IN RUSSIA WITH LOVE
The National Ballet of Canada brings contemporary works to Moscow and St. Petersburg,
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
Emergence will be performed by the National Ballet of Canada in Russia this week.