Debuting a tradition

How do you preserve the integrity of a superior tradition such as Russian ballet — yet still create a piece of theater that will resonate with modern audiences?

“There’s no magical answer to that question,” says Akiva Talmi, co-producer — with fellow Juilliard graduate Mary Giannone — of the Moscow Ballet, a 120-year-old international organization that has toured the U.S. annually for the last seven years.

But in fact, expertly fashioned magic is exactly what this company is all about.

Together with the Ballet Theatre of the Russian Academy of Theatrical Arts (whose Russian acronym is GITIS), the Moscow Ballet creates a rendition of The Nutcracker that may be unfamiliar to many American audiences. This beloved story, made famous by the sumptuous scores of Tchaikovsky, has been presented countless ways since its debut in the late 19th century. However, many of the versions seen today somewhat dilute the plot of the original, says Talmi.

Enter The Great Russian Nutcracker. Viewers of the Moscow Ballet production will be treated to sections of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original tale that are left out of many contemporary translations, he explains.

The premise of the story goes something like this: Young Clara (her Russian counterpart is Masha) is given a toy nutcracker for Christmas. Unsatisfied with life in the nursery, the ambitious wooden prince rises up to lead a revolution of toy soldiers against an army of mice.

In the original version, the famous fray between the soldiers and the mice occurs when the mice fall off a great battleship, Talmi reveals: “That part of the plot has been neglected for years. … One of [the Moscow Ballet’s aims] is plot clarification, and there are similar plot clarifications along the way.”

Accordingly, the company’s set designers (led by Nic Ularu) created their own 50-foot-wide, 19th-century-style ship. Another artistic revelation is designers’ use of surreal props to transform an initially inviting banquet hall into a room of creepy significance.

This was done, says the producer, “to [create] psychological drama, using the distorted room to reflect and accentuate Masha’s internal [ambivalence] about growing up.”

Prima Ballerina Natalya Ogneva will star as Masha, joined by Premier Danseur Andrei Evdokimov in the role of the Nutcracker Prince (Ogneva took top honors at the 1993 Diaghilev International Ballet Competition and the 1997 Tchaikovsky International Competition; Evdokimov was awarded the “Benois de la Danse” International Award just this year).The Great Russian Nutcracker will also feature a number of local schoolchildren, who have been honing their roles since early October under the tutelage of Fletcher School of Dance Director Ann Dunn.

For 1999, the Moscow Ballet premieres an exceptionally lavish production featuring 18 new backdrops and 300 new costumes. One element of the company remains fixed, however: What continues to set the Moscow Ballet apart from other international companies, says Talmi, is “the integration of dance with Stanislavski method acting — which has been used by the legendary stars of Hollywood — in which the actress or actor becomes the character. These dancers are the only dancers in the world using this [combination of forces].”

Many members hold advanced degrees in opera, theater and ballet, he continues; in addition to lofty academic credentials, Talmi believes that the production’s devilish coating of humor — a longtime hallmark — also sets it apart from the competition.

But will the Moscow Ballet have to expand its time-honored techniques even further, to keep pace with 21st-century audiences?

“That question is the core of the matter,” Talmi admits. “It’s a matter of great interest to the leaders of this institute, and one we [discuss] daily: how to make a 100-year-old company remodel itself to be meaningful.

“Well, we [will continue to be] very, very committed to method acting, allowing the actors to express what their character is and what their part is all about,” he continues thoughtfully. “In a philosophical sense, it’s a matter of what new ballets we will use, and how to [add fresh ideas] to the wealth of history, put [ballet] in the context of — to use a cliche — ‘one global village.’ That’s very hard to do. You never know where a creative spark will come from that will answer that spiritual aspiration.”

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