A Ballet Dancer In Russia 1986
By Gabrielle Blair
My dream has been to visit Russia, now the Soviet Union, to see the best dancers in the world. It’s 1986 and I’m with a party of Canadian ballet students and teachers on a two-week tour of Leningrad, Minsk, and Moscow. I am no longer a performer, but I’m eager to see the famous Vaganova method of training firsthand, the system that produced Rudolph Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, and Michel Baryshnikov, dancers we’ve seen in the West because they defected. We know of others: Anna Pavlova, Vatslav Nijinsky, Galina Ulanova, long-departed spirits that we’ve wished to emulate.
It is February with daily temperatures seldom above minus 21 degrees Fahrenheit. We’re visiting Catherine the Great’s palace where I photograph the magnificent grounds and remove my mitts to handle the dials on my old camera, resulting in a close call with frostbite.
Our Intourist guides keep us busy from morning to night, sightseeing and theater going. We soon learn that we must be flexible. Our first disappointment is in Leningrad where we’re told that we won’t see the Kirov Ballet as the company is on tour. My Russian mother-in-law, Nora, who is head pianist of a Toronto university dance department and who has arranged the tour, spends hours on the phone trying to get tickets for Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet. The theater is sold out, but somehow she procures seats at the side, in boxes three tiers up, where we see only half the stage by standing the entire performance. Frustrated, I leave with a less-than-satisfactory opinion of their new version of Romeo and Juliet. Nadeshda Pavlova, dancing “Juliet” is very good, if a trifle plump; “Mercutio” and “Tybalt” are virtuosos, but “Romeo” is weak. There are no set changes and I miss the expected opulence.
The highlight of my trip is a visit to the Leningrad Choreographic School, which later will revert to its original name, the Maryinsky. This will be during Perestroika, still a few years away, when the city of Leningrad reverts to St. Petersburg. I am with Nora, and it’s late one night after we’ve seen an hilarious operetta called Dorothea by Sheridan at the Maly theater, with an unforgettable burlesque number danced by 36 black-clad, singing nuns. We are visiting Serge Sorokin, a well-known ballet historian and archivist who knows everyone who is, or ever has been, someone in the ballet world. When he learns that none of our party has been allowed into the school, he immediately phones Anatoly Nesnevitch, a former principal dancer with the Kirov Ballet, now a teacher at the school, and who was once a partner to Makarova. It is midnight. Nesnevitch sounds uncertain, but he says Nora and I should meet him at the school next morning at 8:50 sharp and he will try to sneak us in for his nine o’clock class. It means foregoing the scheduled visit to the Hermitage Museum, but we could hardly miss this opportunity.
We’re on time. Comrade Nesnevitch tells the formidable woman sitting at her table guarding the place—there’s one of these on every floor of most buildings—that we’re VIPs, and we enter the hallowed halls of the Maryinsky School to watch him teach a class of eight 16-year-old boys in their sixth year. They train for eight years.
The building is ancient and freezing cold. Some years later they will move to a new building with spacious, modern studios, but now Nora and I sit huddled together for warmth. Our coats are three flights downstairs in the cloakroom and when we suggest we go back and get them, Nesnevitch says this isn’t advisable because we may never get past security and back up again. So we suffer. But that isn’t all we suffer.
The students are taught in the old method, meaning with constant verbal abuse and no praise at all. Nora translates in whispered undertones: “My friends!” he begins. “Why are you wasting my time? Why are you wasting your time? Don’t you want to learn anything? Have you not been listening to anything I’ve been telling you all year?” And so it goes from one gruelling exercise to another. His tone drips sarcasm, while his superb students, the future generation of male stars, drip sweat in spite of the cold.
Occasionally a student wets the splintery studio floor with a watering can. There is no rosin, something a dancer needs to coat the bottom of his ballet slippers to prevent slipping, so water will have to do. Twice a little boy from an adjoining studio comes to borrow “our” watering can as there aren’t enough to go around.
After watching the boys’ class, Nesnevitch asks if we would like to stay and see a girls’ class taught by Natalia Dudinskaya. The famous Dudinskaya! I’ve seen her in my ballet books, now in her seventies, a legend who’s trained numerous greats. She’s half an hour late, not unusual we are told. One of the 13 16-year-old girls instructs the pianist and they begin their barre. Dudinskaya arrives and Nesnevitch introduces us: “Gabrielle is a former ballerina with the London Festival Ballet,” he says. She smiles sweetly and replies in her bit of English: “I knew Beryl Grey very well,” (a Royal Ballet prima ballerina, who’d become artistic director of Festival Ballet after I left to return to South Africa).
We sit through another gruelling and fascinating hour and a half where these beautiful, budding ballerinas are subjected to the same kind of verbal abuse. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. In the West our students would have dissolved in tears and probably given up dancing forever. So this is how the Russians produce the best dancers in the world. Maybe the system works because the whole country, it seems to me, is run along authoritarian lines. We certainly use a much gentler approach, but our technique doesn’t match theirs.
In these two weeks, having seen many performances including the Bolshoi’s Romeo and Juliet and a poor children’s ballet called Chippolina, based on an Italian fairy-tale, performed by the Minsk State Ballet, I comprehend why some Soviet dancers want to leave and come to the West. There is something musty and stale about their choreography, and their attempt at Modern Dance is dated. I will return to Canada with a better understanding of how ballet is evolving and thanks to the inspiration from the Russian dancers who have defected, our bar is now being raised to surpass theirs.