The dancers throw off their sweaters, stub out cigarettes and take their places around the horseshoe. Tinny taped music starts booming out of a portable sound system, which one of the dancers has produced from a hold- all. The cheerless surroundings recede as I find myself watching a sequence of bending and stretching exercises which swiftly evolve into a complex hop, skip and jump routine. Legs fly from the hip in every direction, defying gravity and anatomy, while the bodies to which they are attached remain poised and upright. The elasticated slidings and swishings become ever more energetic until, at last, there is the gentle slap-slap of pointe shoes taking off and landing, with elegance and precision, on the mat. The pirouettes and arabesques start in earnest. I pinch myself.
Forget the stacked-up blue plastic chairs, the damp, the toilets with doors hanging off, the inadequate lighting. This is England's latest ballet company: a breakaway Bolshoi, no less, based in Bristol. It has been going only two months, but the dancers are already setting the West of England alight, receiving standing ovations in venues such as the Regal Theatre, Minehead, and the Octagon Theatre, Yeovil. Run from an office above a dance shop in the Bedminster Parade, the Pavlov Ballet Company is all set to rival the English National and the Royal Ballet.
It is the brainchild of a pair of forceful Russian identical twin sisters, Alla Chachina and Ella Gusova, who are every bit as passionate as Sergei Diaghilev was before them in their mission to bring Russian ballet to Europe. "We aren't some touring company, putting on a few flashy spectaculars at a few places with highly priced tickets!" Alla spits indignantly. "We are a classical Russian ballet company, providing classical Russian ballet in theatres where people can afford to come and see us. We are training up the stars of the future. The Pavlov Ballet Company is completely inter- national: we just happen to be based in Bristol."
The Pavlov is a limited company. Alla is the Artistic Director and Ella the Musical Director, and most of the 12 professional male and female dancers, who all live together in a large Victorian rented house on the Bath Road, have recently been imported from Russia. They are supplemented by a handful of young English amateur dancers who join in the daily training, and by the child pupils of Alla and Ella's ballet school. Alla's boyfriend does the lighting, and various locals help out by selling programmes and ice creams at performances. A local firm lends a minibus. "That's sponsorship in kind," Alla informs me grandly.
Born 32 years ago, Alla and Ella have distinct, complementary personalities. When Alla suffered an injury as a teenager which put paid to her dreams of becoming a professional ballerina, she held her ambitions in abeyance. Today, as it happens, one of the corps de ballet is off sick ("it's the first day of her period"), so Alla pops on a pair of borrowed pointes. "It's the first time I've danced this part in 17 years," she informs me gleefully. None of the other dancers seems to mind, but since Alla is paying their salaries they may not have much say. Alla is chubbier and less graceful than they are, but I suspect there isn't a part she couldn't understudy if called upon. Ella is the pessimistic practical one, with short hair and an orthodontic brace. "I do all the boring things," she says ruefully. She deals with the bank, the books, the venues and, most importantly, she tempers Alla's wilder ideas. Standing beside her desk is a wafer-thin tailor's dummy stuck with pins; between phone calls, Ella runs up costumes. Meeting these two, you can see why Napoleon retreated from Moscow. Nothing and no one can stand in their way.
Setting up the Pavlov has not been easy. The dancers, many of them ex- principals from either the Kirov or the Bolshoi, had been auditioned and selected, the season was booked in small theatres across the West Country and Wales, but Equity, the actors' and performers' union, held out against Russian ballet dancers being given visas when so many British ballet dancers are out of work. With just two days to go before the first public performance, visas were finally granted and, amid much local excitement, the Russian dancers flew into Bristol. Never has Giselle been so speedily choreographed. The set was still being built as the audience started to arrive. Frances Byrnes, a BBC producer who has been following the story of the Pavlov Ballet for Radio 4, witnessed that first performance at the Redgrave Theatre in Bristol: "I was nearly moved to tears. To see dancers of this calibre dancing full out with a corps de ballet of six, when they must have been used to hundreds, was extraordinary."
