Balletomania in the Soviet Union extends even to Moscow’s cabbies: If and when they deign to pick you up (for a standard charge of two packs of Western cigarettes, with a third as tip), they’re as likely to go on about pirouettes as football or the weather.
Little wonder, then, that Moscow alone supports four ballet troupes, including the world’s largest, the Bolshoi. The Moscow Classical Ballet, which arrives Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, is much smaller but no less ambitious. Artistic directors Natalia Kasatkina and Vladimir Vasiliov, both former Bolshoi soloists, have naturally recruited many--though by no means all--of their 60 dancers from the Bolshoi factory.
But, according to British impresario Victoria Charlton, a shrewd observer of the Soviet dance scene, “When you look at Moscow Classical, you’re seeing a much wider mix of dancers than you’ll see at the Bolshoi or Kirov. There are Siberians, Cossacks, Georgians, Tartars, Mongolians. Because they take their dancers from all the different schools and localities, you’ll see much more individuality onstage.”
“Our company is composed of soloists,” Kasatkina elaborates, “so the same girls you see dancing in the corps de ballet will later come out and dance a pas de deux in our divertissement program. That’s why we regard our company as a constellation, not giving prominence to one or two stars. They are all stars.”
The company was established in 1966 as the Young Ballet, a touring chamber troupe directed by Igor Moiseyev, leader of the world-famous folk dance ensemble. In 1977, a year before the name became Moscow Classical Ballet (MCB), the creative reins were handed over to the husband-wife team of Kasatkina and Vasiliov.
Since the 1960s, the pair have been working in the Soviet Union as ballet masters, librettists and choreographers. During the past decade, they have expanded the company repertory to a total of 13 full-length ballets, among them a Anglo-Soviet co-production of “Swan Lake” that premiered in Glasgow in July.
They have also doubled MCB’s roster of dancers, now headlined by a handful of gold-medal winners at various international dance competitions.
Their efforts have not gone unrewarded. Two years ago the company received a new title, the U.S.S.R. Moscow State Ballet Theatre (though they have retained MCB for publicity purposes), and a huge plot of land on which to construct a major international ballet center.
“It has been planned to spend 30 million rubles for this building,” Kasatkina says, adding with mock- nouveau riche pride, “so you are now talking to normal Soviet millionaires.”
MCB’s increased esteem, coupled with the tonic effect of Mikhail Gorbachev’s expansive policies, has resulted in a regular touring schedule that has so far encompassed more than 30 countries, from Australia to Venezuela.
The United States can now be added to the list, as MCB embarks on a two-month, coast-to-coast tour presenting “Swan Lake,” the Kasatkina-Vasiliov “Romeo and Juliet,” “Creation of the World” (their best-known ballet, in which Mikhail Baryshnikov created the part of Adam) and a couple of mixed bills of classical and contemporary choreography.
These offerings will be divided between two Southern California engagements: the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Tuesday through next Sunday, then the Pasadena Civic Auditorium (presented by the Ambassador Foundation) Oct. 11-16.
Followers of the California Ballet might recognize the name of Stanislav Issaev, twice a company guest star in San Diego. MCB’s other major male dancers include Alexander Gorbatsevich, Valery Trofimchuk, Ilgiz Galimullin and Vladimir Malakhov, only 20 and already earmarked as one of the most promising finds of Soviet dance. The company also has several ballerinas of its own, including Vera Timashova, Galina Chaliapina and Tatiana Paly.
Glasnost in Action
Altogether, MCB has come to America on something of a high. “Swan Lake” may have drawn mixed notices from British critics this summer, but it generated healthy box office wherever it played in the UK. The staging is based on what is known in the USSR as “the old Moscow Lake,” a choreographic text derived from Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov and Alexander Gorsky, with additions by the 84-year-old living legend, Asaf Messerer, and by Kasatkina and Vasiliov themselves.
