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Entertainment & Arts

An unconventional pas de deux in Russia

Reporting from St. Petersburg, Russia —

In a land that miraculously wins the right to hold winter Olympics in a subtropical zone and where oligarchs soaking in oil amuse their vanity by buying NBA and Premier League teams when they are not being sent away to Siberia, few raised their eyebrows when a reputed banana king billionaire put himself at the head of a state-owned theater.

But when Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato moved here this month to start on his five-year contract as head of the ballet company of St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Opera and Ballet Theater — the first foreigner in this capacity in more 100 years after the legendary Frenchman Marius Petipa — many raised some interesting questions. The most prominent: Is this just another nouveau riche extravaganza? Or is it possible that one of the pillars of Soviet-Russian culture, the famed Bolshoi-style classical ballet, has finally decided to rethink its sclerotic ways?

As wet snow falls outside, the Spanish dance wizard offered his own view, speaking in English. “I want to teach the [Russian] dancers to enjoy modern dance, to move their bodies in a different way, to touch each other in a different way, to be more contemporary like people in the streets,” said Duato, dressed all in black, looking like a Mick Jagger of dance, lean and almost haggard, his unruly hair falling over his bespectacled eyes. “My dream and my job is to change the company, to make new productions, renovate the old productions, keeping up the traditions of course, respecting very much the music, respecting the steps but renovating them, making them alive, making them up to the 21st century, because it would be like a terrorist act to stop the classical ballet here.”

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Duato watched intensely as two male dancers and a ballerina started practicing. A minute later, when the music stopped, the Spaniard leaped from his chair, sliding and turning to the center of the room, his lips singing the music, his hair flowing in the air and his legs taking elaborate steps. The dancers tried the steps while looking at their reflections in the mirror. For all their classical skills, this is a language they have yet to master.

When asked how long he planned to stay in Russia, Duato answered with a joke, saying he’d even like to be buried here “as Russian cemeteries are much better-looking than those in Spain, and they keep better under snow.”

He seems to have been received warmly by his charges. “It gives me great pleasure to work with Nacho Duato as he is teaching us all these new things,” said Yekaterina Borchenko, a prima-ballerina of the company in between rehearsing the pas-de-trois for a new ballet. “I have been a classical dancer all my life, but I am sure working with Duato will enhance my ballet skills and understanding as well.”

Duato, 54, who in the last 20 years turned Spain’s Compañia Nacional de Danza from “nothing” in his own words into one of the world leaders of contemporary dance, finally got disillusioned with Spain’s government for not responding to his desire to set up his own theater and school. Spurning other offers, he moved here at the invitation of Vladimir Kekhman, a tycoon who reportedly built his fortune selling imported fruits, then switched some of his attention to sponsoring the arts.

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Kekhman gave new life to the theater by investing $35 million into renovating the premises, including a downtown square, and shaking up its opera and ballet companies; his hope is to attract again full-house audiences, expand its touring venues and render a new impulse to ballet in general.

Explaining his choice of a celebrated foreigner for the key job, Kekhman complained that “already two generations of Russian dancers practically don’t know what a choreographer is who is also staging productions for them.”

“Ballet is considered a national treasure, and so far it is really so,” Kekhman said in a written response to questions. “But it is impossible to preserve the art of ballet limited by the repertoire created several decades ago as ballet dies when it stops developing.”

The Mikhailovsky Theater was founded in 1833, employing mostly French and European performers. The Mikhailovsky ballet under a different name became famous in the ‘20s and ‘30s of the 20th century under choreographer Fyodor Lopukhov. These were the years when Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev saw their ballet and opera productions premiered at the Mikhailovsky. The theater employs more than 800 people, including 130 dancers.

Handing a prized dance company over to a foreigner is more than an impertinence in this land. After all, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a very popular underground song composed by Yuri Vizbor included this line: “But we are making rockets, and we dammed the Yenisey river, and we are ahead of the entire planet in the sphere of ballet.”

“Duato’s appointment is a vivid sign of change which I hope will affect the most conservative part of our culture,” said Artemiy Troitsky, an independent culture expert, formerly the editor in chief of Russian Playboy. “Back in the Soviet times our ballet was turned into an ideological fetish and in my perception stood proudly next to such monsters as the KGB and the Communist Party. It will be fantastic if our hardened and bronze-like ballet eventually gets diluted with new aesthetic values and new people, especially if these people come from the West.”

