Today I review Episode 2 of the RT reality show “Ballet à la Russe“.
For those who are not into classical ballet, well, all I can tell you is “I pity the poor fool who is not into classical ballet.” But I can also tell you not to worry too much, I won’t be spending my next 10 posts on ballet. Instead, I will mix these reviews up with other stories, perhaps more to your liking!
But for now, everybody please put your slippers on, sew up your laces, and get ready for some more ballet drama!
features dancers and coaches of the Russian State Ballet Theater, whose Artistic Director is the renowned Vyacheslav Gordeev. We meet a happy-go-lucky young man named Arutyun Arakelyan. Arutyun is a talented “showpiece” dancer and jumper, but I (shame on me) cannot take my eyes off that unsightly mole on his lower lip. Is it just me? And is the Russian public health system so stingy that it will not spring for a plastic surgery to help this young man? I know I am sounding cruel, and I don’t intend to be cruel. But ballet is show business, and physical appearance is important. Maybe not onstage, where Arutyun’s face is concealed in make-up. But offstage is important as well, these dancers are supposed to project a certain image: females to be delicate and beautiful; males to be handsome and chivalrous.
That’s the whole point of classical ballet: To reinforce medieval stereotypes! Duh!
Arutyun’s personal drama is that he broke his foot — not even on the stage but, casually, at the beach! Due to this injury he cannot dance his signature piece as the “Jester” in Swan Lake. The Jester is a key figure in the choreography: He acts like a physical Greek chorus, commenting in mime on the various personalities, the relationships between the characters, and the intrigues of the Court. A good Jester always wins the love of the crowd with his virile leaps and the virtuosity of his rapid pirouettes.
Throughout the episode we see Arutyun going through surgery, working through his physical therapy, eager to get back on the stage; and, in his youthful impatience, returning probably too soon, before his foot has fully healed.
We meet the Head Tutor Olga Kokhanchuk, who is quite a character, and whose approach to the dancers is “firm yet fair”. Olga has her capable hands full trying to herd 30 swans around the lake! “Swans may seem easy,” she complains to the cameraman, “but they’re not!”
The episode also features Principal Dancer Anna Scherbakova, a fragile porcelain doll with steely brown eyes. Anna’s personal drama is that she falls ill with a mysterious ailment. Terrible timing: It’s the day of her debut as a soloist in a “contemporary” dance called “Last Tango“, featuring music by Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla. And she has no understudy – gasp!
In a later installment of these reviews I plan to discuss the technical differences between “classical” ballet and “contemporary” ballet, also known as bullshit “modern dance”. For now, suffice it to say that the dancers, in any Russian theater (no exceptions) are expected to perform whatever roles they are assigned, without complaint or backtalk. The Artistic Director of the theater is like a God, whose commands must be obeyed without question. If he were to order his prima diva to fall in with the corps de ballet and portray worms crawling around on the floor, then she must salute and say, “Yes Sir, and how oozily should I crawl?”
We meet Anna’s friend, Vladimir Mineev who, as seems to be common among these elite dancers, is her partner offstage as well as on. The pair are shown rehearsing their Last Tango. The photo to the right shows a different pair of dancers, these from the Bolshoi. But it’s enough to see that this particular piece has minimalistic scenery, minimalistic costumes, and that the theme, as in most contemporary dance, features simulation of heterosexual intercourse.
As does classical ballet, to be sure, but at least with classical you get flowers and candy and romance first. As opposed to “modern” which is just some quick Kama Sutra, followed by “Wham bam thank you Ma’am!”
When Anna falls ill, we follow her Pilgrim’s Progress through the Russian healthcare system, starting with an ambulance arriving at her home, and a kindly EMT who looks startlingly like Doctor Aybolit. Anya’s mysterious symptoms baffle the various doctors and specialists. It is never explained exactly what was wrong with her, but here is the most amusing incident in the episode: Because Anna has no understudy, the management are forced to cancel the modern dance. And yet tickets have been sold out in advance. Oh, what to do? In a burst of genius, the management announces a last-minute change: Instead of Last Tango they will put on Tchaikovsky’s classical “Christmas” ballet, The Nutcracker! “This is unprecedented!” Olga complains. “We had to change our schedule at the last minute.” And Vladimir, instead of playing the handsome Latin lover, must put on his wig and eyebrows and transform into the sinister magician Drosselmyer!
“I don’t know how the audience will react,” Director Gordeev worries, “since we had announced a completely different show.”
And yet the people still come; nobody demands a refund on their ticket. A camera view of the audience shows quite a lot of children perched in the seats. Were the parents actually planning to bring their kids to see Last Tango? Or was this a last-minute burst of audience?
In any case, the dancers and the staff of the theater show themselves to be the professional troupers that they are: Everyone pulls together and the replacement show is a triumph!