‘Reflections’: A showcase for Russian ballerinas
Henry Segerstrom, developer of South Coast Plaza, had a scheduling glitch. The real-estate tycoon, whose land and multimillions of dollars fostered the development of Orange County’s flourishing arts campus, could not attend the 2006 premiere of “Kings of the Dance.” So he called Sergei Danilian, who packaged the all-male virtuoso ballet showcase in association with the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
Danilian, speaking from his Ardani Artists Management office in New York, remembered the moment vividly. “Henry Segerstrom asked if he and his wife, Elizabeth, could drop in on a rehearsal for half an hour. I told him, ‘It’s your house; take as much time as you need.’ He spent four hours and said, ‘Now I know for what we built the theater!’”
The team’s third international coproduction, “Reflections,” a gender-reversed, female-power version of “Kings,” debuts Jan. 20 at OCPAC in Costa Mesa. Made in collaboration with the Bolshoi Theatre of Russia, “Reflections” aspires to the popular success of “Kings” and a prior production, “Diana Vishneva: Beauty in Motion,” made with the Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) Theatre.
Segerstrom, 87, the center’s founding chairman, and Danilian, 51, a scrappy Russian-born dance impresario, have shared that vision for five years. Sponsoring new dance development would benefit OCPAC. The theater, which could be dubbed Moscow-on-the-405, had successfully presented the Bolshoi four times and the Kirov and Eifman ballets six times each since 1989. A serious Russian pipeline, not for gas or oil but for ballet, was in place.
“Reflections,” so named because it endeavors to express the thoughts and feelings of a new cohort of Russian ballerinas, promises a mash-up of great allure for balletomanes. It matches seven ballerinas — all graduates of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in their mid-20s who perform at superstar level, five in Russia, the rest in the West — with a tempting roster of hip choreographers. After the California performances, the entire production, including a Russian orchestra, escapes from behind the Orange curtain and travels to Moscow for performances at the Bolshoi Theatre the last weekend in January.
Rehearsing together in Costa Mesa in August, according to Bolshoi ballerina Yekaterina Krysanova, “was absolutely a fine time. I am very happy I spent my vacation so creatively. We have all been very excited to see each other. We knew each other from school, and our life after school has been so different.”
A complex project (budgeted at “between 1 and 2 million [dollars],” according to the tight-lipped Danilian), “Reflections” knits the old ballet world to the new. Danilian said: “For the center, soon celebrating its 25th anniversary, to hook up with the Bolshoi Theatre, 235 years old, it’s a great collaboration. [For] Southern California, where there are no big ballet companies but only touring companies going through, this is very important.”
“Reflections” contains a back story: It’s a human drama of those who depart, those who remain, and why. Maria Kochetkova left Moscow in 2003 for the English National Ballet. After seeing the San Francisco Ballet perform in London, she put Europe behind her: “The main reason I came [to San Francisco in 2007] is that I had not enough new works, contemporary choreography in London. Now I am perfectly happy. We are really spoiled with new ballets; there is something I want to do every season.” Also making a cross-border career move was Polina Semionova, now a virtuoso prima ballerina with the Berlin Staatsoper Ballet.
Five custom-made solos and one duet form the main attraction of “Reflections,” a full evening of ballet that includes three other group works. The commissioned choreographers form an elite international corps. Drastic modernist Karole Armitage, minimalist Lucinda Childs and Canadian-born Aszure Barton are New Yorkers. Jorma Elo, a native Finn, choreographs for the Boston Ballet. From the Old World come Wayne McGregor of the Royal Ballet in London and Italy-born Renato Zanella, former director of the Vienna State Ballet. Each ballerina chose her own choreographer for collaboration.
Krysanova described her “hunger for something new. Working with Karole [Armitage] and Mauro [Bigonzetti, the Italian director of Aterballetto], it’s my first experience, and I’m very excited. We have close communication with [our] choreographer, and it’s a special moment when he personally works with you. I like Karole’s choreography, in general. Before we met, I saw her work on Internet. And I feel right away that this is my person.”
The group works include a Bigonzetti premiere, “CINQUE,” incorporating humor into a Vivaldi score. Spaniard Nacho Duato, longtime director of Compañia Nacional de Danza de España and the newly appointed director of St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theater, contributes a revised trio version of his 1997 “Remansos.” The sole vestige of neoclassicism is George Balanchine’s 1955 “Pas de Trois,” set to Glinka with restored costumes by Karinska, New York City Ballet’s great Russian-expat tutu maven.
Bolshoi star and American Ballet Theatre guest artist Natalia Osipova, astonishing for her lyricism and crackerjack technique, lives part time in New York. She said, “I started my career at the Bolshoi since [Alexei] Ratmansky was director. Maybe that helped create a good feeling of Western choreography. I work a lot outside Russia, but the pressure I feel [surrounding ‘Reflections’] is not from spectators but because we represent the school of the Bolshoi.”
Rounding out the cast are the Bolshoi’s Yekaterina Shipulina and Anastasia Stashkevich, and Olga Malinovskaya of the Estonian National Ballet. Four leading Bolshoi men, no slouches, will join the women: Alexander Volchkov, Vyacheslav Lopatin, Denis Savin and Ivan Vasiliev.
“Reflections” resembles a consummate business deal in the way it responds to the needs of its disparate stakeholders. The chance to collaborate with highly inventive Western artists and perform cool works both in California and then again for friends and family in Russia attracted the dancers. The dance makers, in turn, get to choreograph for some of the planet’s most technically proficient ballerinas. (Bigonzetti, an experimental modernist, quipped in rehearsal that his sole obstacle is that “you cannot do floor work in a tutu.”) Presenting work at the Bolshoi Theatre, the formidable bastion of ballet history, represents a huge perk for the dance makers as well.
For OCPAC, benefits abound. “Reflections” provides fresh dance programming for Segerstrom Hall’s 3,000-seat house. It augments the center’s mission as a presenter, giving it further street cred as a developer of a highly marketable international ballet product. And it allows the center to connect with benefactors in a new way; for many wealthy patrons, investing in a creative project has more panache than just underwriting programs as usual. According to OCPAC executive vice president Judith O’Dea Morr, the venture’s support is solid: “We have a loyal core group of 10 to 15 dance patrons, starting with philanthropist Audrey Steele Burnand, who formed her foundation for international dance. They are wonderfully generous to our projects when asked.”
The Bolshoi gets not only an express ticket to the cutting edge but also the rights to the repertoire after the premieres.
With so many parties involved, it naturally has fallen on the impresario to smooth jagged edges. Danilian said, “Shipulina tore her knee during performance in 2009. She was in touch with me, saying, ‘I will recover. Don’t take me out from project.’ Nine months after surgery, the first time she wore pointe shoes was in Orange County [in August].”
The willowy blond admitted, “In honesty, it was a very difficult time for me. I joined after complicated operation on my knee.” Musing separately on the freedom granted her generation, Shipulina said, “Today is completely different time. We have a free choice of traveling around the world, and everyone can go where they want to go. I don’t know how my life will go if I would live behind the Iron Curtain. The main reason [ Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, Mikhail Baryshnikov and others] defected was not just to work with Western choreographers but to have freedom to live and create in a free country.”
The “Reflections” cast enjoyed a pleasant class reunion during last summer’s OCPAC rehearsals. But the Moscow-based state employees, in particular, were unaccustomed to grueling 10-hour days in the studio. Kochetkova, the San Francisco Ballet veteran, dryly told her Russian colleagues, “Welcome to America.”