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The DanceView Times, New York edition

Homage to St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg in New York: Ballet
St. Petersburg Through American Eyes
Celebration of the 300th Anniversary of the City of St. Petersburg
The Harriman Institute of Columbia University
November 6-16, 2003

By Dale Brauner
copyright © 2003 by Dale Brauner

St. Petersburg, Russia is to balletomanes what Wrigley Field is to baseball enthusiasts, Vienna is to music aficionados, and Rome is to Catholics. Many ballet lovers consider it the birthplace of the art form. St. Petersburg is the birthplace of George Balanchine, Anna Pavlova, Mikhail Fokine; the home of the Mariinsky Theatre and breeding ground to countless dance figures.

The city observed its 300th anniversary this year and events celebrating the “Venice of the North” are being held around the world. New York has the largest population of Russians living outside Russia, so it is only right that festivities have been staged here. The Harriman Institute of Columbia University presented “St. Petersburg Through American Eyes; Celebrating 300 Years of St. Petersburg." held from November 6-16. There were panels devoted to painting, music and literature, and also one devoted to ballet (moderated by Lynn Garafola, Professor of Dance at Barnard College).  Participants were noted teacher Suki Schorer ("Transformed by America: Balanchine and the Maryinsky Tradition"); author Tim Scholl (“The Sleeping Beauty and St. Petersburg"); and critic Elizabeth Kendall (“Passing on the Petersburg Legacy", a session on coaching with American Ballet Theatre principals Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky.

Longtime School of American Ballet faculty member Suki Schorer opened things with a lecture-demonstration with advanced students from the school called, “Transformed by America: Balanchine and the Maryinsky Tradition.” As informative as the address was, it did not fulfill the title as well as her presentation at the Vaganova Ballet Academy/School of American Ballet joint performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1998, when Schorer staged Balanchine’s transformation of Marius Petipa’s choreography alongside the original. That made for an interesting program and truly showed how Balanchine transformed the Mariinsky tradition. However, this demonstration was really a condensed version of her book, “Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique.” That tome is 426 pages and this space is too limited to give a detailed account of Schorer’s 90-minute lecture.

Schorer separated the talk into several groups, including the basic principles of movement, head and hands, and musicality. To make her points, she had two SAB dancers Cassia Phillips and Abigail Simon dance bits of Balanchine’s ballets and punctuated her comments with comments from the master.

At one point, Phillips stood in arabesque. Schorer said, “Mr. B would said, ‘Diamonds or Pearls.’” She held out her palm just out of Phillips’ reach. The dancer exclaimed, “Diamonds.” “Then reach for them,” Schorer said. The effect created an arabesque that moved out into space, making it more than it was.

To show fast movement, Phillips performed the female’s first variation in Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, with piano accompaniment by Alla Resnick.

Schorer said that Balanchine wanted a dancer to be in control of being out of control. He would choreograph dancers falling off pointe or falling out of turns, but the dancer still had to be in control of those effects. To show this, Simon performed the Harp variation from Raymonda Variations and the third variation from Divertimento No. 15. To illustrate how the positions Balanchine wanted grew out of the dancer’s center, Simon performed the beginning of the Sugar Plum Fairy solo from the Nutcracker.

There’s a popular belief that Balanchine wasn’t concerned with the upper body, but Schorer gave several examples that give another view of this. In class, an open first position was achieved by “hugging a tree,” for example. “Balanchine did not want dead hands, dead dancers or zombies. Those were the ones who stared obsessively straight into the mirror, the ones who ‘sat’ into positions, the ones who were static. He used to say the hands should look like a parachute when doing pliés. A tiny bit from Concerto Barocco was performed so we could see hands that moved like “bristles of a paint brush.”

Balanchine though en face dancing was like “cooking a veal roast with no garlic.” The head should tilt as if “asking for a kiss” or “you are putting your head on a pillow.” Schorer said, “We all wanted him to give us a kiss.”

The exercises continued showing musicality, rhythmic awareness and the ability to create jumps that flashed into pictures. At one point, the two young ladies did a barre—one in the Balanchine style and the other in the Russian style. While Schorer extolled the virtues of the Balanchine barre, with its multiple tendus, there also were secret pleasures in the more leisurely Russian barre, with its backbends and modeled head and arms.

Balanchine’s first experience on the Mariinsky stage was as a Cupid in the company’s sumptuous production of Sleeping Beauty. This was one of the experiences of his young life and convinced the home-sick boy that the theater was the place for him. Several of his ballets could be considered a distillation of Sleeping Beauty and he sometimes brought up the idea of doing the full-length work when there was a muse that inspired him, reportedly Suzanne Farrell and later, Darci Kistler. Although he did do the Garland Waltz, Balanchine never staged the complete ballet, saying the expensive no-holds-bared (or importantly, no unions) resources needed to bring the work to life were only available at the Imperial Ballet. And that is where that Sleeping Beauty slumbered until the late 1990s, when a team at the Mariinsky brought the 1890 production back to life (or as close as possible).

Ballet historians that consult the theater had been talking of bringing the ballet back for a few years with ballet director Mahar Vaziev. The historian and critic Tim Scholl told the Russians that he had seen Nicholai Sergeev’s written records of the old production at Harvard University. After receiving permission to see a copy of the Stepanov notations, Vaziev gave them to soloist Sergei Vikharev to analyze the papers of Sergeev, the former manager of the Mariinsky Ballet from 1903-1918 who emigrated with a trunk full of ballet scores.