The dark side of the particular attention that the Communist Party paid to the Soviet ballet revealed itself decades later. “Throughout the Soviet period, the national ballet was separated from the world achievements and modern dance development,” said Natalia Shadrina, chief of the Bolshoi Theater website. “While the country was fostering its classical ballet, most attempts to search for new ways were under ban, and choreography craft was suffocating in the grip of socialist realism.” With time it resulted in an acute lack of choreographers while Russia never experienced any shortage of star dancers, Shadrina added.

In recent times, however, the Bolshoi ballet and other companies turned toward contemporary thinking, inviting Western choreographers to stage productions.

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“I hope Duato’s long-term appointment can become a welcome trend if the old ideology of isolationism now encouraged by some at the top doesn’t prevail in Russia,” Daniil Dondurei, editor in chief of the Art of the Cinema journal said. “While the rest of the world goes increasingly multicultural, it will be unforgivable to return to

the past, which is a dead end for Russia.”

Throughout its history, Russia developed fruitfully only when it was open to the world, said Mikhail Shvydkoi, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s special envoy on cultural exchange. “In modern Russia, foreign top managers in banks and industrial companies are no longer a novelty, so why should ballet be different? We should also remember that Moscow Kremlin was initially built by Italian architects and the author of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Auguste [de] Montferrand, was French.”

Alexei Fadeyechev, artistic director of the Rostov State Musical Theater, wished Duato luck but expressed doubt that the Spaniard will be up to keeping the proud Russian dancers in line. “The new thinking is good,” he said, “but I believe nothing can beat the ‘Swan Lake.’”

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

In a land that miraculously wins the right to hold winter Olympics in a subtropical zone and where oligarchs soaking in oil amuse their vanity by buying NBA and Premier League teams when they are not being sent away to Siberia for defying the authorities, few raised their eyebrows when a reputed banana king billionaire put himself at the head of a state-owned theater.

But when the acclaimed Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato moved here this month to start on his 5-year contract as head of the ballet company of St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Opera and Ballet Theater-- the first foreigner in this capacity in more 100 years after the legendary Frenchman Marius Petipa--many raised some interesting questions. The most prominent: Is this just another nouveau riche extravaganza? Or is it possible that one of the pillars of Soviet-Russian culture, the famed Bolshoi-style classical ballet, has finally decided to rethink its sclerotic, iron-clad ways?

As outside the wet snow falls down on the gray and cold streets, the Spanish dance wizard offered his own view, speaking in English. “I want to teach the [Russian] dancers to enjoy modern dance, to move their bodies in a different way, to touch each other in a different way, to be more contemporary like people in the streets,” said Duato, dressed all in black, looking like a Mick Jagger of dance, his unruly hair falling over his bespectacled eyes, lean and almost haggard. “My dream and my job is to change the company, to make new productions, renovate the old productions, keeping up the traditions of course, respecting very much the music, respecting the steps but renovating them, making them alive, making them up to the XXI Century, because it would be like a terrorist act to stop the classical ballet here.”

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Duato watched intensely as two male dancers and a ballerina start practicing. A minute later when the music stopped, the Spaniard weightlessly leaped from his chair, sliding and turning to the center of the room, his eyes half closed, his lips singing the music, his hair flowing in the wind and his legs taking elaborate steps. The dancers watched in awe an tried the steps while looking at their reflections in the mirror. For all their classical skills this is a language they have yet to master.

The question how long he is planning to stay in Russia Duato answered with a joke, saying he would even like to be buried here “as Russian cemeteries are much better looking than those in Spain and they keep better under snow.” “Obviously I am not a masochist and if in a couple of years I find myself struggling too much I will go and leave my place to somebody else who can do better,” he added.

He seems to have been received warmly by his Russian charges. “It gives me great pleasure to work with Nacho Duato as he is teaching us all these new things,” said Yekaterina Borchenko, a prima-ballerina of the company in between rehearsing the pas-de-trois for a new ballet by Duato. “I have been a classical dancer all my life but I am sure working with Duato will enhance my ballet skills and understanding as well.”

