amer­ica’s hal­lowed, al­most-90-year-old Martha Gra­ham Dance Com­pany for its first visit to Rus­sia.

For its first three years, Con­text was only pre­sented in Moscow. Its suc­cess prompted Vishneva to add a sec­ond city, her home town of St. Peters­burg. The Na­tional Bal­let will per­form there Oct. 19 in what will seem an oddly fa­mil­iar en­vi­ron­ment — the new Mari­in­sky the­atre, de­signed by Cana­dian ar­chi­tect Jack Di­a­mond, is mod­elled on the com­pany’s Toronto home stage, the Di­a­mond-de­signed Four Sea­sons Cen­tre.

Un­til now, Vishneva has pre­sented gala-type per­for­mances fea­tur­ing com­pa­nies pri­mar­ily noted for their con­tem­po­rary reper­toire such as Bé­jart Bal­let Lau­sanne, Bri­tain’s Richard Al­ston Dance Com­pany, France’s Bal­let Preljo­caj and Hol­land’s In­tro­dans. This year, Vishneva has de­cided to do things a lit­tle dif­fer­ently.

“Now that we per­form in larger the­atres, I started think­ing about pre­sent­ing a big in­ter­na­tional bal­let com­pany rather than sev­eral smaller com­pa­nies,” Vishneva ex­plains on the phone from St. Peters­burg. “I wanted a com­pany that’s never been seen here be­fore but one of a very high level and with the kind of con­tem­po­rary reper­toire that will in­ter­est our au­di­ences.”

That left Vishneva with a range of choices. A com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors led her to the Na­tional Bal­let of Canada.

Gen­er­ally, the qual­ity of Cana­dian bal­let, its dancers and chore­og­ra­phers, is not en­tirely un­fa­mil­iar to Rus­sians. As far back as the early 1960s, the then­mar­ried team of Van­cou­verites Anna-Marie and David Holmes im­pressed au­di­ences and crit­ics as the first North Amer­i­cans to per­form with the Kirov (to­day’s Mari­in­sky) Bal­let. In 1968, the Royal Win­nipeg Bal­let be­came the first Cana­dian troupe to tour the USSR — Moscow, Odessa and the then-Len­ingrad — with a reper­toire that in­cluded work by Cana­dian chore­og­ra­pher Brian Mac­don­ald.

Decades later, as the last ves­tiges of the USSR were crum­bling, Mon­treal’s Les Bal­lets Jazz toured to Rus­sia. In 2007, Peter Quanz be­came the first and so far only Cana­dian com­mis­sioned to chore­o­graph for the il­lus­tri­ous Mari­in­sky com­pany. The Con­text fes­ti­val has in past years fea­tured short works by Cana­dian chore­og­ra­phers Azure Bar­ton, Eric Gau­thier and Crys­tal Pite.

Mean­while, Na­tional Bal­let dancers have gar­nered hon­ours at the Moscow In­ter­na­tional Bal­let Com­pe­ti­tion, start­ing fa­mously with Karen Kain and Frank Au­gustyn in 1973. Four years later, their ex­pand­ing fame trig­gered a se­ries of guest ap­pear­ances with the Bol­shoi and sev­eral other Soviet troupes. In 1981, Na­tional Bal­let dancers Kim­berly Glasco and Kevin Pugh echoed Kain and Au­gustyn’s ear­lier suc­cess in Moscow.

More re­cently, Na­tional Bal­let prin­ci­pal dancer Guil­laume Côté has been a fa­mil­iar face in Rus­sia, danc­ing there in three tours of Kings of the Dance, an in­ter­na­tional show­case of top male bal­let dancers. Ad­di­tion­ally, in Septem­ber 2009, Côté was cho­sen to be the first Prince Siegfried in a new pro­duc­tion of Swan Lake at St. Peters­burg’s Mikhailovsky Bal­let.

Karen Kain, the Na­tional Bal­let’s artis­tic di­rec­tor since 2005, knew Vishneva by rep­u­ta­tion — it would be hard not to — but it was only at a din­ner in Ham­burg, Ger­many, hosted by John Neumeier, a chore­og­ra­pher they both ad­mire, that the two fi­nally met and had a chance to talk.

“Diana is spe­cial,” Kain says. “She is so down-to-earth, and she loves con­tem­po­rary bal­let.”

It was the Na­tional Bal­let’s con­tem­po­rary reper­toire that clinched the com­pany’s in­vi­ta­tion.

“For me the chore­og­ra­phy is core,” Vishneva says, “be­fore even the com­pany.” Vishneva made clear she wanted a ma­jor work by Pite, one of to­day’s most sought-af­ter chore­og­ra­phers. Pite’s pop­u­lar 2009 bal­let, Emer­gence, is bal­anced by ris­ing Amer­i­can chore­og­ra­pher Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla, first danced by the Na­tional Bal­let in June, and Côté’s Be­ing and Noth­ing­ness from 2015, his in­tense re­sponse to the ex­is­ten­tial writ­ings of Jean-Paul Sartre.

“Guil­laume is known here as a dancer cul­tured by the Na­tional Bal­let of Canada,” Vishneva says. “I am happy we can show him as a chore­og­ra­pher.”

Un­der Kain’s di­rec­tion, the Na­tional Bal­let’s for­eign tour­ing has ex­panded dra­mat­i­cally — New York, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Los An­ge­les, Lon­don, Paris, Ham­burg — but Rus­sia has a spe­cial al­lure.

“It’s a true hon­our,” says Félix Pa­quet, a lead dancer in Côté’s bal­let. “I’m su­per thrilled.”

Com­pany ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Barry Hugh­son, who as a dancer per­formed in Rus­sia with Wash­ing­ton Bal­let al­most 30 years ago, says the ex­pe­ri­ence is like no other.

“The au­di­ences are in­cred­i­bly warm and eager and open. It’s so ex­cit­ing to dance for peo­ple who re­ally be­lieve that bal­let is it.”

For Kain, who still has vivid mem­o­ries of danc­ing for Rus­sian au­di­ences in the depths of the Cold War, the up­com­ing tour has a larger, moral pur­pose. “In a po­lit­i­cally fraught and dif­fi­cult world,” Kain says, “the arts can bring us to­gether. Through dance we com­mu­ni­cate di­rectly on a hu­man level.”

“I wanted a com­pany that’s never been seen here be­fore, but one of a very high level and with the kind of con­tem­po­rary reper­toire that will in­ter­est our au­di­ences.” DIANA VISHNEVA RUS­SIAN BAL­LET DANCER AND FOUNDER OF CON­TEXT

BRUCE ZINGER NA­TIONAL BAL­LET OF CANADA

Emer­gence will be per­formed by the Na­tional Bal­let of Canada in Rus­sia this week.

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