New Year in St. Petersburg

By Waters, Irene | Contemporary Review, December 2004 | Go to article overview
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New Year in St. Petersburg

Waters, Irene, Contemporary Review

Ahush fell. Dinner in the St. Petersburg Hotel's large restaurant came to a halt as all eyes focused on the television. It was a few minutes to mid-night on 31 December 2003 and President Putin--St. Petersburg born and bred--was about to give his New Year message to the Russian people.

As he finished speaking the great bell of the Kremlin behind him began to toll. Each deep sonorous 'boing' was counted aloud until, on reaching twelve, cheers broke out, sparklers were lit and waved about, champagne corks popped, glasses chinked, hugs, kisses and 'Happy New Year's' were exchanged. That our small group seemed to be the only foreigners--with barely a smattering of the language between us--in a sea of Russians mattered not at all.

Sobriety returned briefly for the national anthem. Father Frost and Snow Maiden arrived bearing good wishes for everyone, after which we resumed the interrupted meal: hors d'oeuvres of caviar, sturgeon, smoked salmon, meat portions in aspic, prawn cocktail and salad, followed by turkey (or was it duck? no-one seemed sure) and the usual trimmings, finishing with ice cream--all washed down with copious quantities of red wine and Russian champagne, with vodka on request. Nor did the festivities end there as the hotel windows gave a panoramic view of firework displays taking place across the city: explosion after explosion, each followed by shimmering cascades of green, white, gold and red. There was little sleep that night.

Our New Year celebrations had begun the previous day. A morning visit to the Vaganova Ballet Academy enhanced that evening's performance of The Nutcracker at the Mariinsky Theatre. The theatre, a delight in itself dating from 1860, was originally named after Maria, wife of Tsar Alexander II; it became the Kirov (after the assassinated Leningrad communist party leader) during the Soviet period but reverted to Mariinsky in 1992. The Academy was founded in 1738, as the Imperial Ballet School, by Empress Anna who brought in French and Italian teachers. It was not until the nineteenth century, though, that the Russian style of classical ballet became established under the French teachers Charles Didelot and Marius Petipa; the latter's choreography still forms the bulk of the Mariinsky repertoire. During the Soviet period, 'Imperial' was dropped from the title and the school re-named to commemorate Mme Agrippina Vaganova, an influential director there in the 1930s.

Around 7,000 ten-year-olds are auditioned each year for the 60 places--30 boys and 30 girls--though only about half that number graduate at the end of the eight-year course. The class of thirteen sixteen-year-old girls we watched are following in the footsteps of such ballet legends as Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, George Balanchine, Rudolf Nureyev and Galina Ulyanova, who all trained there. One girl, Kate, was already showing attributes that suggest potential stardom. Total dedication is required as, not only do students have three ballet classes a day, they must also keep up with general school subjects. All teaching is in Russian (except for the French technical terms universal in ballet) although the number of foreign students is increasing; at present about a third of those studying performance are non-Russian. These students are welcomed because they bring in fees and, as state financial support has continued to decline since perestroika, the Academy is dependant on other funding.

Even though impressive and enchanting student performances of The Nutcracker, such as we saw, have become a sell-out New Year tradition, none of the proceeds goes to the Academy. Our group's warm reception--visitors are normally excluded from classes--represented gratitude for the substantial cheque handed over by our leader from the Association for Cultural Exchange (ACE) which sponsors the Academy.

Sandwiched between the ballet class and the performance was another function to which tourists do not normally have access: a children's party in an unlikely setting, the Anichkov Palace.

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