The best of Russian culture

The M.Art foundation brings to Israel ‘Paquita’ by the Ural Ballet, the modern dance brilliance of choreographer Tatiana Baganova and the musical magic of the Bolshoi.

'Sepia' as performed by the Provinivial Dances Theater Company  (photo credit: DARIA POPOVA)
'Sepia' as performed by the Provinivial Dances Theater Company
(photo credit: DARIA POPOVA)
MOSCOW – There is a new commercial for Adrenalin-Push energy drink one can see at the Moscow airport. In it, a man and a woman demonstrate the virtues of the advertised product. While the man in the ad base jumps from a skyscraper, the woman is a ballerina.
In Russia, the dedication, effort and hard work embodied in classical ballet sell energy drinks. When I ask the artistic director of the Ural Opera Ballet Slava Samodurov why Russian culture is so deeply committed to classical dance, he frankly admits he doesn’t know. “I like working in Russia because people care about ballet,” he says, “but I don’t know why it is so.”
Israelis will be able to see the Ural Opera Ballet production, and reconstruction, of Paquita as part of the upcoming March M.Art Festival, which will bring Paquita and other impressive Russian productions to the Habima National Theater. After arranging such festivals in London and New York, it seems that it’s now the turn of the first Hebrew city – Tel Aviv – to sample exciting developments in Russian culture.
When Paquita was first staged in Saint Petersburg in 1847, it was presented to the Russian audience only a year after it premiered in Paris. The famous prima ballerina Anna Pavlova danced the role of Paquita under the guidance of choreographer Marius Petipa himself, and the original dance notation from the Russian staging, now in Harvard, were consulted as part of the creation of this staging.
In the original French production by Joseph Maxilier, Paquita is a Roma girl torn between her loyalties to her culture and a dashing French officer with whom she had fallen in love. The tale is a simple one, using the European idea of Roma people as romantic and “colorful.” Despite hardships and a thwarted murder plot the lovers are united, the guilty brought to justice, and the audience is able to enjoy some remarkable ballet.
However, this production is much more than a great revival of a known standard. While the first act is true to form, with period costumes and the set of an old-world European town. The performance is turned upside down in the second act, when it is danced and acted in the style of German expressionist black and white films, and tilted once again during the third act when it is brought to our own days – complete with dancers mock-recording on their phones some of the others as they dance, as if to share on social media during the show.
The unique sets for each act, created by Aliona Pikalova, and the costumes designed by Elena Zaitseva, achieve the remarkable feat of easily transporting the audience between three time periods effortlessly. The brilliance of the dancers, who perfectly perform the established numbers while also daring to explore new elements such as silent cinema ‘exaggerated’ acting or even to lash out at other dancers in anger with nails clawed, can be seen at any moment. In that sense, this staging of Paquita is, I suggest, a perfect choice from which to begin exploring ballet. If one is already familiar with such classical works like The Nutcracker or Swan Lake, these elements are there to be enjoyed, but if one is a little afraid of ballet, and the cultural weight attached to it, this bold re-telling will be rewarding and exhilarating.
Dedicated to the memory of choreographer and dance historian Sergei Vikharev, this production of Paquita completes what he began by reconstructing the past of the ballet. “All art is created for the people who live right now,” Samodurov says, “but at the moment there is a gap of one century” between us and, for example, Paquita. This production delightfully minds the gap as it allows us to cross it.
Ballet is not the only thing celebrated east of the Ural Mountains. Ekaterinburg is not just the home of the Ural Opera Ballet; it is also the home of artistic director of the Provincial Dances Theater Tatiana Boganova.
Boganova’s works Sepia and Les Noces will be performed at the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater this February. Sepia, a modern dance performance which uses sand on the stage, was inspired by the Japanese 1962 novel The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe.
The novel, which already inspired a 1964 film and a 2014 theatrical production at the Kagami Theatre in London, focuses on a teacher who is forced to live with a strange woman in a house built on sands. He is tasked with helping the woman to keep the sand out and to eventually produce children with her.
However, in her own work, Baganova does not re-tell the story of these characters, but uses the motive of sand to explore time.
The production will be shown alongside a new adaptation of the 2000 Gold Mask winner Les Noces (The Wedding). Based on the 1923 music for ballet by Igor Stravinsky, the work originally depicted the old Slavic custom that a groom must cut off his wife’s braid. This creates a thematic link between the works, that of the struggle for male domination, as well as the exploration of femininity as a natural force.
Yet the dancing itself is so powerful, so moving, that one does not need to know the name of the novel or the history of the piece by Stravinsky, which was rejected by the Soviet art critiques of his time as they felt he is presenting the French audience with a “primitive” version of Slavic culture, to be transfixed by it. The genius of the costumes and the brilliance of the dancers transforms the stage into a sort of forest in which hunters seek out their prey, usually men seek out women but not always, and dancers use not just their bodies but nets and their teeth to connect, and severe, ties to one another.
