The White Fire

A French and a Russian choreographer met in Chelyabinsk, brought together by their mutual love of Stravinsky. The staging of Diaghilev’s “Russian Seasons” ballets at the Chelyabinsk Opera and Ballet Theatre was a festive occasion. Seeing new choreography in the conservative ballet milieu is still an unexpected surprise.

For a long time Chelyabinsk was a closed city. A while ago, during the war, this city was manufacturing the legendary T-34 tank. The “mailboxes” (classified military facilities and institutes) exist in the Chelyabinsk Region to this day. The city has an unusual atmosphere. On the one hand, it is defined by its military production, but on the other – by its rich cultural traditions. This is the place, after all, that the intellectuals were exiled to after the war; this is the spot, where the White émigrés settled upon their return from China to the USSR. So the premiere at the Chelyabinsk Opera and Ballet Theatre of the “Russian Seasons of the 21st Century” project, set to the music of Igor Stravinsky, was not a chance occurrence. Oddly enough, the project received considerable financial support not from the regional ministry of culture but from the Chelyabinsk Metalwork Plant and the “Fortum” Corporation that manufactures generators for thermal power plants. The funds were secured by choreographer Konstantin Uralsky, who stood at the helm of the Theatre’s ballet company for a period of three years. He was also the one who invited French choreographer Régis Obadia to stage “The Wedding”. The second ballet of the evening was “The Firebird”, choreographed by Uralsky himself.

Algerian-born Obadia is a unique personality. In 1980, his very first ballet earned him the Grand Prize that was handed to him by Serge Lifar himself. For twenty years after graduating from the Jacques Lecoq International School of Theatre and the Françoise and Dominique Dupuy Dance School, Obadia, together with Joelle Bouvier, managed choreographic centers in the French cities of Le Havre and Angers. Obadia’s choreographic language took shape in the course of his collaboration with Bouvier. To this day his signature style belongs in large part to the French school of the late 20th century: it’s a choreography that has attained a high level of refined aestheticism but is still audience-oriented, preoccupied with visual appeal.

Since the 2000s, Obadia has been working in Russia with his wife Yelizaveta Vergasova. He staged “The Rite of Spring” with the contemporary Russian chamber ballet company “Moskva”, a production that won the Golden Mask Award. His production of the plastic drama “The Idiot” became the laureate of the Seagull Award. And on top of that Obadia has also choreographed Patricia Kaas’ show “Kabaret”, which has toured in Russia among other places.

His production of “The Wedding” is a first attempt at collaboration with a Russian ballet company, and it is a successful one. The ballet training of those dancers, who had never before danced contemporary choreography, brought purity and restraint of lines to a production filled with desperate twisting of the hands, swinging of the bodies and daring lifts. The female ballet dancers are thorough and cautious in their plasticity. Despair and fear experienced by a young bride are conveyed with tact and artistic mastery. The male portion of the company displays the kind of protectiveness toward the young women that is so important in this ceremony. Lack of improvisational experience forced the dancers to pay special attention to the execution of the dance: there are six couples on the stage; each one has a bride in it, and each one is equally important. “The Wedding” isn’t about a single betrothed; rather it is about the rite of meeting, full of trepidation and anxiety, between a man and a woman.

In 1914, Stravinsky wrote the following to Alexander Benoit, “I found quite a few texts related to the plot of “The Wedding” among the various collections of Russian folk songs in Kiev. As I was returning from Russia to Switzerland, I saw that Central Europe was all on edge. Two weeks later war was declared… The news of the war troubled me greatly, stirred up my patriotic feelings. The only thing that comforted me and brought me joy was the reading of Russian folk poetry. Those poems attracted me with their combination of words and syllables, a purely acoustic aspect…” The Chelyabinsk Opera Theatre’s female choir articulates clearly (a rarity in itself) the words of lamentation for a woman’s fate, for the untwisting of the braid that signifies the coming marriage and the possible widowhood; wars, after all, can happen at any time...

The wedding celebration was taken into the street, under the windows of an abandoned café. Young women in white wedding dresses and men in jackets hastily slipped over their shoulders overcome their fear of a new life together right on the street. Much like the characters in their ballet, the dancers show their readiness to part with their former life, which had no contemporary dance in it, and embrace the new one that has. The young audience of the Opera Theatre liked the new production very much.

“The Firebird” ballet is not the most favorite or popular with directors: the music is not as dramatically captivating as in “The Wedding”, “The Rite of Spring” or “Petrushka” – Stravinsky’s more popular works. But Konstantin Uralsky chose to stage this narrative ballet fairytale for grown-ups en pointes. Stravinsky wrote the following to Jurgenson on the subject of “The Firebird”, “Diaghilev is the only Russian who widely and skillfully promotes Russian art abroad solely out of his infinite love for this art...” Uralsky did the same thing as Diaghilev, only in Russia: he trusted that the ballet audience needed a well-forgotten fairytale, and he did not miscalculate.

According to the libretto, Kashchei* is awaiting the birth of the Firebird, whose magic feather is the only force that is capable of stripping him of his immortality. Having just been born, the Firebird easily submits to Kashchei and soon loses its feather. Uralsky’s Firebird is a white bird, dressed in a short tutu (costume designer Yelena Slastnikova), a little girl. Gone are the splendor of the flame-colored costume and the majestic poses of a beautiful woman: there is only a teenager, who doesn’t know that she is being used, that she is born to be a victim just like the young brides in “The Wedding”...

Balanchine wrote that Stravinsky’s music brings a special eloquence of gesture to the ballet and helps with the creation of dance forms. The Chelyabinsk Theatre orchestra was well prepared for the complexities of Stravinsky’s rhythmic pulsation; it keeps the rhythm and holds the pauses in a very professional and inspired manner.

When the Theatre decided to have an evening of Stravinsky’s ballets, it wasn’t thinking about festival success and box-office numbers, but rather about the spectators and its own role as an experimenter and an educator. Both productions have been called upon to at least partially alleviate the spectators’ longing for a contemporary blockbuster love story and a Russian fairytale with the obligatory moral: love conquers all adversities. The technical problems were solved as well, as a result: Régis Obadia managed to make the company feel more at ease with the use of the new technique and choreographic language. And Uralsky, who took in a theatre that had only 8 swans in “Swan Lake”, greatly revived the company over a period of three years, infused it with fresh energy and showed new horizons to the dancers.

In the new season, Konstantin Uralsky became head of the ballet company at the Astrakhan Opera and Ballet Theatre. Régis Obadia returned to France, lamenting the fact that he couldn’t find local coaches for “The Wedding”. In order to be able to dance the classics well, and especially the late avant-garde, one has to master the 20th century choreography. So “The Wedding” and “The Firebird” should be left to adapt in the repertoire of the Chelyabinsk Opera and Ballet Theatre – a company, after all, grows on new material.

Ekaterina Vasenina


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