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Flash Review 2, 4-17: Jewels in the Pantry
Perm in Cupertino: A Classic Cramped

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2003 Aimee Ts’ao

CUPERTINO, California -- The Tchaikovsky Perm State Ballet Theater made its Bay Area debut Thursday, April 10 at the Flint Center, having been to the United States only twice before, in 2000 and 2002. I was looking forward to seeing this company because after the Kirov/Maryinsky and the Bolshoi Ballets it is considered to be the third-ranked Russian company. One wonders how such a level was achieved in such an out of the way location, but there is an explanation that finds its roots in unfortunate circumstances.

During the siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg again) in World War II, many members, teachers and students of the Kirov Ballet and Opera were evacuated to the more secure though isolated Perm, where they continued to work at the historic Tchaikovsky Perm State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater, established in 1870 and named after the famous composer who had been born near the city. Perm is also the ancestral home of Diaghilev family, where Serge lived as an adolescent from 1882 to 1890. The impact of such artists as ballerina assoluta Galina Ulanova and composer Aram Khachaturian, as well as the rest of the "refugees," changed the course of the school and company, establishing the same high standards of training and performance found at the Kirov. When peace finally came, some chose to remain and Perm developed into one of the most highly regarded schools in the then Soviet Union.

Watching this company is like entering a time warp, though I suspect this is partly an unintended result of performing on a stage that is really too small to hold the production of the Petipa classic, "The Sleeping Beauty." The company might have fared better had it brought a repertoire that requires little in the way of stage decor. As it is, the scenery is extending into the wings, the court aristocrats are sitting on chairs in the wings and the ones actually dancing are so cramped that they are not able to really extend their movements and have the appearance of walking on eggs. It is this mincing quality that triggers the thought that this is how the original production in 1890 might have looked, before dance took on the athletic strength it has today -- it's something like listening to music played on period instruments. It doesn't mean that the form is any less artistic or genuine, only that its outward appearance isn't what we are accustomed to. The other significant thing is that the only choreographer listed in the program is Petipa. Having seen at least half a dozen productions of "The Sleeping Beauty" with revisions and new choreography, I assume, I hope correctly, that this is an unadulterated version. But given the limitations of human memory, it is undoubtedly not without some inadvertent evolution.

Despite the Perm Orchestra in the pit playing Tchaikovsky's music quite well, in the Prologue and Act I, the dancers' performance seems muted, lacking in energy, though the corps de ballet is very clean and demonstrates the unity of style that the other Russian companies always display. The mime is strong and clear, though it goes on for too long at times. Fortunately there are some highlights to save the evening. The best thing is the dancing of Natalia Moiseeva as Aurora, followed closely by Yulia Mashkina as the Lilac Fairy and Yaroslava Araptanova as Florine in the Bluebird pas de deux. With Moiseeva you take her impeccable technique for granted, because her apparent ease on stage and sunny demeanor signal that she isn't very concerned about such mundane matters. Instead, she brings out her musicality and emotions.

Act II suffers from too much mime and not enough dancing. Prince Desire, danced by Vitaly Poleschuk, has the added burden of dancing in boots with small heels. The story book characters in Act III manage to liven up the atmosphere. Olga Pavlova and Evgeny Rogov as the Cat and Puss in Boots, and Yana Manomenova and Danila Lobas as Red Riding Hood and the Wolf are delightful. The grand pas de deux should be the high point of the ballet, but Poleschuk is on the sloppy side, though Moiseeva dances beautifully and still lingers in my memory.

I wish to defer passing judgment on the Perm State Ballet Theater until I see more of its repertoire danced under better conditions. The problem of small stages needs to be addressed in the Bay Area, as Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley has the same problem to a lesser extent. Both the Bolshoi and Stuttgart Ballets in "Swan Lake" and "Romeo & Juliet," respectively, suffered because of the shallowness of that stage. Couldn't the presenters be made aware of this pitfall and arrange for companies to show work which doesn't rely on the large stages of their home theaters? Also, there seemed to be problems with the floor, as several dancers slipped rather badly and this possibly made for a tentative air as well.

I do remember, however, seeing the Kirov Ballet in 1985 in Los Angeles on its first American tour in many years and being quite disappointed. While the St. Petersburg company was technically perfect, every step executed flawlessly, every arm in place, it was like watching fossils in museum. The Kirov is known for having preserved the classical style, but on that visit to the extent that it had become frozen in time, lifeless. The only dancer who moved me was Olga Tchenchikova, a graduate of the school in Perm! They must being doing something right to turn out great dancers now and again. I would like to see them dance in a setting where they can shine instead of struggle.

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