Alla was a film student when she married an Englishman studying in Moscow. In 1987 she arrived in England, a nine-day-old baby in her arms. The marriage did not last and Ella, who had also just divorced, came to Bristol on a visit and stayed. Alla worked as a pressure-washer sales rep and in the toy department of John Lewis until one day she wandered into the swimming baths-cum-community dance centre, hoping to find classes in flamenco. When she discovered they did not teach it, she offered to give classes herself, and later took a correspondence course in choreography and the "methodics of teaching ballet".
The obvious next step was for the sisters to set up their own school. Little girls lucky enough to pass the strict audition to attend the Pavlov Company Ballet School learn ballet as if they were being trained in St Petersburg. They wear pretty tutus and are taught to flirt with themselves in the mirror: "expression" is vital in Russian ballet. "The English learn to dance and then add smiling. In Russia you must dance with your eyes as well." Alla's own eyes sparkle. She demands complete commitment from her pupils: they attend for an hour and a half's bar-training every evening after school, and their reward is to take part in Pavlov Ballet Company performances.
Of the 12 professional dancers in the Pavlov Ballet Company, only two are not Russian. As the Russians speak no English, I quizzed Kathryn Alcock, an English dancer who had spent three years dancing at the State Academic Ballet theatre in St Petersburg. "The Russians love Bristol," she says. "It's just like St Petersburg. It's a similar size, and both have pretty waterfronts and architecture." But why leave the great ballet companies of their homeland to join something new and precarious? Alla had insisted that money was not a factor, that the minimum Equity pay was roughly equivalent to the pay in Russia. Kathryn explained that the Kirov and the Bolshoi have had their problems, with highly publicised arguments and resignations. The Pavlov Ballet Company is so small that there is no time for the usual backstabbing. "With a smaller company there are many advantages. You get to dance the better parts more often. There are more opportunities. The main thing for dancers is that we have performances ..." The Russians haven't been here long enough to make friends, so on evenings when there are no performances and Sundays (their only day off), they sit about in the big rented house on the Bath Road, smoking and watching television. Kathryn is giving them English lessons. None of the Russians are at the start of their careers; in fact, some are getting on a bit. Since the pensioning-off age is about 38, coming to England probably represented a chance for them to try something new before it was too late.
Alla Chachina and Ella Gusova have the determination and passion to take the Pavlov Ballet Company to great heights. They also have huge overdrafts, and are bitterly disappointed at the lack of public funds available. Here they are, bringing classical Russian ballet to the Great British public, who clearly have an appetite for it, and yet not a penny of lottery money has come their way. Alla is furious and mystified by this. Pointe shoes last only a couple of performances and every so often either she or Ella must go over to Moscow to bring back a suitcase full of those vital Vinokur, Master of the Bolshoi Theatre shoes. The dancers are paid, but neither of the hard- working sisters have drawn any salary. They are lucky, though, in having the support of a patron whose enthusiasm is as boundless as their own. Carol Parr owns and runs the dance shop in Bedminster above which they operate their office and school. This is very handy as the pupils can purchase any accessories they require on their way upstairs. "Dance World" is a veritable Aladdin's cave of a shop, with a complete rainbow of tutus in the window and racks of slinky outfits of every description inside."We have everything for the Irish - jewellery, knickers," Carol says, producing a voluminous pair of green satin pants from a box under the counter.
A few days later, I attended the Pavlov Ballet Company's performance of Giselle in the New Pavilion Theatre at Rhyl, a 1000-seat theatre on the Promenade. It was a freezing cold, moonlit December night, and the 300-strong audience was polite but not ecstatic. "What do you expect in Rhyl?" the woman beside me shrugged when I asked what she thought of the performance. How much more impressed the audience might have been, I reflected, if they had known that Ella sewed every single one of the white fluffy costumes worn by the spirits. And that, for all the smiling and sparkle, the cast had travelled up in a minibus from Bristol that afternoon and would be folding up the flimsy scenery and setting off on the long journey home as soon as the last curtain call died away.
'The Story of the Bedminster Bolshoi' will be broadcast on Radio 4 on Tuesday 15 December at 9.30amReuse content