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St. Petersburg Mussgorsky State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre

'The Nutcracker'

by Catherine Pawlick

January 30, 2005 -- Mussgorsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia

Variety, they say, is the spice of life. So then, to venture beyond the usual footpaths to the Mariinsky and skip instead over to the Mikhailovsky Theatre for a performance of Maria Bolshakova’s ‘The Nutcracker’ was a wintertime treat.

First, a bit of history. The theatre, located just off of Nevsky Prospekt on “Arts Square” next to the Russian museum and whose beginnings date back to 1833, changed its name several times. Originally the Mikhailovsky, the theater was renamed the Maly Academic Theatre in 1922 (in 1926 it was given the name of Leningrad Academic Maly Opera Theatre, or “Malegot”), and, most recently, in 1989 the opera house was renamed the St. Petersburg Mussorgsky State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. It has been a brief home to countless opera singers, dancers and musicians, among them George Balanchine, who set early ballets here, and Oleg Vinogradov, who directed the theatre from 1973 to 1977 before heading the Kirov Ballet. The theatre itself is significantly smaller than the Mariinsky; at a glance one would guess it has about half of the seating capacity. Its auditorium is decorated in orange and gold, but the upstairs museum and dining hall sport brand new windows against a pale bluish-green paint theme, suggestive of the Mariinsky’s colors.

This ‘Nutcracker’ production is choreographically tamer than others this reviewer has seen, geared more to the drama and storyline that a younger audience would latch on to than the virtuosic displays to be found at the nearby Mariinsky. Nonetheless, it achieves its goal of allowing viewers of all ages to indulge in a two-hour fairytale and emerge with a smile.

A few slight differences (differences that those accustomed to Western versions will note) in the story exist. When given the Nutcracker, Masha is displeased by the ugliness of the doll, and it takes some persuading by Drosselmeyer for her to appreciate it. After her brother smashes the doll, it is immediately fixed by Drosselmeyer with the aide of two men in black capes, their backs to the audience. (No handerchief around his jaw, and no overnight waiting involved here.) The pas de deux in the Second Act is performed by Masha, now in pointe shoes and tutu. She graduates during the course of the evening from party dress and flat shoes, to long flowing nightgown and pointe shoes, to tutu and tiara. There is no Sugar Plum Fairy, as Masha is deemed Princess of the Sweet Land to which she journeys with the Prince in the last Act.

First names were not listed in the program, but of the party dances during the first act, the Pierrot doll, outfitted with sleeves that extended at least three feet beyond his wrists, was danced by D. Nironen. The Dancing Doll, here called Colombina, was danced expertly by S. Markova. In this version the doll does not portend to be a ballerina: legs are turned in, and arms remain in stiff, pragmatic, doll-like poses. The effect is very realistic.

O (presumably Olga) Poverennaya danced Masha to Grigory Popov’s Nutcracker Prince. Popov, a corps de ballet member of the Kirov who frequently guests with the Mussorgsky, outshined the rest of the cast with ease. His regal bearing brought maturity to the role, and his attack during jump sequences (including some of the clearest entrechat dix ever) attested to his strength. He was an adoring partner for Poverennaya as well, which was commendable given their differences in training. Poverennaya appeared younger than the other dancers on stage, with underdeveloped feet; but from the waist up she was an image of balletic grace and youth.

Bolshakova’s corps movements focus highly on attitude – pique attitude, lifts in attitude (front or back), promenades, sautés. You name it, it is done somewhere in this ballet in attitude. The corps is also fairly small in number. The Waltz of the Flowers was danced by eight women and four men, meaning four of the women at any given time were dancing separately. Each of the Second Act variations – Spanish, Arabian, Russian, etc. – was also done by no more than four people.

Of those variations, the Pastorale drew immediate attention for its polish.

Z. Voluchevskaya was partnered by K. Voskunbaev in this eloquent display of “precocite,” her lines, feet and grace unmatched by the other women in the ballet.

E. Naumova and P. Maslennikov danced the Spanish dance, but unfortunately the choreography did not give them ample opportunity to indulge in Tchaikovsky’s exciting phrases. The “Eastern” dance was performed by three men dressed as Arabs (think Act II of “Le Corsaire”) and one woman in a black unitard, veil and flat ballet slippers. She was, one assumes, supposed to be something of a contortionist, but the effect was diluted partly by the difficulty in really seeing her against the backdrop. The Russian dance drew applause for its verve (and no doubt, its nationalism), and was danced lovingly by B. Makarova and A. Pavlovkaya with C. Moxnachev and D. Vlasenko.

As the curtain closed, the audience gave thanks to the dancers with repeat curtain calls and warm applause. While the Mussorgsky Theatre does not hold the same prestige as the Mariinsky, the smaller, more intimate atmosphere brings one that much closer to the fairytale.

M. Pavuzin conducted, with rapt attention to tempos and timing.

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