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By Patricia Boccadoro

PLAISIR, FRANCE, 22 MARCH 2010 — Perm is a huge, desolate, industrial city situated some six hundred miles from Moscow at the foot of the Ural Mountains where temperatures drop regularly to below 30 degrees in winter. Known as the gateway to Siberia, it is about half the size of France. Closed to foreigners by Stalin in the 1930’s, it didn’t open to outsiders until the 1990’s, and consequently the company, unlike the Bolshoi and present-day Maryinsky, has remained virtually unknown to Western dance-lovers.

However, the city does have several claims to fame, not least the fact that Tchaikovsky was born there. It was also home to the family of Serge Diaghilev, the brilliant impresario who was born in 1872 in the province of Novgorod and who grew up in Perm where his parents settled when he was ten. The theatre there, neo-classical in style and constructed in 1870, was completed in large part from the generous donations given by his grandfather.

However, the story of the ballet company began in 1941 when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and the Kirov Ballet of St. Petersburg fled, lock, stock and barrel, to Perm for three years, making this distant city the artistic heart of the Soviet Union. And at the end of the war, while the majority returned home, several of them remained, including the ballerina Ekaterina Geidenreich, pupil of the great teacher, Agrippina Vaganova. She founded a dance school there which now has the reputation of being amongst the finest in Russia.

Tchaikovsky Perm Ballet: Les Sylphides
Photo: Anton Zavyalov

In keeping with this year of cultural exchanges between Russia and France, some 40 dancers from the Tchaikovsky Perm Ballet came on tour to 12 cities in France for the first time. In 35 days, they have a crowded schedule of two different programmes, including a tribute to Les Ballets Russes presented at the Espace Coluche in Plaisir, a Parisian suburb.

The evening in Plaisir opened with a rather sad rendering of Fokine’s legendary Les Sylphides*, a romantic, evanescent work set to Chopin’s immortal score where a young poet dances with a group of sylphides, a work premiered at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris in 1909, but not often seen in Paris. It is a ballet which is danced superlatively by the Maryinsky corps de ballet upon which the Perm company is modelled and so one possibly expected too much, for the latter’s performance lacked both sensitivity and inner joy. Their arm movements were beautiful, but one was distracted by the extreme thinness of some of the dancers.

But the corps de ballet came off rather better than the étoiles, for only one of the three female soloists touched by her grace. This seemed a work too often danced on too many unfamiliar stages, to music blaring out from mediocre equipment. How much time had these young dancers had to rehearse on this stage, where even the floor seemed to present certain dangers?

Matters only deteriorated with the second ballet on offer, Fokine’s Spectre de la Rose, which suffered cruelly with comparison to the interpretations given by the Paris Opera Ballet so recently. While the pretty young soloist, Inna Bilash, despite her wraithlike frame, was tenderly lyrical, no one seemed to have explained to her partner, the virile young étoile, Robert Gabdullin, what this exquisite pas de deux was about. There was no subtle perfume here, as, aggressively male, he revved up for each leap ensuring that poetry and charm flew out of the window before him.

This fine young man would have been better cast in the Polovtsian Dances which followed, a colourful piece rooted in Tartar folk dance which originates from Borodin’s opera, Prince Igor, and which should have suited the company to perfection, but somehow, did not quite come off. This fabulous work to its stirring score was the first ballet made for Diaghilev’s opening season in Paris in 1909 when it exploded on stage, scoring an immense success. So much, however, depends on the strength, energy and personality of the dancers, but genuine smiles were absent and the wild sensuality and sparkle that one associates with this work lacking. No one was transported to Central Asia, or anywhere else for that matter. Artistically, something was missing.

Tchaikovsky Perm Ballet: Polovtsian Dances
Photo: Anton Zavyalov

One had the impression that the women in this company were chosen primarily for their insubstantial physique. It was impossible to tell them apart giving credence to the stories that dancers are banned from taking certain classes if they weigh over 50 kilos regardless of height. Many, according to Monica Loughman in her book, The Irish Ballerina, would subsist solely on coffee and dry cereal for weeks in an effort to stay thin. "It didn’t matter how good they were", she wrote, "if they weren’t thin, they would never be considered good enough."

It wasn’t until Balanchine’s sublime work, Serenade, created for students of the School of American Ballet on his arrival in the U.S. in 1934 and given to the Paris Opéra Ballet 10 years later, that the audience was able to admire the corps de ballet’s clean, lyrical style. The Perm State Ballet has been given several of the Russian choreographer’s works, and the Balanchine Trust sends teachers from the New York City Ballet to rehearse with them each year, checking that the performance meets with the strict production standards.

Serenade, only in the company’s repertoire since 2004, was danced with a joy curiously missing from the rest of the evening. Set to a haunting Tchaikovsky score, Serenade is in the tradition of the ‘white’ ballets of the romantic period, with its dreams of evanescent women where the classical language is constantly being interrupted by changes in direction and by the formation of groups which come together only to disperse before our eyes.

There is no story, but simply dancers, or in this case, sylphides, who move elegantly and delicately to a magnificent score. Ivan Mikhalev seemed more at ease than his male colleagues in the previous works, and with their lovely, long, lyrical arms, the women, coached as opposed to drilled, seemed to revel in their freedom. They were greatly appreciated by a public puzzled by what to think of the rest of the programme including the fact that many of the dancers appeared to be wearing shoes two sizes too big.

The least that a state subsidized company should do is to issue its members with correct footwear.

*Known as Chopiniana at its creation at the Maryinsky theatre in 1907

The Ballet de l’Opera de Novossibirsk will appear in Paris for Les Eté’s de la Danse at the Theatre du Chatelet from 7 - 27 July 2010.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for

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