How culture went west

For Moldova, like many post-Communist countries in Eastern Europe, opera and ballet have become essential exports
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The Independent Culture

My new best friend, whose name escapes me, puts his arm around my neck and shouts to me above the jovial, not to say deafening noise of guitar, fiddle and timbal that I must tell all the people in the UK that Moldova is not a backward country; and, as if to underline his point, he brandishes his mobile phone in my face. I promise to do my best, and in return, my recent friend - who is a lawyer, and wears a rather spiffing blue suit - gives me his business card and tells me to get in touch at once if anyone in Moldova gives me any trouble. He'll soon have it sorted out. He orders up yet another bottle of the local champagne, a touch on the sweet side but none the less a great loosener of Anglo-Saxon voices and feet, and we drink deeply.

My new best friend, whose name escapes me, puts his arm around my neck and shouts to me above the jovial, not to say deafening noise of guitar, fiddle and timbal that I must tell all the people in the UK that Moldova is not a backward country; and, as if to underline his point, he brandishes his mobile phone in my face. I promise to do my best, and in return, my recent friend - who is a lawyer, and wears a rather spiffing blue suit - gives me his business card and tells me to get in touch at once if anyone in Moldova gives me any trouble. He'll soon have it sorted out. He orders up yet another bottle of the local champagne, a touch on the sweet side but none the less a great loosener of Anglo-Saxon voices and feet, and we drink deeply.

Then my other new best friend, whose name also escapes me, takes me in a giant bear-hug - quite an experience, as he'll probably never see the slim side of 20 stone again - and declares that "all men whose feet touch the earth are brothers". I agree loudly with him, exhausting a good five per cent of my available Russian vocabulary (the words for "yes" and "brothers") in the process, and then join with my two young female colleagues from the British press in singing "Happy Birthday to You" to our third new best friend, Vitaly, who is 30 today.

Then we all join hands, dancing and stamping and yodelling to the beat of a traditional Moldovan folk melody until our official minders drag us off into the night. Call me sentimental, but sometimes it seems to me that a lot of the problems of this crazy old world could be solved if only the ordinary people of the nations just came together and got horribly drunk on fizzy white wine.

I think I could honestly have assured my lawyer chum that most people in the UK certainly do not think of Moldova as a backward country, though I might have hurt his feelings had I gone on to explain that this is because most people have probably never heard of the place at all. I suspect the examination boards would grant you an honorary A-level in Geography if you could even point to it on the world map. (It's actually tucked in under the Ukraine, on top of Romania.)

But that's a sad state of affairs for both of us. As you may have gathered, the Moldovans can be a hearteningly friendly, generous and bibulous people - they answer much more closely to our ethnic clichés about warm-blooded, life-affirming Latins than those about morose, suicidal Eastern Europeans, and indeed are proud to claim ancestry from ancient Rome. What's more, they are whizzes when it comes to dancing: the classical kind, that is, as well as the rowdy folkloric kind you will encounter at the end of the evening in restaurants.

It is dance that has brought us to Moldova for a few days before Christmas. We are here to witness a preview of the Chisinau National Ballet's reputedly spectacular production of The Nutcracker, which is touring the UK in January and February - an import by the cultural entrepreneur Ellen Kent and her Ballet Inter-national Company, which, in the past few years, has imported several Moldovan productions of both ballet and opera, and with a good deal of success. It soon becomes clear that the Moldovan authorities take this chance of sending their artists over to Britain very seriously indeed; as one spokesman puts it: "For us, Russia used to be the market; but now, we in culture must reorient our market."

More pedantically, they must "re-occident" it - sell it to the West as well as to the other nations of the former USSR. As even its most fervent patriot will admit, Moldova is a small country with little in the way of natural resources, unless you count its abundant fertile soil and agreeable summer climate - two blessings that have helped to make the country a major producer and exporter of wines. Lacking oil, uranium or gold, Moldova must look to its less tangible assets, perhaps the most obvious of which is an artistic community that was trained to the highest standards under the old communist system, and often at the very heart of the old system - many Moldovan artists and intellectuals went off to study in the theatres, conservatoires and film schools of Moscow.