The reconstruction of the ballet and the importance of the work to its native city, both in 1890 and now, was the subject of the second lecture at Columbia as Scholl, an associate professor of Russian at Oberlin College, read a paper titled, “The Sleeping Beauty and St. Petersburg.” The lecture could be seen as a preview of Scholl’s new book, Sleeping Beauty: A Legend in Progress to be released in 2004.

Scholl's account is really a detective story. The reconstruction crew used not only Nikolai Sergeev's material, but also drew from the theater's own holdings, such as photographs, as well as accounts from older dancers in Russia. Photographs, sketches and other materials were used to recreate the colorful costumes and scenery. Vikharev also compared his efforts with five other productions—Natalya Kamkov's staging for the Perm Ballet (based on the Fyodor Lopukhov version that was performed in the Mariinsky from 1922-1952); Pyotr Gusev's staging, also for Perm; the Royal Ballet production, which goes back to the 1939 Sadler's Wells production staged by Sergeev; Yuri Grigorovish's 1972 staging for the Bolshoi Ballet; and a recent production at the Musorgsky Theater of Opera and Ballet.

One lovely moment was brought backby this method. The stagers saw a reference to a shell in the notations for the Act II. Pas de'action. They were baffled, until they saw a 1890 photograph of the scene in the St. Petersburg State Museum of Theater of Music that showed Carlotta Brianza as Aurora balancing on a shell, which is attached to garlands of flowers held by the corps of naiads. The effect is simple, but affecting.

There also was good fortune for the stagers in an unfortunate turn of economics. "They were saved by the financial crises of 1998, which kept the costs of making the costumes and scenery down," Scholl said.

Irina Kolpakova was considered one of the great Auroras when she performed in the 1952 Konstantin Sergeev production while with the Kirov. She was born in St. Petersburg in 1933 and was part of Agrippina Vaganova’s last graduation class. Kolpakova was lauded for her perfect academic style in the great classical works during the 1960s. She joined the American Ballet Theatre as ballet mistress in 1990. It is there that Irina Dvorovenko and her husband, Maxim Beloserkovsky—both principal dancers with the company—now came under her charge. Dvorovenko and Beloserkovsky joined dance critic and author Elizabeth Kendall in the last lecture, “Passing on the Petersburg Legacy.” The talk centered on how the pair are coached by Kolpakova and how the Russian coaching tradition differs from the American style.

The couple both studied in their native Kiev at the School of Dance. There, and in St. Petersburg, students did not go from teacher to teacher, but stayed with the same instructor for several years. And in the companies, soloists are assigned a coach, with whom they work on their roles. The coach, a former ballerina or danseur, is more than just a teacher, but as Dvorovenko put it, “theater mama.” The coach will often look after not just their charge’s interpretation, but also their hair, tutu, and jewelry, and also sometimes lobbies for the dancer with the management.

In the United States, the dancer is expected to be more independent perhaps that’s part of our nature, or perhaps that’s just the nature of finances. As Kendall pointed out, Russian dancers have little say when it comes to the amount of rehearsing, performing and touring they have due to a lack of unions. When learning a role, according to Kendall, an American dancer is taught the steps by a ballet master and then is expected to go off on their own to come up with an interpretation. There are merits to both sides, but Dvorovenko and Beloserkovsky are grateful for their connection with Kolpakova.

“It’s the etiquette, it’s the way Irina behaves in real life, the way she holds the glass, the way she sits in the studio, it’s her nature,” he said. “She tries to teach all the ballerinas, how to be like royalty. It’s not enough to put a crown on your head as Aurora, but how you carry that crown.”

It had always been a dream for Dvorovenko to be coached in Sleeping Beauty by Kolpakova, who now regularly passes on her ballerina secrets to the younger dancer.

In their sessions, Kolpakova focuses mostly on Dvorovenko, so Beloserkovsky seeks the eye of ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie. Sometimes, the two women will watch him do his solos, as his wife puts it, “he is in an Irina sandwich!.”

Kolpakova has been coaching the couple and others for the company’s upcoming production of Raymonda, which will get its American debut during the spring Met season.

When the ballet was previewed as Grand pas Classique this fall at City Center in New York, there was a bit of controversy when Raymonda’s “claps” during her solo were not heard. According to the Russian tradition, they are not supposed to.

“In the last act, Raymonda is presented to royalty,” explained Dvorovenko. “Well, you would not expect (Britain’s) Queen Elizabeth to make a loud clap. It is supposed to be just slight brushing with hands, and your wrists are angled.

“At the Paris Opera when Rudolf Nureyev did the production, he did the different kind of presentation for the ballerina. The ballerina, at the end, she became kind of a mean person, as she achieved some thing and this (she claps hard) will show everybody. But traditional Russian style is just a gentle clap and the way Irina shows it is incredible. She turned the upper body. She constantly asks you to elevate your body, to be radiant. She works on your facial expression, they way you look, the way you move. She said you can always tell a high-class ballerina not by the main steps but by the between steps, the way a ballerina acknowledges somebody, or runs across the stage.”

Today we are often told ballet is old and boring. A new choreographer is often hailed as one who is going to drag this old art form into the 21st Century. But Kolpakova, Beloserkovsky, Dvorovenko (and Schorer and Scholl) are not ready to let it go.

“We have an enormous respect for her knowledge,” Dvorovenko said. “She was the last student of Vaganova. She gives everything to us and we’re very lucky to take all the information because…we’re blessed to get it.”

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 9
November 24,, 2003
Copyright ©2003 by Dale Brauner



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Mindy Aloff
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Meital Waibsnaider
Leigh Witchel
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last updated on October 7, 2003