Russian Ballet As Reality Show – Episode 1

Dear Readers:

Today I begin a series of reviews of a Russian reality show which I stumbled upon at the Russia Today website.  Ballet fans will love this behind-the-scenes look at the talented dancers, their lives and struggles.  To date there are 10 episodes of this show, which can be viewed online.  The episodes are in Russian, with English subtitles.  Each episode is just under half an hour long.

My reviews of the episodes may not necessarily be contiguous, as I have other stories lining up in the queue.

The RT show observes, to a certain degree, the template of the classical reality show, including some negative phenomenon and some (subtle) conflict.  But it is safe to watch, even with children.  There is nothing gross or despicable, unlike most American reality shows.  Don’t even get me started on abominations such as “Toddlers and Tiaras” or “Dance Moms“, shows which exploit talented children and turn entire families into freak shows for the amusement of a jaded and bloodthirsty public.  No — Unlike those reprehensible shows, the RT series, which is called “Ballet à la Russe“, is not about inciting artificial conflict or catching people in their bad moments.  But it is not all fluff either.  It is a real, and engaging, glimpse into the lives of some very interesting people.

Renata Shakirova

Without further ado, let us begin with my review of Episode 1, here is the link:

This episode features two dancers:  a young woman named Renata Shakirova; and a little girl named Sofia Valiullina.

But the main arc of this episode is the trial by fire of Russian ballet legend Nikolay Tsiskaridze, as he stages his first major production inside the Kremlin Theater.  The event is the 2015 Graduation performance of Tsiskaridze’s students at the prestigious Vaganova Academy of St. Petersburg.  It is an unusual occurrence for Vaganova graduates to travel to Moscow and stage a show within the Kremlin itself.  But even more than the students, Tsiskaridze himself is on trial here:  This is his exam, he tells the cameraman.  Whether he succeeds or fails as Rector of the Vaganova.  The ballet he is staging is an old Soviet/Russian favorite called Laurencia.  The dramatic tension is:  Will Tsiskaridze fail this exam, or will Tsiskaridze win over his critics?

Ballet afionados know Tsiskaridze as one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest male ballet dancer who ever lived.  Nikolay danced with the Bolshoi ballet for 21 years, performing every major role as soloist, and winning every possible award, including People’s Artist of Russia.  His English-language wiki page describes very well his uniquely masculine grace and regal presence.

Tsiskaridze in his prime

“As a dancer, Tsiskaridze possessed the purity of Russian dance training and the regality and mystery of royalty. His extremely long legs moved with masculine power, yet also with feminine grace. His arms could at one moment be strong and forceful, and at the next soft and elegant. His feet were well arched for a man and his beats were pristine.”  I would add to that Tsiskaridze’s swarthy and exotic good looks, endowed to him by his Gruzian ethnic heritage.  Given the man’s reputation and charisma, it was fascinating to see him in the RT show as he is today, a little bit older, wearing glasses, but still enjoying that full head of curly hair, and still looking great.

Tsiskaridze’s Redemption

Rector Tsiskaridze at the Vaganova

You know what they say about brilliant people — that they are all a little bit loopy!  And Tsiskaridze is no exception to that rule.  In between staging the show and coaching the dancers, we hear him slyly alluding to certain enemies, who fervently want him to fail:  “I was subjected to insults and slanders,” he complains to the cameraman.  People, he says, spent thousands of rubles paying professional gossips to soil his good name in the media.

Tsiskaridze has good reason to be paranoid.   His career has been stormy, at one point he was fired from the Bolshoi Ballet, while the latter was going through a period of awful trials and tribulations, including a horrific acid attack on the Artistic Director.  I don’t have time here to go into that whole dirty story.  Suffice it to say, that Tsiskaridze’s banishment from Moscow to Petersburg must have felt, at times, like a form of exile;  and that the “Laurencia” ballet truly was meant to be his redemption.  But would his return to Moscow be that of the garlanded victor?  Or would he return in chains, subjected to catcalls and tomatoes at the hands of the evil Muscovite critics?   A lot is riding on this performance!

Laurencia story takes place in Spain.

While rehearsing the dancers, a stressed-out Nikolay sucumbs to nerves and almost collapses — only a cup of tea saves him at the last minute!  But in spite of everything, he produces a credible show and silences his ill-meaning yet well-paid critics!  After the final bows and the bouquets of flowers, Tsiskaridze gloats:  “After all the Moscow newspapers spent so much time and money blackening my name, they were finally silenced!  Not one paper wrote a critical review of our Moscow show.  Which proves that it was a huge success!”

Renata

To play the title role of Laurencia, Tsiskaridze picked one of his star pupils, Renata Shakirova.  Renata grew up at the Vaganova.  Immediately following her graduation performance, she is to take up a position with the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg.  The Vaganova, by the way, has a track record of 100% placement of all its graduates — they all go on to get good positions in various theaters, not just in Russia, but around the world.

Kimin Kim

Later in the episode we see Renata performing the role of Kitri in Don Quixote.  This is her first performance as a principal at the Mariinsky Theater.  She calls it a “trial by fire”.  We meet her dance partner, Korean-born Kimin Kim, and we learn the juicy tidbit that Kimin is also Renata’s boyfriend!  Russian ballet does not have any rules against dancers entering into personal relationships; on the contrary, it seems quite common for dancers to pair off in their personal lives, as well as onstage.

Sofia

Next we meet 12-year-old Sofia Valiullina.  When Sofia was accepted as a pupil into the Vaganova Academy, she and her mom, Gulnaz, travelled by train for two days from Ufa to Petersburg.  Sofia’s mom is sacrificing a lot for her child:  She gave up a good job in Ufa as a musical accompanist at a school, now she comes to live in a strange city, not having a job waiting for her and having to go out and look for one.

Sofia Valiullina

Gulnaz could have boarded Sofia, of course, and such things happen all the time with children in “professional” fields, but that would have been hard on such a young child to live apart from her mother.  RT shows the pair arriving at their new flat and starting their new life together.

On her first day of school, Sofia, along with 21 other new girls (no boys in this starting class), meets Rector Tsiskaridze, who greets them benevolently and advises them to “study hard”.

Later in the day the two principals of this episode — Renata and Sofia — meet in person for the first time.  Turns out that Renata has been Sofia’s idol for a long time — saw her perform in Ufa –, so the child is enthralled to meet her hero.  Both girls actually hail from the same part of the country — Bashkiria.  Renata’s parents had initially boarded her, but eventually ended up moving to Petersburg to be with her, and rented a flat very close to the Mariinsky Theater.  At the end of the episode we finally get to meet Renata’s mom and dad, after they attend her Mariinsky debut as Kitri.

The Mariinsky Theater, Petersburg, Russia

The dramatic tension in Sofia’s story is her ambition, like every ballerina’s, to get the role of “Little Marie” in The Nutcracker.  Odds are slim, though:  Sofia is just a first-year student, and this plum role usually goes to an older girl.  Nonetheless, Sofia is allowed to audition for the role and ends up being one of five finalists.

The episode ends on a very positive note, with Renata and Kimin wowing the Mariinsky audience with their virtuosity in Dox Quixote; and the Valiullinas visiting Renata in her dressing room — with the reveal that Sofia will be dancing the role of Masha in the Nutcracker!

[to be continued]

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