Pas de Deux
The Moscow Classical Ballet is one of the bestknown ballet troupes in Russia, unofficially ranking third after the esteemed Bolshoi and the legendary Mariinsky. Its directors, Natalia Kasatkina and Vladimir Vasilyov, are a couple who are as in love with each other as they are with the ballet.
Text Alevtina Kashitsina
Photos courtesy of Moscow Classical
In addition to its status at home, Kasatkina and Vasilyov’s Moscow Classical Ballet has abroad, with The New York Times declaring MCB’s The Nutcracker “the best in town.” Despite its lack of a home stage to call its own, the 40-year-old company manages to stage new productions, train talented young dancers, and gracefully play a leading role on Moscow’s classical dance scene. Much of this accomplishment is a function of the dedication and hard work of Kasatkina and Vasilyov, who have headed the Moscow Classical Ballet since 1977.
Trained in the Bolshoi Ballet’s school of choreography, the couple have been well-regarded as balletmasters since the 1960s, seeing many changes in the world of dance over the decades.
Kasatkina joined the Bolshoi the year it began touring internationally. At the time, danse contemporain (modern dance) was in fashion the West, and many companies had shifted away from the classics in favor of one-act ballets. But when the Bolshoi brought its Giselle and Swan Lake to Europe and the United States, it helped revive interest in the classics and catalyzed a move back in that direction. In this way, Kasatkina recalled, the Bolshoi became a power force in the struggle between classicism and the modernizing impulse that existed in the dance world at the time.
Today, these various branches of the art live side by side, she noted, adding that classical dance has greater versatility and thus greater capacity to sustain development than modern dance, which she described as “rather déjà-vu.” Classical technique frees the dancer to render emotions, and for this reason even the new is based on the classics, she explained.
As an example, she cited the work of American dancer and choreographer William Forsythe, who is known for taking classical ballet in new directions, such as incorporating architecture, contemporary visual arts, and performance art into his choreography. Absent the traditional foundations, the avant-garde makes a weaker impression, Kasatkina said. But the true test is whether or not the ballet master has something to say: “If he or she has something new to tell to the world, then a production is a success. If not, then it’s déjà-vu.”
So how should the classics be treated today in order to remain of interest to modern audiences?
Theater should be adapted to the modern audience, Kasatkina said. For example, centuries ago the ballet was entertainment for the royal court and could last five hours as audience members drank champagne, held conversations, left the performance for a while and then returned. Performances must evolve to keep apace with the norms and habits of modern life and audience members. She said when approaching such a task of adaptation, she tried to imagine what balletmasters of earlier eras would stage for the balletgoers of today. She added, though, that just as the stage must adapt to the audience, the audience must be prepared for what takes place on stage.
In order to accomplish this, Kasatkina and Vasilyov have made efforts to keep ballet accessible and in the minds of the audience year round. To this end, they established the Summer Festival of Classical Ballet. Held at the Novaya Opera Theater at the Ermitage Garden in summer 2008, the festival provided a full schedule of ballet classics throughout the summer, typically a season of balletic drought. And they were pleased with the results: Interest was high and audiences were large.
Apart from the festival, Kasatkina and Vasilyov certainly know how to keep busy. Earlier this year, MCB premiered its new ballet, Mowglie, which they will bring to the Kremlin Palace in April 2009. And in March of next year, the company will present a new ballet, Coppelia, with original choreography. Coppelia is based on a tale by the German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose stories provided the basis for another ballet, The Nutcracker, which was included in the summer 2008 festival.
What’s that? The Nutcracker in summer?
Unlike in Europe and the U.S., where The Nutcracker is a staple of the Christmas season and rarely performed at other times of the year, in Russia the ballet is seasonless. “I guess this is a Russian feature — to have ice cream outside in winter and go to see The Nutcracker in summer. Maybe watching The Nutcracker when it is so hot outside makes the audience feel cooler,” Kasatkina hypothesized. Historically, in Russia the ballet is simply one element of the repertoire, she said.
Given the popularity of The Nutcracker and Tchaikovsky during Christmastime in the West (“In winter they simply go mad about it. You see billboards everywhere advertising performance of The Nutcracker and hear Tchaikovsky playing constantly — at railway stations, in restaurants...”), MCB usually goes abroad on tour with the ballet at this time of year. Now that the size of MCB’s company has increased — they went from 19 members in the late 1970s to 75 today — they can divide their dancers into several casts and present performances abroad and at home at the same time.
Lucky, then, for those of us who live in Moscow. Now we can have visions of MCB sugar-plum fairies dancing in our heads as well as on the stage before us.
For more information on Moscow Classical Ballet including tour and performance schedule, go to www.classicalballet.ru (in Russian only)