Today, July 1, I will close out this series on ballet (postponing my usual close-of-month metrics by one day), by reviewing an episode of the most-excellent ballet reality show Ballet à la Russe. Which episodes can still be found on youtube and RT, and I highly recommend all of them.
My review is of Episode 9. I started writing up this post yesterday, thought it would be a quickie, ran out of time, realized that this 30-minute gem of a video is actually a miniature Chekhov play. And that it took a bit more time and thought to do it justice.
Here is the link to the episode, just click on “Play”, it has English subtitles, so you don’t need me to translate anything. I’m just here to provide literary criticism and commentary.
This “play” has two main antagonists: A hero and a villain. I’m not dumb, I know this is “reality” TV, and that the episode has been crafted (back in the Holy of Holies in the editing room) to present a certain point of view. A point of view which I happen to agree with. In short, I believe that this episode reveals in microcosm the many things that are wrong with contemporary Russian theater. Things that are wrong include such factors as: Lack of talent; Laziness; Money invested in the wrong things; Indifference of the government; Gullibility of the public; and the list goes on…
In the opening bars, our hero introduces himself to the camera: “I am Konstantin Matveev, Dance Teacher, and Manager of the Moscow Ballet Company.” Sounds like an impressive position, until we learn otherwise. Uncle Kostya is a civilized, urbane man. An “intelligent”, as Russians say (интеллигент), an intellectual. Uncle Kostya possesses a characteristic which Chekhov prized very highly in his fellow man: He is “cultured” (культурный), as Russians say.
While mentoring the youth in his rented studio, Uncle Kostya struggles to preserve the tradition of Russian classical ballet (which also encompasses the best of European culture) against hordes of invading philistines. In Russia, the philistines are known as “kreakles” which is is short for “Creative Class”. An oxymoron, if ever there was one. Like kudzu, herds of kreakles strive instinctively to uproot true culture and replace it with a parasitical and bastardized form.
Matveev’s allies in his lonely quest to preserve Kultur, are his two star pupils, Hayato Nisidzima and Dmitry Prusakov. Hayato is a young Japanese dancer. Attracted by Russia’s great classical traditions, he learned the Russian language and left his own people to study among the Russians. Not realizing, perhaps, that the Russia he admires so much, took a rapid downturn 3 decades ago and has moved past even its Silver Age.
This merry band of doomed heroes faces a formidable antagonist. Who happens to be the villain of this piece: Choreographer Artyom Ignatiev. Artyom is as pure a Russian as Uncle Kostya and is also a Chekhovian type, but from the other side of the tracks. He is UN-cultured (не-культурный). He only cares about money, power, and his bastardized art form. He’s the guy who sneaks around buying your cherry orchard behind your back, while casually annihilating what is left of classical Russian ballet.
So… Uncle Kostya is the Manager of the troup, and Artyom is the choreographer. Who works for whom? Not being fully conversant in the politics of the theater world, I would assume that Artyom works for Kostya. But, as events unfold, we see that Artyom has all the power in his tattooed fists; and that Uncle Kostya and his Scoobie gang are helpless to stop his evil schemes.
Bounding out of the gate, Artyom looks the television camera straight in the eye and fires the first salvo in the ensuing feud. As in a twisted logic puzzle, he issues a series of utterances, several of which contradict each other, and all of which are deeply, deeply wrong:
- “I am an admirer of modern choreography.”
- “The Russian classical tradition is a medieval art form.”
- “Nobody cares about classical dance any more.”
- “Very few people live and breathe for Giselle.”
- “We don’t have any dancers in our troup who are good enough to dance Giselle.”
- “We chose contemporary dance over the classics because it’s more progressive.”
- “When I was in ballet school, I realized that the classics were not my forte.”
In the face of such aggressive kreakality, Uncle Kostya’s first impulse is to give up the struggle and just fold his tent. He remarks sadly: “As a classical dance trainer, I am not needed here.” One can only speculate as to the backstory that led to such a demise. How did the sinister Choreographer gain such influence? Is it something to do with money? We already saw, in an earlier episode of this reality show, that the raw public will pay good coin and is much happier watching Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” even when it’s not Christmas, than some soft-porn chef-d’oeuvre like “Last Tango”. Oh, the public will go to the theater either way, they’re sort of like a captive audience. And this is why the kreakles are able to insinuate themselves and take advantage. Much of kreakle triuimphalism can be attributed to abuse of customer loyalty! These are the pygmies who stand on the shoulders of giants. In other words, they hijacked the brand!
In the next scene we see a jeans and tee-shirted Artyom teaching his captive talent to shimmy their shoulders and do the wave.
“Don’t rush it!” Artyom barks. As if it matters how quickly or how slowly these hapless young slaves must waggle their arms and gyrate like Salome in front of King Herod. We see Prusakov and Nisidzima gamely participating in this nonsense, while trying to extract whatever small value they can for their restless muscles.
