Russian Ballet Gets a Lift

Article excerpt

Byline: Owen Matthews and Anna Nemtsova

St. Petersburg's Mikhailovsky theatre has hired a--gasp!--foreign choreographer to breathe new life into its shows.

Nacho Duato is like the nose in Nikolai Gogol's classic tale--he follows you around St. Petersburg, popping up in odd places. In posters on the Metro and billboards on Nevsky Prospekt, the Spaniard's chiseled face stares out. No surprise that his look is defiant. After a prestigious career in Europe's and America's most avant-garde dance troupes, Duato has come to ballet's historic capital to shake Russian dance to its foundations.

Duato is the first foreign choreographer in a century to run a Russian ballet company--St. Petersburg's Mikhailovsky Ballet, now in its 178th season--and traditionalists are nervous. The Mikhailovsky's chief savior and sponsor, banana magnate Vladimir Kekhman, has invested $35 million of his own money to revamp the theater. Last year, frustrated by a series of failed homegrown directors, Kekhman invited Duato to give the company an upstart fillip. After 20 years as director of Spain's national ballet company, and more than a decade at the American Ballet Theater, Duato is facing the biggest artistic challenge of his career: dragging Russian ballet, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

Ever since Duato breezed into the "dusty and creaky" Mikhailovsky, he has been tearing the place up. "No need for the classical movements here," Duato tells a dancer in rehearsal. "Forget the port des bras! Forget that your arms are your arms--just drop them, as though they are something heavy." Demonstrating, Duato drops his limbs as though he's carrying buckets. When he's not drilling the dancers in his debut ballets--revivals of two pieces Duato developed with the American Dance Theater in the 1980s--he's hunting through the props department and dropping by on the costume makers. "They did not expect me to show up every day, but I did," says Duato. "I am here not just to change the choreography but also the music, the costumes, the website, everything."

Duato is not the first person to try to shake up Russian ballet. Russian-born Alexei Ratmansky, artistic director of Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre in the mid-2000s, did a brilliant job when he revived some socialist-realist Shostakovich ballets. St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Ballet has also invited legendary contemporary choreographers like William Forsythe and Wayne McGregor to stage individual productions. But what Duato calls "the power of entropy" in Russia's grand old companies is still enormous, as is the conservatism of Russia's ballet schools, sponsors, and audiences. "It is hard to deal with the heritage of ballet conservatism, the idea that our ballet is the best in the world," says Ratmansky, who left the Bolshoi in frustration after five years.

Still, there are some who believe that opening a window onto modernity will let in a fatal draft. "A good classical dancer can quickly learn contemporary choreography, but a contemporary dancer cannot be taught how to dance classical ballet," says Andrei Kuligin, a dancer turned manager at the Mikhailovsky troupe. "Thanks to the Iron Curtain, we managed to preserve the most beautiful old school--the world was amazed when they saw it after perestroika, as we turned out to be the only survivors still dancing the real classical ballet which Europe had lost a long time ago. …