A tough nut to crack

When the Moscow Ballet’s Nutcracker plays in Asheville Friday night, it will offer more than a window into Russian culture — more, even, than a beloved holiday ritual. The colorful production will also reflect a profound local and regional legacy.

“North Carolina has always been in the forefront” of American arts education, says producer Mary Giannone.

She should know. Giannone and her husband, composer and co-producer Akiva Talmi, are ardent proponents of arts education who have used the Moscow Ballet’s annual stateside tour as a vehicle for outreach every year since they first brought the company to the U.S. in 1993. Their numerous campaigns have included literacy drives and education about Russian arts, history and culture.

“Before my husband started producing celebrity tours and dance,” says Giannone, “we were young and idealistic, and we were very into bringing dance and music to inner-city children. Now, whenever we do a project in entertainment, it has an education component to it.”

When Talmi was still at Juilliard, Giannone was working with Dance Theatre of Harlem to establish a dance program in inner-city Hartford, Conn. She cites former North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford and local auditory-learning/music-therapy luminary Dr. Wayne Kirby as key influences during that period.

“Sanford was way out in front in getting money from the state government for arts in education,” notes Giannone, “and was instrumental in building North Carolina School of the Arts.”

It was an uphill fight. A Passionate Preference: The Story of the North Carolina School of the Arts (Down Home Press, 1991) details the opposition the progressive governor and WNC novelist John Ehle encountered in their campaign to bring creativity to the state’s schools in the early ’60s. Co-authored by Asheville native Leslie Banner, a senior research editor at Duke University, the book recounts how the School of the Arts (described in its own literature as a “cluster of conservatories”) opened in 1963 as an affiliate of the University of North Carolina.

The original vision called for a strong, dynamic and mutually beneficial bond between the school and its host city. Winston-Salem, home to one of the nation’s first arts councils, won out over other competing cities — in part because residents raised almost $1 million in private funds in a mere two days.

As for the school itself, Passionate Preference quotes Sanford as saying, “I would like to scratch on the wall (neatly and in artistic style, of course): ‘This institution is unorthodox and heretical.'”

Giannone also waxes enthusiastic about Kirby’s work (he created the Kirby Method of Auditory Integration Training). The chairman of UNCA’s music department, Kirby is co-founder of Asheville’s Auditory Integration Training Center.

“It’s profound to work with children in the arts,” says Giannone, and the Moscow Ballet takes that message to heart.

Although the main cast consists entirely of Russian dancers — all graduates of top-flight ballet academies such as the Moscow Choreographic Institute and Vaganova Institute, and all between ages 19 and 30 (the prime years for dancers) — the production also uses local child dancers as extras. One high-ranking cast member is dispatched in advance to each city on the tour to supervise local auditions and help guide the chosen performers for several days, in tandem with a local dance instructor (in this case, Michele M. Lee of Center Stage Dance Studio). After that, the Russian performers rejoin the main company, leaving the local instructor in charge and returning for final rehearsals shortly before the night of the performance.

The Nutcracker, notes Giannone, reveals profound cultural differences between the United States and Russia. In the U.S., ballet is still considered a remote, highbrow art form. In Russia, on the other hand, people from all walks of life are extensively exposed to it from a young age. As the tour’s publicity materials point out, ballet is as ingrained in the Russian psyche — and carries the same sort of near-mystical cachet — as baseball is in much of the Western Hemisphere.

Baseball, in fact, makes a fitting comparison, even beyond its poetic physical grace. To thoroughly grasp the game’s complexity, slow pacing and restraint requires an attentive, patient and ultimately mature mind.

“In Russia,” says Giannone, “children go constantly to the Bolshoi.”

Then again, Russian children — known throughout the world for their poise and discipline — can also sit through a three-hour opera or play. And they’re not as deluged with rampant media distractions as their American counterparts.

Giannone, however, sees those distinctions in broader terms.

“Here,” she says, “going to the ballet is a very unusual event. And most people only see The Nutrcacker because they don’t even think of it as a ballet — they think of it as a holiday tradition. In Russia, the most common person knows ballet and has been in the Bolshoi Theatre since childhood. Many Americans have never been to the Met[ropolitan Opera House in New York City] — or their own performing-arts center — even if they’re a doctor.

“It’s a very different society here. It doesn’t mean we’re not educated; it’s just that the arts training is not at the center. It’s not seen as part of the soul. I think we’d be a better society if we supported [the arts] more. For some reason, we don’t trust [the arts]. But we can encourage trust that being creative is hard work — and that you can make a living at it.”

Moscow Ballet cast members start their training between the ages of 8 and 12. (The tour schedule does, incidentally, force them to spend Christmas away from home.) And dancers typically retire as they hit their 30s. There is, of course, intensive, widespread emphasis on preserving the country’s rich ballet tradition. And these days, notes Giannone, Russian dancers are finding expanded teaching opportunities once they hang up their toe shoes, such as aerobics, Pilates and even public-health services.

“It’s wonderful that the society is opening up in that way,” she observes.

Giannone also emphasizes this production’s interdisciplinary character. Choreographer Anatoly Emelianov has integrated puppetry and traditional Russian folklore into the ballet.

“He’s an amazing young man,” says Giannone. “He plays an instrument; he’s exploring total theater. This is unusual in Russia. Years ago, when I was looking at tapes of Russian choreography, they were doing what Martha Graham was doing in the ’50s. Instead of exploring new areas in modern dance, they were just discovering Martha Graham — just catching up.” Emelianov, continues Giannone, “is coming out of that; he has a freedom. It’s exciting to be working with a contemporary young Russian choreographer who is doing his own thing.”

[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance writer based in Rochester, N.Y.]

The Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker plays Thomas Wolfe Auditorium Friday, Dec. 17 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $22, $32 and $42. For more information, call Ticketmaster at 251-5505.

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