Children of Terpsichore
By Natalia Shuvalova
Photos courtesy of Summer Ballet Seasons
Summer Ballet Seasons is the annual Classical Ballet Festival in Moscow. Its purpose is to maintain and develop Russian cultural heritage. Whatever this phrase may mean, they are doing very well. Since 2001, when the very first Summer Season was held, the performances have been attended by more than 200,000 people. It was expected that the main audience would be foreign tourists who came to Moscow to find that the famous Russian Ballet is on tour in the country they had just come from. But it turned out that Russians have equal interest! The performances are traditionally held at the Russian Academic Youth Theatre, which is right next to the Bolshoi Theater, opposite the Kremlin and Red Square.
Most of the companies performing at the Festival are infrequent visitors to Moscow. They spend most of their time touring abroad or in other Russian cities. One of the regulars is the Russian Classical Ballet Theater of Viktor Smirno-Golovanov. Their performances are scheduled in August when the group returns from Taiwan. Nonetheless, they spent the whole month of June in Moscow, living their everyday ballet life – rehearsing, rehearsing and rehearsing.
Their repertoire is vast: “Swan Lake”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Nutcracker”, Giselle”, “Don Quixote”, “War and Peace”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Love and Death of Anna Karenina”, “Carmen Suite”, “Cinderella”. Now Smirnov-Golovanov is working on 'Mascarad', music by Khachaturyan.
I met him personally and I was intrigued! Not every day do I meet a real ballet legend, one who studied and danced with Pavlova, Tereshkova and Posokhov, and who directed many world-renowned performances. One of them was “Love and Death of Anna Karenina”, starring Maya Plisetskaya. I expected a story of the happy life of a ballet star. However, it turned out quite differently.
To get to the rehearsal, I had to take a shuttle bus to the kolkhoz – yes, there are still places that are referred to by this soviet word – at Zarechie. Within half an hour ride (maybe 45 minutes from the Kievskaya station), the bus stopped in front of a red-brick building. The driver announced the Kolkhoz Zarechie’s Palace of Culture.
“Ballet stars rehearse in a kolkhoz!” I thought to myself.
The first person I met upon arrival was Victor Smirnov-Golovanov, the director and the founder of the theatre. He was nicely, but very simply, dressed. There seemed to be no arrogance about him. At first, I wondered if this was his secretary, not Smirnov-Golovanov himself – worldrenowned ballet director and former Bolshoi Theatre star.
Smirnov-Golovanov’s career as a ballet dancer began in 1944 when he was accepted into the Bolshoi Theatre School. At that time, the students literally lived in the theatre. They had classes with the ballet stars, and could watch them perform from back-stage. Smirnov-Golovanov saw many of the most famous ones. More, he performed with them on the stage. “I even held Ulanova!” he proudly admits.
He believes that the present ballet education lacks that kind of family atmosphere. The real education happens within the theatre. That’s one of the main principles he follows in his group. Everyone has a chance to grow. He does not care about previous education when he considers admitting a dancer to the group. He looks for potential. Determination and dedication are what he sees as most important.
When he speaks of the Bolshoi Theatre, it is always bitter-sweet. Treasuring all that he received from the ballet professionals in Soviet times, and the level of the cultural education, it was the Soviet injustice that made him think of founding his own group.
“Hardly anyone had a chance to go out of the country,” he says. “But everyone was eager to see and learn about ballet in Paris and New York. But the Soviet Government would allow only the Moscow stars to travel. Those in the provinces, no matter how talented they were, never had a chance. I was furious with that injustice. When the Soviet Union collapsed and it was possible to work independently, I decided to launch my own group, one in which everyone would have the chance to show their best, to perform in other countries, to learn.”
Smirnov-Golovanov’s resolution was strong. In 1988 he became the founder and art director of the Russian Classical Ballet Theatre. Naturally, the question arises: why classical?
“As a dancer,” he replies, “I like and treasure every style. Modern ballet is wonderful. But when I was very young, I happened to meet Solomon Yurak. He used to be Shalyapin’s and Pavlov’s impresario. He told us then, "There will be interest in Russian art, but if you chase and run after the West, you are certain to fail. You will never keep up with us in the West, we will continue to be the first and best in modern ballet. We grew up in that. So I decided to never copy but maintain and develop our traditions. Besides, people are wrong, thinking that classical ballet is a dead art. It is constantly changing developing. Modern ballet does not come as substitute. It is just another form of art. Besides, the classical style is always more difficult than modern. In modern dancing, one is free to express oneself, but there is nobody who knows ‘how’, thus nobody who can judge the level of his proficiency.”
As we talked, we watched his group rehearsing 'Carmen'. At times he had to break off to give instructions and corrections. It was a special treat to watch them all at work. At these moments, one comes to realize why a ballet group is called a family, why a real dancer can grow only within a theatre group. Smirnov-Golovanov’s corrections are precise and sharp, always to the point, and taken with the highest respect, just like from a father.
