This year’s Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur features performances by Indianapolis’s Ballet Internationale, a company steeped in the great tradition of Russian ballet. I know. You wouldn’t expect to hear that a company from deep in the American heartland is international. But Ballet Internationale’s twenty-eight dancers hail from Japan, Korea, China, Italy, Turkey, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Russia, and six members of the troupe are international competition award winners.
If one nationality sets the tone, however, it is the Russians. Ballet Internationale is guided by three former Kirov Ballet stars: Eldar Aliev (director), Irina Kolpakova (assistant director) and her husband Vladilen Semenov (a director of the company’s school). Under their watchful gaze, the company has earned notice. American critic Clive Barnes wrote in Dance Magazine that Ballet Internationale “has enormous vitality. The women have lovely arms and strong backs; the men excel in that open, forthright presentation of the old Kirov.”
A Russian contingent heading a North American ballet company is hardly news. Russian émigrés—many of whom left their homeland in the pre-revolutionary period to dance for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in France and later came to North America—were central to establishing ballet as a serious art form in the US. A few more made it out after the revolution, including George Balanchine, who left in 1924 and went on to found the New York City Ballet.
After the rise of Stalin, however, the immigration of Russian dancers to the West reduced to a trickle. Only a handful of high profile defectors managed to leave the USSR including such luminaries as Rudolph Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova and Alexander Godunov.
Before the collapse of communism, these dancers, along with the touring companies of the Kirov and Bolshoi, gave audiences in the West a taste of what a state-sponsored and highly organized system of schools and companies could achieve. For decades, the Soviets were justly renowned for producing dancers of extraordinary technical ability and artistry.
Ballet Internationale’s Irina Kolpakova was one such sterling product. She danced between 1950 and 1987 with the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), attaining the rank of prima ballerina assoluta. In contrast with such defectors as Nureyev and Baryshnikov (both former partners of the ballerina at the Kirov), Kolpakova remembers dancing under the Soviet regime rather fondly. The public, she says, came to the theatre in droves and the government subsidized the companies heavily: “There was more money for wonderful productions... After I wore a costume four times, I got a new one!”
Unwavering support from the Soviet government, though, was not always a sure thing. Before the Bolshevik revolution, the Tsar patronized ballet lavishly, and the art form thrived artistically thanks to Marius Petipa, who choreographed such classics as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. After the revolution, however, some questioned whether ballet, a form founded by aristocrats and an exemplar of elite values, was an appropriate art for the new communist nation.
One of ballet’s champions during this tumultuous period was Agrippina Vaganova, a former prima ballerina under the Tsar and the Kirov’s director between 1931 and 1937. In order to keep ballet alive, she fought for the preservation of Russia’s classical heritage and encouraged new works permeated with the social realism that censors demanded. Perhaps more importantly, she systemized the pedagogy that would dominate training in the Soviet Union and produce so many outstanding dancers. Her method continues today to be one of the major ballet pedagogies in schools all over the world.
Irina Kolpakova graduated in Vaganova’s last class and went onto become the Kirov’s foremost interpreter of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Arlene Croce of The New Yorker wrote of her 1974 performance in Montreal (just days before Baryshnikov’s defection): “Kolpakova is the kind of star who does radiate… The lovely legs are as eloquent, the style as correct, the phrasing as musical as ever.” After her retirement from the stage, Kolpakova became a ballet master of the American Ballet Theatre (a position she still holds). She also coaches dancers in other companies, sharing her considerable experience.
Kolpakova’s primary occupation, however, is with Ballet Internationale. For Montreal audiences, the company’s Saint-Sauveur appearance is a chance to see a troupe of fine classical dancers coached by one of the greatest ballerinas Russia has ever produced. The first half of the company’s program will feature excerpts from Russian classics; the second half, Carmen, choreographed by Cuba’s Alberto Alonso, originally for the Bolshoi Ballet’s prima ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya.
Ballet Internationale’s Saint-Sauveur performances do not mark the end of the Russian invasion of Montreal, however. In April 2005 the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg will bring its sensational Red Giselle to town. The company’s director and choreographer Boris Eifman broke the mould of Soviet state run ballet: In 1977 Eifman began his own company in St. Petersburg with virtually no state sponsorship and daringly departed from social realism in his choreography.
Most recently, Eifman made waves in New York with his Musagète for the New York City Ballet. For some critics, Eifman’s overt theatrical style in a ballet about Balanchine—the Neoclassical modernist par excellence—was tantamount to sacrilege. Balanchine, like Vaganova and Kolpakova, was trained at the Maryinsky school (now the Vaganova Academy, of which Eifman was at one time its choreographer) and he went on to fashion a new style that would come to define American ballet. One hundred years after Balanchine’s birth, take the opportunity to see and compare how leading Russians from the same heritage developed back in the motherland.
The Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur runs July 30 through August 8. Ballet Internationale performs July 30 and 31.
Kena Herod is the dance critic for Maisonneuve Magazine. The Dance Scene appears every other Tuesday.