Benois Prize, Russia, and Nacho Duato

May 31, 2012

I’ve been in love with Russia since I was 15—the ballet, the language, the literature—and have made several trips. What struck me this time around is how much Nacho Duato has infiltrated the ballet scene. There’s even talk—or rather hope—of his being the next Petipa: the foreigner who came and stayed, the great artist who transformed Russian ballet.

But first, the Benois de la danse, which is the reason I went to Moscow, and then I tacked on a visit to St. Petersburg cuz I couldn’t resist.

The Benois, led by former Bolshoi dancer Nina Loory, is a two-day event (competition and gala) that’s way more known in Europe and Russia than here. Now in its 20th year, it brought together different strands of the international dance community.

Between the hotel and the theater—and the other hotel where you could do wi-fi—I ran into Lar Lubovitch, Edwaard Liang, Alessandra Ferri, John Neumeier, and Jorma Elo (the last three were Benois judges this year). The dancers who were nominated and/or performing included Kathleen Breen Combes, Drew Jacoby & Rubinald Pronk, and Marie-Agnès Gillot.


Alessandra Ferri and I went for a walk in the Red Square. Here she is in St. Basils.


Each year one award is given to a choreographer, a woman dancer, a male dancer, a composer, and a lifetime award. I wasn’t consciously rooting for any one person to win the award in choreography, but when Lar’s name was announced, I was deliriously happy. He is the first person in the U.S. to receive this award.


Intermission after it was announced that Lar won the Benois for choreography, at the Bolshoi Theatre.


I had seen Lar’s rehearsal on the Bolshoi’s Upper Stage, which is an exact replica of the size, the rake, and the orchestra pit of the main Bolshoi stage, except that there’s only about 19 seats for directors and technical crew to observe. I watched his two dancers, Kate Skarpetowska and Brian McGinnis, move seamlessly through the sculptural shapes of Meadow as though they were a single convoluted, stretched-and-pulled organism.


Kate Skarpetowska and Brian McGinnis in Lar’s Meadow. Photo by Mikhail Logvinov.


Brian told me that the rake of the stage made certain things difficult. He had to counterbalance the promenade by pulling on Kate’s upstage arm when heading downstage and vice versa.

Of the excerpts performed that night, I also liked Neumeier’s Liliom, a delightful scene of falling in love. With a park bench, a balloon as lamppost, and music by Michel Legrand, it had a whiff of French-film flavor. Helène Bouchet (replacing Alina Cojocaru, who captured the Benois prize for her role in it) was terrific. She was partnered by Carsten Jung, who won the Benois for male dancer.

The gala the next night showed bits of both the old Bolshoi and the new Bolshoi. Opening the gala was the “Aurora’s Wedding” pas de deux in Victorian wigs. Oy! It may be authentic Petipa but the dancers look embalmed. (I’m reminded of what Norton Owen said at the Limón gala: that José Limón never wanted to embalm a lily. Well, putting sweet Yevgenia Obraztsova in a white wig gets close to embalming a lily.)

Closing the show was the Maryinsky ballet star Uliana Lopatkina as a guest in the Bolshoi’s production of “Diamonds,” and she too looked embalmed—or at least super controlled. She held her hands in a dainty way à la Taglioni rather than Balanchine. She had none of the lusciousness that Viktoria Tereshkina (also Maryinsky) had when I saw it in St. Petersburg a few days later (my review of the Maryinsky in Jewels is here).


Eddie Liang in front of the Bolshoi Theatre, where he is about to have a triumph.


The most exciting piece was Edwaard Liang’s Distant Cries, staged for Bolshoi superstar Svetlana Zakharova and her partner Andrey Merckuriev. (Disclosure: This duet had originally premiered on a program of Peter Boal Solos that I had choreographed for as well.) This dance fit Zakharova’s elegant, slippery way of moving like a glove. Eddie’s mercurial choreography studded with nicely awkward moments was captivating, and the audience loved seeing their star in something new.

(For complete information on the Benois prize, past and present, click here.)

Separate from the Benois, I saw the Stanislavsky Ballet, Moscow’s second ballet company. They performed two Nacho Duato works and one by Jorma Elo. Both Duato pieces—Na Floresta and Por Vos Muero—were done beautifully. The dancers really got the deep pliés, the rounded shapes, and the way a line stretches into something else that gives a hint of aching narrative. Por Vos Muero in particular was quite moving.