Duato, 54, who in the last 20 years turned Spain’s Compania Nacional de Danza from “nothing” in his own words into one of the world leaders of contemporary dance, finally got disillusioned with Spain’s government for not responding to his desire to set up his own theater and school in his native land. Spurning other offers, he moved to Russia at the invitation of Vladimir Kekhman, a tycoon who reportedly built his fortune selling imported fruits and then switched some of his attention to sponsoring the arts.

Kekhman gave new life to an all-but-dead theater by investing $35 million into renovating the premises including a downtown square and shaking up its opera and ballet companies; his hope is to attract once again after many years full house audiences, expand its touring venues and bring in foreign stars.

With Duato at the head of his ballet company Kekhman is aspiring to give a new impetus to the Russian ballet in general. Explaining his choice of a celebrated foreigner for the key job Kekhman complained that “already two generations of Russian dancers practically don’t know what a choreographer is”. “Ballet is considered a national treasure and so far it is really so,” Kekhman said in a written response to questions. “But it is impossible to preserve the art of ballet limited by the repertoire created several decades ago as ballet dies when it stops developing.”

The Mikhailovsky Theater was founded in 1833, employing mostly French and European performers. The Mikhailovsky ballet under a different name became quite famous in the 20s and 30s of the XX Century under choreographer Fyodor Lopukhov. These were the years when Dmitry Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofyev saw their ballet and opera productions premiered at the Mikhailovsky.Many critics see the Mikhailovsky ballet among the nation’s top three competing with the lBolshoi in Moscow and Mariinsky Tin St. Petersburg. The theater employs more than 800 people, including 130 dancers. Duato sucedes former Mariinsky ballet star Farukh Ruzimatov.

Handing a prized dance company over to a foreigner is more than an impertinent personnel move in this land. After all, In the 60-s and 70-s a very popular song of the dissent-leaning underground composed by unofficial bard Yuri Vizbor included this line : “But we are making rockets and we dammed the Yenisey river and we are ahead of the entire planet in the sphere of ballet.”

“Duato’s appointment is a vivid sign of change which I hope will affect the most conservative part of our culture,” Artemiy Troitsky, an independent culture expert, formerly the editor-in-chief of the Russian version of Playboy, said in an interview. “Back in the Soviet times our ballet was turned into an ideological fetish and in my perception stood proudly next to such monsters as the KGB and the Communist Party.” “It will be fantastic if our hardened and bronze-like ballet eventually gets diluted with new aesthetic values and new people especially if these people come from the West.”

The dark side of the particular attention the Communist Party paid to the Soviet ballet revealed itself decades later. “Throughout the Soviet period the national ballet was separated from the world achievements and modern dance development,” Natalia Shadrina, chief of the Bolshoi Theater website, said. “While the country was fostering its classical ballet most attempts to search for new ways and trends were under ban and choreography craft was suffocating in the grip of socialist realism.” With time it resulted in an acute lack of choreographers while Russia never experienced any shortage of star dancers, Shadrina added.

In recent times, however, the Bolshoi ballet and other companies turned their face toward contemporary thinking inviting Western choreographers to stage productions. “I hope Duato’s long –term appointment can become a welcome trend if the old ideology of isolationism now encouraged by some at the top doesn’t prevail in Russia after all,” Daniil Dondurei, editor-in-chief of the Art of the Cinema journal said. “While the rest of the world goes increasingly multicultural it will be unforgivable to return to the past which is a dead end for Russia.”

Throughout its history Russia developed fruitfully only when it was opened to the world, Mikhail Shvydkoi, the Russian President’s special envoy on cultural exchange said. “In modern Russia foreign top managers in banks and industrial companies are no longer a novelty, so why should ballet be different ,” said Shvydkoy, a one-time culture minister. “We should also remember that Moscow Kremlin was initially built by Italian architects and the author of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, August Montferrand, was French.”

Alexei Fadeyechev, the artistic director of the Rostov State Musical Theater and formerly a ballet star of the Bolshoi, wished Duato good luck in his new job but expressed doubt that the Spaniard will be up keeping the proud Russian dancers in line. “The new thinking is good,” he said, but I believe nothing can beat the Swan Lake.”

sergei.loiko@latimes.com


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