backstage (2006-49)

From Russia with Love

The Moscow Ballet’s Nutcracker grand-jetés into town

by Leslie Wylie

Think you have it rough? Try walking—or, rather, dancing—in an aspiring Russian ballerina’s shoes for a day. If you’re any good, you get shipped off to Moscow’s national ballet school at around the age of nine, and if you can take the heat, you stay there for the next 10 years or so. Then, when you turn 18, you take your diploma and audition for a professional ballet company. If you make the cut, you’re a national celebrity. If you don’t, you might as well flush your satiny pointe shoes down the commode.

Akiva Talmi, producer of the touring Moscow Ballet, says dancers have to be “very strong, emotionally and physically,” to make it through the process intact. “The national training standards are very rigorous. It’s very comprehensive, almost Olympic-type training,” he says in his thick Russian accent, adding that the students are trained in subjects such as costumery, shoe-fitting and acrobatics as well as ballet proper. “You only get to see the winners.”

Talmi says that, post-graduation, the most prestigious job dancers can secure is a position with the Moscow Ballet, a company of over 100 dancers that performs in around 80 cities around the world each year. The company tours with its own orchestra and boasts a repertoire of 76 full-length works, including its most popular show, The Nutcracker .

“Ballet dancers in Russia are very similar to Hollywood artists in this country,” Talmi says in an attempt to express the magnitude of Moscow’s ballet industry. “What baseball is to America, ballet is to Russia. It’s the national art. Everybody knows all the nuances of the ballets, and there are a great deal of laughter and tears that go into experiencing the ballets.”

But despite their geographic and cultural disparities, Russian and American ballet are separated by far fewer degrees than one might think. The New York Ballet, for instance, was co-founded by the Russian dancer George Balanchine, and Moscow’s famed Mikhail Mordkin founded the company that would later become the American Ballet Theatre. The Russian ballet style, characterized by dramatic, extreme movements, is taught in several American ballet schools today. 

Since The Nutcracker ’s own history is steeped in Russian tradition, having been set to music by Tchaikovsky, it seems fitting to see the ballet performed by Russian dancers. Talmi describes the Moscow Ballet’s production as “authentic to the 1896 creation with modern adaptation to the stage.”

Chances are, you’re already familiar with the storyline: Young Clara’s mysterious godfather, Drosselmeyer, gives her a magic Nutcracker at the family Christmas party, which Clara’s jealous younger brother Fritz promptly breaks. The toy is mended, and Clara falls asleep with it in her arms. Then the clock strikes midnight, and madness breaks loose: An army of mice attacks Clara and the Nutcracker, and in fending them off, the Nutcracker dies alongside the Rat King. But Clara’s tears bring him back to life, and he morphs into a prince, leading Clara into a wonderland of fairies and snow.

Talmi says to expect a few surprises this year, including a 30-by-15-foot-wide Rat King puppet that unfolds, layer by layer, in the style of a Russian matrioshka nesting doll. There’s also a Mother Ginger puppet that takes up the whole stage: “Out of her comes 10 dancers, one at a time. She’s a Trojan horse; surprises come out of her,” Talmi explains.

The producer emphasizes that the grander themes of the Moscow Ballet’s Nutcracker interpretation are universal, equally relevant for audiences all over the world. “They go to the land of peace and harmony instead of to the land of candy,” he says. “There’s a kingdom of animals living in peace with each other: a unicorn and an elephant, a bear, a bull, a dragon, lions, many, many types of animals. It shows the yearning of mankind for peace, of the Russian people for peace. A cannon shoots roses, for love, for fighting with love instead of bullets.”

Knoxville’s production will have some local undertones as well. The Moscow Ballet’s education outreach program, “Celebrating Children… The Arts Can Make a Difference,” chose dozens of local children between the ages of 5 and 17 to perform various roles ranging from angels, butterflies, mice and snowflakes to Arabian, Chinese, French and Spanish dancers. Since their audition in mid-October, the dancers have had weekly rehearsals at Studio Arts for Dancers with local dance teacher coordinator Lisa McKee.

“We have an immersion program, a project intended to get children integrated in a way that is age-appropriate,” Talmi says. “It is a strong experience, and many make friends that we will keep for a very long time.” 

It will also give the children a unique opportunity to perform alongside some of the world’s greatest dancers, an experience that will surely inspire some of them to pursue their dancing dreams even further. This is important, because while ballet may never be America’s most revered pastime, it may be our most graceful cultural gem.

What: Moscow Ballet presents The Nutcracker