Jorma’s Slice to Sharp, however, fared badly. This was one of my favorite Elo pieces when NYCB premiered it in 2006: It’s fast, witty, complex and races along with a heady momentum. None of that surfaced in this rendition.


I was lucky to get an appointment with Sergey Filin, now the director of the Bolshoi Ballet. I’ll use the interview for a later article, but let me just say that it was priceless to see him demonstrate the wrong way for Albrecht to get mad at Hilarion after Giselle dies.


Sergey Filin, new artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet.


On to St. Petersburg, where I visited the Vaganova Academy with Lar, Kate, and Brian, who also happened to come to the old city. Olga Abramova, the welcoming deputy director, graciously led us around the building, with its 30 studios. We saw a girls’ class (extremely difficult, with much of the barre done in relevé), a boys’ class, some rehearsals, and the museum. The students were rehearsing for their year-end performances, and one of the pieces was a duet from Nacho Duato’s Madrigal. They did a great job with this intricate, folk-inspired piece. There is now a strong relationship between Duato and the academy, and he has taken some of its graduates into the Mikhailovsky.


At the Vaganova Academy Museum, with Lar. Photo by Olga Abramova


Visiting the Vaganova Academy put flesh on the bones of what I had learned about it when I wrote Temple of Technique in the January issue. The whole place resounds with history, and the students live surrounded by evidence of Pavlova, Nijinsky, Balanchine, Baryshnikov, Vishneva. Next year the academy celebrates its 275th anniversary!


I also made a quick stop to Dom Kannon, House of Dance at Kannon Dance Company. Vadim Kasparov, the executive director and an old friend, showed me around. The company, which is a terrific little group that does Natalia Kasparova’s choreography, was not there as they were about to tour to Finland. But I got to peek into a children’s class where a bunch of lively 9-year-olds were rehearsing a really interesting dance to Chilean music.


Children in the very lively class/rehearsal at Dom Kannon in St. Petersburg

I also saw the Mikhailovsky Ballet, the second ballet company in St. Petersburg, now under Nacho Duato’s direction. This company of 160 dancers does a range of classical works in addition to Duato’s work. On a triple bill of his ballets, my favorite was Without Words, which I had seen ABT perform. It was just gorgeous, with inventive, touching duets and trios. The film upstage left shows details of gestures either just before or just after it happens onstage—until the last moment when a man lies down and curls up, simultaneous with the film image.

I got to see this from the Czar’s box! The joke’s on me because I had been thinking how ridiculous that every theatre still has a czar’s box from pre-Soviet days. But when you’re in it, it’s such a pleasure because no one’s head blocks your line of vision.


in the czar’s box at the Mikhailovsky Theatre. Photo by Aja Jung.


I had a great interview with Nacho Duato in his office, where a painting of his (“I paint when I’m lonely or angry”) hangs on the wall. You’ll see my “Quick Q & A” with him in the September issue.

My last night in St. Petersburg was a foiled adventure. I greedily wanted to see both the Maryinsky Ballet in Jewels and the big, free outdoor performance that was part of the celebration of St. Petersburg’s 309th birthday. (Apparently every Russian city celebrates its birthday annually.) Maria Kochetkova and Yonah Acosta were dancing Don Q at this event, and she had tweeted me that they wouldn’t go on until 10:30. It seemed possible to rush from the Maryinsky to the Mikhailovsky Castle, where the outdoor event was happening.

The Maryinsky Ballet danced Jewels beautifully (here’s my review) but I couldn’t stay for the bows. Their theater is not near a metro stop, so my friend and I rushed out to get a taxi. This was the time of the “white nights,” so it was like New Year’s Eve in broad daylight on Nevsky Prospect, and cars couldn’t get all the way through to the Mikhailovsky Castle. So…..we missed it. We got there just as people were leaving the castle in droves—by the thousands. We heard that their Don Q was amazing. My consolation prize was saying hello to Maria as she was packing up with the help of her mother, who had taken a train from Moscow to see her dance. She invited me into their tour van, where I met Yonah too. They dropped me off at Nevsky and the Fontanka River, near my hotel.


With Maria Kochetkova in back of the Mikhailovsky Palace, the night I didn’t see her dance.


I’m curious as to how Nacho Duato will influence the Russian dance scene over time, so I guess I’ll just have to go back.

(You can see a slew more photos of my trip on my facebook page.)


Statue at the corner of Nevsky Prospect and Fontanka River.