This scene shows the character and discipline of these two young men. Unlike Joy Womak, who was a bit of a diva, these dancers have chosen to have a positive attitude, in spite of everything. One of the things that maybe Joy didn’t understand is that ballet = theater = show business. And that in show business, the primal virtue is to put aside one’s ego and to be a trouper. The show must go on, even if it’s a stupid show. Explosive principals who are able to leap high in the air, Prusakov and Nisidzima can also modestly hoof it in the back row of the Corps, they can shimmy their shoulders on Artyom’s command, and even flap their arms, if need be.
You know how, in quantum physics, when you observe or measure something, then you change the outcome? A similar thing seems to have happened with this episode of the reality show. Artyom told the television camera that his troup did not include any artists who are good enough to dance the classics.
And he was rude (Russian грубый) enough to say this right in front of his male soloists. This was a slap right to their chops, as well as to the chops of their coach, Uncle Kostya. Dmitry Prusakov has won several international prizes. He is clearly good enough to dance Prince Charming. “I think Artyom is wrong,” Dmitry tells the camera. “We have good soloists working here…. We have put on some excellent classical performances…. Frankly, I am amazed by his utter brazenness.”
Uncle Kostya and his two proteges work out a suitable tit-for-tat response. With the collusion of the television camera, they hold a sweaty training session proving what these young men are capable of. The huge leaps, the quadruple pirouettes. “I am all heated up,” Dmitry confesses. Remember how I just said he was a non-ego trouper? I lied. Like every young artist, Dmitry has an ego, and even a temper. “He just heard something that made his blood boil,” Matveev explains to the camera. “I understand his reaction. It wasn’t right.”
Next we see the Japanese dancer, Hayato, also proving that Artyom was wrong about him. By showing off a new and very cool jump that he himself invented. It’s called the “Japanese jump”, which consists of a grand jeté and split in the air. It sounds funny in English, because the Russian word he uses for “jump” (прыг) sounds almost exactly like English “prick”.
A Russian Patriot
“We showed the Western world how to do ballet,” Uncle Kostya concludes sadly. His blue Slavic eyes fill with tears. Standing at his lonely outpost of Western civilization, like a Roman centurion of the Lost Legion, Uncle Kostya finally decides that it is time to quit. This Russian patriot sees that too many forces are arrayed against him. The kreakles with their shimmy shoulders and twisty torsos — have won the battle. At least for now… The final straw, in this game of Schrödinger’s Minotaur, is when Uncle Kostya learns that his talented protégée, Kristina — this anorexic beauty who once dreamed of being Giselle — has decided to quit the fight. Kristina will settle for being a modern dancer so that she doesn’t have to train so many hours and go on tour. Getting married and raising a family is now her Number #1 priority. “If she has stopped fighting, well, this is very sad for me,” Uncle Kostya admits. Score another point for the philistines.
And Uncle Kostya is right, when he decides to give up and leave. What is he supposed to do? Stay at that place under the new Kreaklian management? Teach his dancers how to form human pyramids, as if they were circus acrobats or prisoners at Abu Ghraib? Coach them to mime coitus in chef-d’oeuvres such as “Eros” and “Minos“? Works created, as Artyom proudly asserts, by one of the best choreographers coming out of Holland?
As the curtain opens, a half-naked Dmitry Prusakov rises from the stage, miming with his muscly arms and torso that he is a Minotaur. “There are no complicated leaps or turns,” Dmitry explains to the camera. “I just had to make them believe that I am half bull.”
And here we get to the very essence of what is going on: Russian audiences buy tickets to the ballet. They arrive at the theater, expecting to see lavish sets, costumes, and leaping dancers. They are surprised when they arrive, to find cheap minimalistic sets, half-naked people in tights, and dancers crawling on the floor instead of leaping in the air.
“Instead of flying, they crawl,” Uncle Kostya concludes bitterly. Russian ballet has transmorphed into Bad Community Theater!
Artyom is unrelenting: “If they don’t like dancing here, if they don’t like the direction the new management are going in, then they are always free to leave. Nobody is stopping them.”
And that’s good advice. After some waffling, Uncle Kostya finally makes up his mind that it is time for him to go. As in any good reality show, he confides his decision to Dmitry in the privacy of the coffee shop. It’s just the two of them plus the camera crew. Uncle Kostya makes a leap of faith, quitting before he even has another job. Fortunately, Russia is one of those civilized countries that has a national health insurance system, hence being temporarily without a job is not such a nightmare as in, say, the good ole USA.
Dmitry, wearing a Scottish kilt, soon follows suit, knowing there is no future for him in this theater, now that the only cultured persona has left the stage.
Artyom claims to be “shocked” by the departure of his star soloist, but soon rationalizes it. “Judging by his poor attitude recently, his lateness to rehearsals, etc…..” The work continues, the show must go on. So boys and girls, put your tights on, get out there and get to work: Those floors aren’t going to crawl on themselves…