Dance Whirlwind

Another Russian ballet company on a grueling U.S. tour makes a stop in Tucson

Russian ballerina Alisa Sveshnikova is tired, and no wonder.

"I like the U.S., but we have so busy a schedule that we have no time to see points of interest," she said by telephone from her Houston hotel room last Friday.

A leading ballerina with the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre, Sveshnikova will dance in the company's classic Giselle in Tucson this Saturday night at Centennial Hall. She'll play either the mother of the doomed Giselle or the fiancée of the faithless Count Albrecht. But that's only after she dances Carmen in Houston, and other roles in cities in between.

"We are visiting 120 cities in four months," she said. "Just now, we are from the plane. We came from Kansas City. We did Giselle last night. Today, we'll do Carmen. I'll dance."

But before she would reach the stage in Houston for her evening performance as the fiery gypsy, in the afternoon, she was to go through a company class and a rehearsal. And that was after catching a 7:15 a.m. plane.

This grueling schedule--120 shows in as many days--is typical of Russian ballet companies touring the United States. Trading on the cachet of Russian dance, and such big names as the Bolshoi and the Kirov, assorted less-known companies catapult across the country drawing big audiences at high prices. (Top tickets at the Centennial show are $65.)

Last year at this time, the Moscow Festival Ballet also stopped at Centennial, for a rendition of another ballet classic, Swan Lake. The leads were young and likable enough, but the dancing was rough, and the corps work was especially sloppy. And like the St. Petersburg company, the Moscow company was on a four-month U.S. tour, with productions almost every night.

This schedule is hardly conducive to the best dancing. But Sveshnikova, translating for company artistic director Yuri Petukhov, said the response to their concerts has been positive. After all, the company has three truckloads of beautiful backdrop scenery and costumes, and several dozen classically trained dancers.

"It's not our first time in the U.S.," Petukhov said. "Three years ago, we had a rather big success. Now our first month (this time) has been successful. You'll be surprised at our level of competence."

Bolstering Petukhov's case, a quick Web search reveals that a critic in Madison, Wis., opined in January that the troupe's Romeo and Juliet "dazzled." Her only complaint was that the lukewarm audience failed to offer a standing ovation. A skeptical reader wrote a letter to the editor wondering, "Were we at the same show? ... The dancing was mediocre at best."

In its favor, the St. Petersburg is led by an artistic director who had a long career as a dancer. Before taking over the company in 2001, Petukhov "was a soloist," Sveshnikova noted, and had leading roles in most of the classical repertoire. He danced Albrecht in Giselle and Siegfried in Swan Lake, Sveshnikova said, and won such designations as "People's Artist of Russia."

And the troupe's base city is the epicenter of Russian classical dance. St. Petersburg is home not only to the Kirov and the famed Maryinsky Theater, but to the leading Vaganova Ballet Academy, where Sveshnikova and numerous other company members trained.

The old Russian-style training still prevails, Sveshnikova said. Students audition into the academies, located in cities around the country, around the age of 10 or 11. If a child's family lives elsewhere, the young dancer boards at the school.

"I learned ballet from the age of 11," Sveshnikova said. She was able to live at home with her family in St. Petersburg, and after graduation, she immediately joined the company.

The schools specialize in training students to dance in the great ballets of the 19th century. Giselle, one of the oldest and most beloved, dates back to 1841. Based on a story by Heinrich Heine, it debuted in Paris with choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, and music by Adolphe Adam. A later version, restaged by Marius Petipa, premiered in St. Petersburg in 1884.

The Giselle to be seen in Tucson combines the movements of all three choreographers.

"We try to keep it as it was," Sveshnikova said.

The story is romantic and spooky. Act 1 features lively character dancing as peasants frolic in their village. Count Albrecht, already engaged to a woman of his own station, falls for the lovely Giselle, and she for him. The hunter Hans tries to warn Giselle of Albrecht's perfidy, without luck. But when Giselle learns the truth, she dies of a broken heart.

In Act 2, danced primarily near her grave, Giselle has joined the ghostly brigade of Wilis. Like Giselle, these ethereal creatures were betrayed by men, and they've died before they had a chance to marry. They're inclined to drag the faithless Albrecht into death as well, but Giselle's steadfast love saves him. Still, the couple is to be separated for eternity.

The part of Giselle calls for especially lovely dancing, backed up by the willowy movements of the Wilis, all dressed in gauzy bridal white.

"The audience will love the performance," Sveshnikova promised. "It's very beautiful and romantic."

For other dance/movement work this weekend, see the TQ&A in this issue with Grant Bashore, who is staging a solo mime performance.

On Sunday at Centennial, Canadian sister-brother act Leahy combines Celtic music with Irish step-dancing. The eight siblings from Ontario double as musicians and dancers, with their stomping feet playing percussion to three violins, two keyboards, bass, guitar, mandolin and drums.

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