By Soviet standards, MCB has scored a coup in that its version of Tchaikovsky’s classic eschews the usual “happily ever after” ending familiar to Russian audiences for half a century in favor of the tragic finale the composer originally intended. What’s more, the national dances in Act III have been de-balleticized and restored to their properly ethnic form. Still, the ballet’s overall effect is much more traditional than revolutionary.
What makes this new “Swan Lake” a candidate for the history books is the story of its making, an example of glasnost in action.
“It all started as a wild pipe dream, a crazy idea tossed off at a party,” claims Peter Brightman, with Charlton a founder of the New York/London-based Classical Artists International, promoters of cross-cultural exchange who number the Bolshoi, the Kirov and MCB among their clients.
“We just kept insisting it could be done,” Charlton recalls, “I think the bureaucrats, on both sides, eventually got so tired of us that they agreed simply in order to have a rest.”
Classical Artists and MCB came up with a 50-50 deal: The choreography and dancers for “Swan Lake” would come from Moscow, the sets and costumes (not to mention the bankroll) from the West. Vasiliov sums up the venture as “an extremely exciting, interesting experiment,” one which clearly has had advantages for his and his wife’s company.
In Moscow, where space is always hard to come by, MCB doesn’t yet have a theater of its own. (The new center won’t be ready for at least three years, probably longer.) Instead, it’s crammed into a former drama school, making do with fourth-floor studios (no elevator) and offices the size of postage stamps.
As with so many things, even in these days of perestroika , all the good will in the world can’t erase the fact that there simply isn’t enough of whatever is needed to go around.
From this standpoint, the Anglo-Soviet collaboration was a godsend, because it meant real leather for the huntsmen’s jerkins and boots, and real beaded satin bodices, and attractive fantasy-medieval settings as opposed to the typical garishly painted, one-dimensional backdrops MCB is used to. Real swan feathers too.
MCB would never have been able to mount this production itself in quite so high a style, even if, Kasatkina insists, “At the moment we are allotted as much money for our productions as we ask for. Our requests have never been turned down by the Ministry of Culture.”
That wasn’t always the case. Branded “modernists” in 1965 because of their production of Igor Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps,” Kasatkina and Vasiliov were barred for six years from working as choreographers.
She refers to this “difficult period in our lives a long time ago, one of stagnation and ill-fame that we’ve all heard about, when everything that was slightly outside the accepted, set limits was rejected. We had difficulty finding the possibility to stage new ballets, and were forced to change things.”
Clearly she and her husband have forgiven, if not forgotten, this treatment.
“It wasn’t a very long period for us,” she reflects. “Normally if there were artistic suggestions that didn’t please us, we wouldn’t do them.”
Issaev, an MCB veteran of more than a decade, bears witness to the changes of the Gorbachev era.
“Before, we felt a very big control,” he says. “Now we do what we like. I think all of us are very much pleased and surprised. In the end it will give big results.”
Search for Investment
“Swan Lake” will probably stay in MCB’s repertory for many seasons to come, joined within a few years by other co-productions of “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella.” In the meantime, Kasatkina and Vasiliov are inviting foreign companies to invest big money in their proposed ballet center.
“If there is a company in some other major country that would be interested in taking part in the building of our ballet center,” Vasiliov says, “and think that it is profitable, it would be our pleasure to work in cooperation with them and share the space on a planned basis.
“We would give ample opportunity for these people to bring any kind of show or exhibition, films or videos to the center, with the exception of anti-state materials or pornography.
“We regard our colleagues with the utmost respect,” he continues, “because when you start believing that you are better than the others, that is the beginning of creative death.
“Asaf Messerer did say something flattering to us: that this production of ‘Swan Lake’ put us in the same league with the Bolshoi and the Kirov.
“But this is his opinion, not ours. Even if this is not far from the truth, it will be hard for us to keep to that standard, because we haven’t got the numbers and we are a very young company. But we will try.”