Baganova drew inspiration to this re-creation of her award-winning work from viewing the unfinished 1918 painting The Bride by Gustav Klimt, as well as the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This will be her first visit to Israel, but when asked about Israeli dance she is quick to point to choreographer Sharon Eyal as a creator whose works she enjoys and appreciates.
As part of this celebration of Russian culture in Israel, the Israeli Opera will host the Bolshoi Theater Youth Opera this March as it marks its first decade.
In the Moscow gala concert, the audience was first greeted by the Bolshoi Children Choir, which offered wonderful proof that the Bolshoi stands to have a golden future if such children already sing there. The youth opera was an unmitigated success as one brilliant performer after the other was introduced and stole the audience’s affections only to be slightly outdone by the next performer.
Under conductor Alexander Sladkovsky, Nikolai Zemlyanskikh and Elmira Karakhanova dazzled as they took on the roles of Papageno and Papagena from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Not only did they sing the roles perfectly, they also acted them out in a moving, funny, and romantic way. Beginning with the heart-broken Papageno and ending with the happy union of these two lovers. In a row of talented, brilliant singers who performed perfectly I suggest two deserve special note: Igor Korostylev in his genius performance of Bizet’s Quand la Flamme de L’amour from La Jolie Fille de Perth and Andrei Zhilikhovsky,who stole the show with his superb acting of Rossini’s Largo al factotum from Il barbiere di Siviglia.
During his performance he not only sung beautifully, he also captured the spirit of the role as he used the entire stage – not to mention Sladkovsky – to delight and even make us laugh. The evening ends with Moscow, Cheryomushki by Shostakovich, granting that even in Tel Aviv, the audience will get to experience something of the Moscow spirit. As in Paquita, the selection of well-known works hits a difficult mark. It will delight those familiar with opera while proving an excellent starting point to anyone willing to take a first step into it.
Those willing to invest a little more effort into their foray into contemporary Russian culture might enjoy two theater shows included among the offered events.
The Tovstonogov Bolshoi Drama Theater from Saint Petersburg will bring to the country the adaptation by multiple Gold Mask award winner director Andrey Moguchy of Ivan Vyrypaev’s play The Drunks.
The concept that intoxication is one of the few states in which humans are truthful is an old one and the importance of drinking in Slavic cultures is immense.
According to the 1113 chronicle The Tale of Bygone Years, which depicts the story of how the Slavic people came to embrace Christianity, Islam was rejected by the early rulers of Russia with the argument that “drinking is the joy of the Russians, and they will not be able to live without it,” and one of the best known Soviet satires, 1973 Moscow-Petushki by Venedikt Yerofeyev, is told by a drunk who functions as a “holy fool” who tells truthful things about Soviet society and life.
The book, first printed in Israel before it was allowed to see print in the USSR, is full of instructions on how to make various drinks and encounters with drunks who share their tales.
Seen in this light, the play is both a funny and an emotionally honest take on our own times as well as a part of a long discussion within Russian culture – the play, after all, ends with a plea to Jesus Christ. The Israeli production will be shown with Hebrew subtitles. The play has already generated a global interest and a Czech adaptation of it will be shown starting from January at the National Moravian-Silesian Theater.
The Polish play by Tadeusz Słobodzianek, Our Class, will also be presented in a Russian adaptation by the Moscow Valchtangov Theater. The play, about Jewish and Catholic students in Poland who must face the horrors of Soviet and Nazi occupations of their town, is difficult to watch and was staged in this country twice, in Hebrew. Theater lovers will now be able to see this major work from a Russian point of view. A word of caution: unlike the opera and the dance shows previously mentioned, both theater shows are not suitable for young viewers.
Other shows to be presented in this country during the M.Art festival include Chronos by composer and pianist Kiril Richter, based on his album of the same name, the performance is a musical exploration of time. Richter is a well-known composer and performer known for his works for movies and television.
Another brilliant composer and performer to appear in the festival is Vladimir Martynov, who will perform alongside the Opus Posth chamber orchestra in a two-part concert. The first part devoted to the works of Henry Purcell and the second to an original work by Martynov titled Dedication to Yuri Lyubimov.
Lyubimov, who passed away in 2014, was one of the best-known Russian actors and the winner of numerous awards. He was stripped of his Soviet Citizenship in 1984 and given an Israeli one thanks to his marriage to Katalin Lyubimova, who was Jewish, and was able to direct several shows in Israel and the US.
In that sense, the concert will be a rewarding nod not only to the great actor but to the complex and long relationship between Russian and Israeli cultures.
For further information regarding the M.Art festival and ticket sales, visit
The writer was a guest of the M.Art festival.