One such artist-intellectual is Mr Ghenadie Ciobanu, Moldova's leading composer and, not entirely by coincidence, also its Minister of Culture. Minister Ciobanu, a tall, slender chap in his early forties, with just a hint of Sean Connery around the eyes, apologises to us for his poor English - which is (a) in fact perfectly serviceable and (b) something like the fifth language he speaks in addition to Russian - and, besides briefing us about the state of Moldovan culture, tells us some more about the Nutcracker.

The production, we learn, has been staged for the Chisinau National Opera by Yuri Grigorovich, who was Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Ballet between 1964 and 1995. This Nutcracker was originally mounted in Moscow in 1966, and was last brought to London in 1974. Grigorovich restaged it here two years ago as, we're told, "a gift'' to the people of Moldova. The initiative for Grigorovich's gift, however, seems to have come from Moldova's First Lady, Mrs Lucinski, who is a friend of the Russian choreographer.

Our curiosity is duly whetted; but before we are allowed to see Grigorovich's Nutcracker, there are many more official obligations to be met: a meeting with the President, Mr Petru Lucinski, who cracks a suitably presidential, self-deprecating joke ("In our country, we are so artistic... more people are prepared to sing than to work!" How we laugh, politely.); interviews with the ballet company's artistic and technical directors, Mikail Caftanat and Felix Bessonov, who are both "Nam veterans" - ie, they helped the Vietnamese people maintain and develop the classical ballet repertoire to which they had originally been introduced by the French; a visit to the mind-bogglingly vast wine caverns of Cricova; and a trip to a variety concert staged by and for the Moldovan police force - a ghastly display that, apart from the burst of traditional folk-dancing, almost rivals Jim Davidson for lack of taste and humour. Plainly, not all Moldovan culture is of the highest level.

At last it is time for the Nutcracker itself. By this stage of the trip, we three British journos quietly agree among ourselves, we are so much in love with this country and its endearing people that we will weep if the thing turns out to be as naff as the police variety show. Fortunately, it isn't: there are one or two technical hiccups (painful feedback, an audible backstage row), but on balance, the piece is every bit as magical a Christmas jollity as it's meant to be, with a staging as lavish as anything you would expect of a more pampered Western European or North American company, and then some.

I'd better leave it to the professional dance critics to deliver a more stringent verdict: we, at least, were all very much taken by the colourful fantasia of the settings; the sincerity, grace and sexiness of the leads; and the obvious rapport between audience and company. If the applause at the end is less than deafening, it's only because the palms of toddlers aren't very resonant. We certainly did our bit to raise the decibel level.

At our final dinner in Chisinau, we are joined by the two Nutcracker principals: Alexei Terentiev, who at 24 is already having to think seriously about his next profession, and his wife Christina, a star at 17. On stage they were sensual, strutting demigods; at the table they are more like shy, nervous school-children, careful about their manners and touchingly anxious to be reassured that we really liked their work and are not just being polite guests. No, no, we insist, we really liked it, in fact we loved it, please come home with us and join our families. (That last bit might be the fizzy white talking again.)

Mischa, one of our minders, mutters something to the effect that the world is a great round object in space, and that if two men set off in opposite directions, one day they will meet again, face to face. I'm not sure whether this is old Moldovan folk wisdom, or one of Mischa's personal aperçus, but at the time it seems unutterably profound. We vow to our young artists that, true to the spirit of Mischa's words, we will come to see them dance again; and we mean it.

 

Palace Theatre, Manchester (0161-242 2524) to 13 Jan; then 15-20 Jan, Liverpool Empire; 22-27 Jan, Edinburgh Playhouse; 29 Jan-3 Feb, Bristol Hippodrome; 5-17 Feb, London Apollo

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