I learned a lot that day. The conversation went on and on, but I wished it would not end. I was amazed by the stories, or maybe the special spirit that dwells there.
“You know, ballet should be watched from a distance. The royal balcony was always in the middle but never close to the stage. Ballet is graphic. It is the geometry of various figures, merging, changing, dissipating one into another.”
I had to ask why they perform so rarely in Moscow, even though to the whole world they are known as the Moscow City Ballet. Smirnov-Golovanov smiled. “It is not worth it. I always doubt that we should accept the invitation to perform within the Summer Ballet Seasons, but we still do!”
There is no arrogance in that statement. Moscow is neither hospitable nor profitable. In their case, it is hard to cover the expenses of the warehouse to store their stage sets, the price of the Zarechie rehearsal stage, and apartments for the dancers (hotels are out of the question). While abroad, they are hosted in much better conditions.
“Colleagues often ask what one has to do to have your own theatre. My first answer is to be ready not to pay yourself a salary, or to sell your car in order to buy the costumes or the set for your next production,” he says, laughing. “I am not the sort of person who will beg someone for help. Through the lean years, we survived on our own resources, both financial and creative.”
I was looking at the 20 year-olds on the stage. Don’t they dream of a life that Anastasia Volochkova has? Fame, a name, money! They probably do, but not when on the stage.
Mr. Smirnov-Golovanov introduces me to a charming being. “That’s who you have to talk to!” he said.
The being is puzzled and, in a voice as gentle and charming as her look, says, “But we are going to rehearse Don Quixote now!”
The charms of PR and the lure of the media seem to be so far away from her reality. She is more than friendly, yet makes sure that she will be free to go back on stage soon. Her back is always straight, whether walking, standing or taking her seat on a chair. She is all about ballet.
Her story is the story of every person who chose ballet as their career. Yet, this is not quite true. Her story is the story of the very few who dedicated their lives fully to this art. The story of the children of Terpsihora (as Smirnov-Golovanov calls them).
She was born and grew up in the Ukraine. From early childhood she went in for sport gymnastics. Natasha was doing well, and was invited into the national youth team. One of the trainers always advised her to try dance or ballet. She paid no attention until one day he took her to the theatre to see Swan Lake.
“I was dazzled. I could feel every movement they were doing on the stage! I can still remember most of them. That particular evening I literally got sick with ballet. I read every book I could about ballet,” Natasha says.
Shortly after that, her mother was care less enough to tell her she had seen a TV program about a ballet school in St. Petersburg, a boarding-type school. That became Natasha’s dream – and a heartache for her parents. They were determined to not let her go there. But the child was so determined that they finally agreed to a summer trip to the northern city. Of course, they could not refuse to show her at least the building of the school.
'The Sleeping Beauty'
“Even the street where the school is, is magical! The moment I stepped in there, my back went straight, my expression changed. It was as if I stepped into another reality."
To cut a long story short, Natasha became a student. Her parents expected (or hoped) that she would not pass the exams, but she did. They took her back home and she cried for a whole year. Later, tired of endless tears, they took her there again. They did not assume that last year’s results would count and were sure that there was no way she could be admitted. But to their surprise, the teachers remembered her and she was accepted. This time Natasha’s parents had to go back home by themselves and send her suitcases by mail.
On the question, “Was it hard?”, Natasha smiles, “Very hard. Just like in the army.” She shared a room for four, with one toilet on the floor and a shower in the basement. The room had just one closet for all. Every morning, at 7 a.m. the attendant of the floor would open the door of the room shouting “Wake up!” Her mother was so worried about who would take care of her there. She asked one of the supervisors: “Who does the girls’ hair?” The supervisor smiled: “One week and they learn to do everything themselves.”
At the age of nine, none of them had a mother to do their hair, to give them breakfast or just a warm hug after the hard day. Classes started at 9 a.m., and the last rehearsal would end at 9 p.m.
Would she choose the same childhood and life now?
The smile gets even larger: “Of course!”
The style of life she has is not easy. It is not for most of us. But for her, it is the best she could dream of. She can dance and that’s all that matters. The price is lots of traveling, six hours a day rehearsing and a strict diet regime. During her leisure time she watches recordings of her performance to see what needs improvement.
I remembered my ride in that shuttle bus and wondered whether they all have to go the very same way on a daily basis.
“This year we are lucky to be able to rent an apartment ten minutes away from the theatre. But two years ago we stayed at the opposite end of the city, and it took me two hours to get here. It was one of the hardest years in my life.”
But as long as she dances, she is ready to put up with all the other difficulties.
She excused herself: “I need to be back on the stage.”
I watched this charming, tiny, slim – very slim – being float away and join the other fifty beings on the stage and thought to myself: “This selfless dedication is what makes art real art. Not a new form, a new expression, but what we could simply call soul and heart. No press or PR can ever substitute for that.”
On the way back, the young girl from the PR agency Kushnir Productions, who arranged this interview for us, said, “I do not understand, why me and all of my friends never go to see classical ballet.”
I only smiled. It means that I was not the only one who was deeply touched by this meeting.