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International Dance Open

by Elizabeth H. Stern

April 11, 2009 -- Oktyabirsky Theater, St Petersburg, Russia

Standing in the wings at the Oktyabirsky Theater, I listened to the dancers chat and joke good-humouredly in a mixture of Spanish, English and Russian as they stretched and adjusted their pointe shoes before the evening’s Gala Performance.

This weekend St. Petersburg, Russia held its annual International Dance Open with ballet stars from both Russia and abroad. The Dance Open, in its eighth year, gives ballet students the opportunity to take part in master classes, and concludes in a spectacular gala performance by leading dancers from a variety of companies. As ballet legend Angel Corella explained, “Everyone has something really great to share with the audience and with each other. I think it’s wonderful to see different cultures and different dancers.”

The performance brought together artists from such companies as the National Ballet of Cuba, Stuttgart Ballet, the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater, and the Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) and Bolshoi Theaters to historic St. Petersburg, the cradle of classical ballet. Mr. Corella, of American Ballet Theater, described his preparation for the performance: “The preparation is just to go out and have fun. In this particular festival, the atmosphere is really relaxed and very positive.”

Mr. Corella was returning to the Dance Open, and has performed many times in Russia over the last number of years, including with the Mariinsky and touring Russia with “Kings of the Dance.” I was able to ask him briefly about his experience dancing in Russia and his thoughts on the current state of ballet in Russia: “It [Russian ballet] has evolved a lot. The Vaganova School is so defined that you’re in danger of becoming affected. You have to keep moving with the time, and I think they have. The dancing is evolving constantly. You see beautiful, amazing dancers, and very sweet; the last time I danced with the Kirov they took me bowling after the show till 5am!”

At the Gala, Mr. Corella performed “We Got It Good,” by Stanton Welch. Mr. Corella, an extremely experienced dancer, was a pleasure to watch in this sexy, jazz-inspired solo that showed off his natural charisma and virtuosity. For him, appearing at the Dance Open was “time for me to just take a little bit of calm” and enjoy dancing, now that he spends the majority of his time running his own ballet company in Spain (Corella Ballet), which recently celebrated its one year anniversary.

A fair number of the works performed were from the general classical ballet repertoire, including sections from “Le Corsaire,” “Don Quixote,” and “Swan Lake,” which were danced admirably. More interesting, however, were the more contemporary works, such as “La vita nuova,” danced by Vladimir Malakhov, and “Kazimir’s Colors,” a duet danced by Malakhov and Diana Vishneva.  Both artists were trained in Russia but have had enormous international success in Europe and North America (such as with the National Ballet of Canada, ABT, and the Staatsoper Berlin).

Mr. Malakhov’s performance was particularly haunting; he is an extraordinarily expressive and lyrical dancer, which these two works highlighted. “Kazimir’s Colors” is an interesting piece by the contemporary Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti, inspired by the paintings of Suprematist Kazimir Malevich (which were projected behind the dancers on an enormous screen) and set to Shostakovich. Ms Vishneva, among the leading ballerinas in the world and a People’s Artist of Russia, was stunning. The piece, while performed masterfully by Malakhov and Vishneva, nevertheless felt a bit indulgent and overly ponderous.

Daniil Simkin, who joined American Ballet Theater this fall, and Daniel Ulbricht of New York City Ballet, stole the show. Mr. Simkin, a Russian born dancer, performed the extremely entertaining showpiece “Les Bourgeois.” The 21-year-old possesses a level of technical skill and confidence in his dancing beyond his years and his interpretation of the piece was full of comedic swagger and flirtation.

Mr. Ulbricht performed two pieces, “Tango” and Balanchine’s playful “Tarantella.” Unable to secure a dancer from NYCB for “Tarantella,” Mr. Ulbricht was paired with a young dancer from the Mariinsky, Elizaveta Cheprasova. Watching this international couple perform the dazzling choreography of St. Petersburg native and founder of NYCB George Balanchine was an absolute delight and seemed to epitomize the general feeling of the Gala—a collaboration and exhibition of various choreographic works, styles, and dancers.

Mr. Ulbricht performed the Russian solo “Gopak” at the Dance Open last year, so for him, returning, and getting to dance a piece from the Balanchine repertoire, was a wonderful chance to expose a Russian audience to Balanchine dancing at its best: “It’s nice to bring [Tarantella] here and to do something that you do. All these other dancers come from other companies where they do this classical thing, but they get to do it here with a new audience, and the audience here is so rich and cultural; they get it…Sometimes in the States you have to hit them over the head.” Indeed, my Russian friend sitting beside me did “get it,” remarking that she had no idea that Balanchine could look so good. In his performance, Mr. Ulbricht’s technique was flawless, his jumps hovered, his turns effortless, and he expressed everything a Balanchine dancer ought—speed, precision, quick directional shifts, and a perfect sense of musicality. The sprightly Cheprasova was an excellent match for Ulbricht, with her quicksilver footwork and coquettish charm.

The International Dance Open is a fantastic presence in the cultural fabric of St. Petersburg, giving Russian balletomanes a taste of ballet abroad, while showing off one of Russia’s greatest national treasures—dance.

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