The Russians are here

Paul Godfrey’s long and ‘potted’ road connects St. Petersburg Ballet Theater to Israel.

The St. Petersburg Theater Russian Ballet (photo credit: PR)
The St. Petersburg Theater Russian Ballet
(photo credit: PR)
What could be more natural than an Englishman being instrumental in getting a Russian dance company over here? Well, not really, but, considering Paul Godfrey’s personal and professional bio for the last three decades or so, the 51-year-old London-born resident of Jaffa has all the requisite credentials for orchestrating the current nationwide jaunt to this country by the St. Petersburg Ballet Theater.
The company is in the middle of a highly successful run here, under the auspices of the Israeli Opera’s dance series, with its productions of Giselle and Swan Lake, starring acclaimed ballerina Irina Kolesnikova.
Godfrey has traveled a long, and what he calls a “potted” road, to get where he is today.
“When I was young I always wanted to kind of be associated with music, but always behind the scenes,” he says.
“Then I forgot about it, and then it happened to me,” he adds, somewhat enigmatically.
The germ of Godfrey’s future music enterprise was sown through the prism of the then young man’s political leanings.
“I briefly studied Russian and Soviet studies. I was a lefty and I liked Russian literature,” he explains.
He may have started to get a handle on the Russian psyche but, when he actually got to the Soviet Union, he realized just how much of a foreigner’s mind-set he still had.
“When I first went to Russia, in 1984, when glasnost was just starting, I remember having ridiculous thoughts, like do they laugh, which is still as stupid as Sting singing ‘do the Russians love their children too?’ He got a lot further with that than I got,” Godfrey chuckles.
The Englishman – not the pop megastar – discovered that the Soviets were disposed to a good laugh once in a while, and he also unwittingly got his foot firmly planted in the door of his eventual career on the production and management side of the performing arts. While checking out the music scene in Leningrad – now St. Petersburg – he came across Viktor Tsoi, who was one of the mainstays of the largely underground Soviet post-punk, rock scene of the day. Godfrey was not aware of Tsoi’s emerging cultural standing.
“He later became one of the biggest Dylanesque- Beatles-type people in Russia but, back then, he just became my mate. Nobody knew who they were, even in Moscow.”
Godfrey’s Tsoi epiphany occurred when he got back to London and caught an intriguing BBC documentary series.
“They had all been officially made about various aspects of Soviet life, but there was one they’d filmed underground and I suddenly saw [on the screen] all these people I’d been hanging out with,” he recalls. “I realized that not only had I had a great time, I had also fallen into something with some cultural significance. I was sober by the time I got back to London.”
The Russian connection eventually begat a more important career-prompting catalyst.
“I met the lady who was then [rock musician] Brian Eno’s manager, who was a Russophile. She became Brian’s wife and she wanted to become involved with Russia.”
Savvier about the Russian scene at the time than was Eno’s future wife, Godfrey joined her in providing struggling underground Soviet rock artists with some much-needed help.
“I’d travel to the Soviet Union with a good Western-made guitar and take out a crappy East German one – you had to declare everything at customs. I was to-ing and fro-ing, in the days when that wasn’t easy.”
Nevertheless, he “really loved it. It really appealed to all of my nature, and meeting all these absolutely wacky and wonderful people.”
Eventually, many of the travel constraints from the FSU were lifted.
“We started taking some of these [Russian] groups abroad, and I became the manager of a rock group called Zvuki Mu.” The lead singer of Zvuki Mu was Pyotr Mamonov.
“There I was, at the age of 19, sitting in the Rockefeller Center at Warner Brothers’ headquarters, doing an American tour, with Madonna’s sister assisting me. I thought that was very cool.”
The young Godfrey was set for ever bigger and better things. His path crossed that of a young violinist who was working with Eno, including on recordings with mega rock band U2. The teenager’s stepfather was a bigwig in the British classical music scene, and Russian-speaking Godfrey was called upon to interpret for the famed Borodin Quartet when they went to the UK. That was Godfrey’s entry into the classical sector.
One thing soon led to another, and Godfrey found himself working as a tour manager for Russian violist Yuri Bashmet (a direct patrilineal descendant of the Ba’al Shem Tov). Fast forward another couple of years and the Brit began collaborating with London-based impresario Victor Hochhauser, who had a long history of working with top Russian ballet acts such as the Kirov and Bolshoi.
“That’s essentially how I got into the world of ballet,” Godfrey says. “A few years later I opened up my own company and I began producing ballet and opera companies in the UK.”
The solo venture eventually came to an end after – as he puts it – “I was kidnapped by the Israeli woman in Sinai.”
The “kidnapper” became Mrs. Godfrey and the couple now have a couple of kids. His familial circumstances made running a business in London logistically challenging. He is, however, happy to work on all sorts of music- and dance-related projects – he tied up lots of loose ends to help the Paul McCartney concert here happen in 2008 – and he ran across the St. Petersburg Ballet Theater quite some time ago.
“My first acquaintance with the St. Petersburg Ballet was over 20 years ago, when I and a Dutch promoter I was working with received three absolutely beautiful pictures of a ballet company that nobody had heard of, with this great name – the St. Petersburg Ballet Theater,” he recalls. Back then, there were lots of fly-bynight companies in Russia, but there was nothing real about them, other than the fact that they had a name and that they could more or less dance.”
The SPBT was clearly in a different league. Godfrey was impressed with the inventiveness and earnestness of the company and its founder Konstantin Tachkin.
“He, incidentally, has nothing to do with ballet. He just loves it as an art form.”
The same could be said of Godfrey, who was quickly taken with Tachkin and the company.
“We saw, first, that he had a permanent base, two, they had their own theater and, three, his dancers were mainly from the Vaganova Academy and they had lovely sets and costumes. Our relationship has continued to this day, through many generations.”
And now, Israelis of all ages are catching some of the magic that Godfrey saw all those moons ago, in the current productions of Giselle and Swan Lake. 
For tickets and more information: Tel Aviv – (03) 692-777 and; Jerusalem – (02) 560-5755, *6226, and, Haifa – (04) 866-2244, (04) 833-8888 and and Beersheba – (08) 626-6400, ext. 1 and