The roosters are coming

A mixed welcome awaited Rambert Dance Company in Russia. In Moscow they were seen as not radical enough. But, as Valera Katsuba reports from St Petersburg, critics there feared their style might harm classical traditions .
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`It was very cold" - so said Marie Rambert of her first and only visit to Russia in the winter of 1911. On that occasion, she demonstrated the Dalcroze method in Moscow and St Petersburg, and was invited to join Diaghilev's ballet company, which included Nizhinsky as rhythm teacher. And now, 85 years later, the name of Marie Rambert is once again in Russia. Last week ended the first Rambert Dance Company Russia tour, in which they staged three on -act ballets: La Petite Mort, Stream and Rooster at St Petersburg Mariinksy (formerly the Kirov), Moscow's Mossoviet theatre, and at the Nizhny Novgorod Opera House. This time, again, it was very cold. And Russian critical opinion of the performances has been divided: as far as Mariinsky dancer Alexei Miroshnichenko is concerned, "the best place for Rooster would be the stage of some up-market night-club". While others say that the Rambert Dance Company showed a level of professionalism that should be brought to Russia as often as possible.

The British Council, which organised the Rambert's Russia tour, took a significant risk in choosing the world famous Mariinsky as the venue for the St Petersburg performance. But, as Michael Bird, director of the British Council in St Petersburg, says: "The theatre's current artistic director, Valery Gergiev, knows the work of the Rambert very well and did everything to help bring it to the Mariinsky. And what dancer does not dream of dancing on the stage of the Mariinsky at least once in his life!" Indeed, when the RDC arrived at the theatre for the first time, their master of choreography, Renato Paroni de Castro, exclaimed: "I could fall to my knees and kiss this stage, this stage on which Balanchine started his career!" Although slightly melodramatic, these words convey the mood that overtook the RDC in St Petersburg.

The RDC tour started in St Petersburg and it was unclear until the very last moment how the public would react. The tension only eased when the clapping continued long after the last curtain call. The theatre's stage manager, Alexei Mironov, an elderly gentleman who has worked all of his life at the theatre, turned to the company with a smile at the end of the performance and said: "Congratulations! Such a reception in our theatre means you've been a great success!"

However, St Petersburg ballet critics, known for their measured statements, were more guarded in their reaction. "The public made a respectable welcome to the performances of the RDC," said critic Pavel Gershenson. "There were moments of talent in La Petite Mort, refined boredom in Stream, and style in Rooster. A bourgeois public took in a bourgeois ballet, relaxed and enjoyed it. The RDC is an academic modern dance company, a sort of highly professional artistic middle class such as should be present in the artistic life of any nation to keep it from sinking into a lack of professionalism or into sloppiness."

Pavel Gershinson thinks the Mariinsky was the right venue for the RDC as its stage can accommodate any type of performance - as long as it is a good performance - and that the RDC was like a breath of fresh air for the Mariinsky, which needs a good airing.

However, the city's cultural establishment showed a certain degree of snobbishness in its evaluation of the RDC's work, deprecating it as redolent of provincialism. Ballet producers and television stars, discussing the performance in the buffet during the interval, agreed: "This kind of art form only does harm to classical traditions, and it's odd that the RDC was allowed to perform at the Mariinsky." However, the theatre's lead soloist and choreographer, Sergei Vikharev, said: "How can the RDC have harmed classical tradition? It's not as though they stole the ballerinas' tutus, or broke all the lamp bulbs in the theatre! More harm is done to classical tradition by the theatre itself, when it puts on poor performances. The RDC at the Mariinsky served as a perfect example of integration in art. Genius seldom occurs anyway. The RDC represents a strong constant level in art, which sadly is absent in our country."

Pavel Gershenson explained that the snobbishness was a result of the cultural establishment being fed for so long by Social Realism, and therefore simply not able to understand subject-less choreography, which, in essence, is what the work of Jiri Kylian and Christopher Bruce is about.

But if the St Petersburg public only gave the Rambert ballet a respectful reception, in Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow it was a triumph. Moscow critics, who obviously thought that the RDC was, if anything, rather old-fashioned and not radical enough, had difficulty as a result in explaining the troupe's success. One of the most influential of the Moscow critics, Vadim Gaevskij, explained it in the following terms: "Russia slept through 20th-century ballet. In its place there has been a void, and any of its incarnations now is therefore bound to be successful, although on the other hand this is also the reason why there is sometimes a derisive attitude in Russia towards modern dance."

Moscow critics took issue with Christopher Bruce's latest work, Rooster. "How can one, in 1996, stage something that is 20 years out of date," lamented the critic Alexandre Timofeevskij. A great fan of Petipa, Timofeevskij was put out by the fact that modern dance sees itself as an academic dance form. "We are not prepared to consider modern dance a classical dance language, which can be carried along like a banner from year to year," he insisted. "The moment Christopher Bruce stops thinking about modern dance as a language, and begins ironising his era, and himself within it - as in the ballet Rooster - then things get interesting and enjoyable to watch." In other words, what Timofeevskij took objection to was the fact that the RDC, once known for its radicalism, brought to Russia a programme of academic modern dance.

The ballet that went down best of all with dancers was Petite Mort: "This ballet leaves a good impression - the mastery of the dancers, pleasant lighting, plastic movements, wonderful costumes [designed by Jake Visser]," says Miroshnichenko. "As a professional, I was also very interested to see the dancers at work in Stream."

Nevertheless, he cannot help betray the Russian classical ballet dancer's self-assurance: "If you were to dress us in the costumes from Petite Mort, I think you'd find the whole thing would benefit from it." Alexei adds that he has no difficulty in following the movements in the Rambert ballets, and that a classically trained ballet dancer has no difficulty in performing a piece in any other style of choreography. "We could dance all of that very easily; it would just mean working on it for a bit."

This kind of attitude is typical of ballet dancers throughout Russia. Even in Nizhny Novgorod, where the dancers keep in trim not only at rehearsals but by going to the gym also, they obviously felt slightly sorry for their RDC colleagues and suggested that they could give them some classical training, although they didn't think to ask for a few lessons in modern dance in return.

In general, dancers at the Mariinsky were in agreement with Pavel Gershenson, saying that the RDC's quality and level of professionalism justified the company's appearance at the theatre. The negative reaction of many critics needs to be seen in the light of their inability not to compare it to the classical traditions of St Petersburg, a past of which they are proud, but which leaves them feeling defenceless when it comes to contemporary choreography (having missed out on 20th-century ballet).

And young dancers at the Mariinsky, trying out the head movements from Rooster, understand very well that this is not harming classical tradition, but is simply a natural continuation of it. Sergei Vikharev is convinced that the Mariinsky company needs a serious injection of modern dance if it is to survive. Although, having said that, he believes that the RDC is perhaps not of the right calibre.

In my opinion, Christopher Bruce can be proud of the RDC's tour: as he says himself, at the theatre people should relax and leave in a good mood. This, the RDC undoubtedly achieved. What is more, the company drew a young and increasingly influential crowd to the Mariinsky, which will now need to put on seriously good new productions in order to keep them there Rambert Dance Company is at the Apollo Theatre, Oxford to 15 Feb (01865 244544); Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth 21, 22 Feb (01202 456456); Arts Theatre, Cambridge 27 Feb -1 Mar (01223 503333) then touring to 24 May