Russia Insider: A Night at the Perm Ballet
Russia Insider recently republished anarticle from Moscow Times drawing attention to the active cultural life of Yekaterinburg, the biggest city east of the Urals.
One particular sentence in the article stood out for me “If you ask the average person what comes to mind when they think of Yekaterinburg, they'll probably say that it's a highly polluted industrial city and the site where the Romanov family was executed.”
I don’t know who this “average person” is, but given that the article was written in an English language newspaper published in Moscow, I strongly suspect that he or she is someone who is “average” in Moscow.
It is unfortunately true that many people in Moscow - Russians as well as foreigners - have a remarkably disdainful attitude towards the regions. When I told some of my Russian friends in Moscow that I had recently visited Perm, the response was a knowing laugh.
This cultural arrogance - as if life in the regions is still stuck in the world of “The Government Inspector” - has no justification.
This became immediately obvious to me as soon as I arrived in Perm.
Though Perm cannot compete in economic terms with Yekaterinburg - which is a much bigger city - its cultural life is at least as rich.
I realised this when I visited its art gallery, which is mainly known - unfairly in my opinion - for its collection of the Christian art work of the Komi people.
Though this is indeed very striking, it detracts attention from the very fine collection the gallery has gathered of paintings extending back to the eighteenth century and reaching forward to the present day.
The centre-piece of cultural life in Perm is however the opera house.
This is housed in a fine neoclassical nineteenth century building that could compete with many in Europe.
It is actually more fit for purpose than the Royal Opera House in London, which was built in the nineteenth century as a result of a private initiative to provide a venue for visiting opera stars from Italy. Its management has struggled to adapt it to the needs of opera and ballet performance ever since.
Perm’s opera is not only extremely fine but under its dynamic Greek born director, Theodor Currentzis, it has achieved an international reputation for his highly innovative and intense performances of Mozart’s operas. Recordings of his versions of the Da Ponte operas have been released, using a special orchestra (Musicaeterna) of musicians specially selected by Currentzis from the orchestra of the opera house. These recordings are attracting rave revues.
I did not attend an opera performance whilst I was in Perm, but I did see the opera house's ballet company perform Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.
The Mariinsky (or Kirov) ballet was evacuated to Perm during the Second World War, and the ballet company in Perm follows the St. Petersburg rather than the Moscow tradition of ballet.
The performance of Romeo and Juliet I saw uses the original choreography made for the ballet by the Leningrad master Leonid Lavrovsky. It is the choreography once danced by the great Galina Ulanova. It is the version of the ballet that continues to be performed by the Mariinsky ballet in St. Petersburg.
This version of the ballet only works if it is danced well and with total conviction.
That was exactly what I saw in the performance in Perm. None of the dancers are known to me, but every part of the performance - including the orchestra - was outstanding, and could compare well with anything I have seen anywhere else.
One dance - that of Juliet’s mother following the death of Tybalt - was performed better than I have ever seen.
What was however even more impressive than the performance was the audience.
The house was full, as it sometimes is in London. However in London I have become used to attending ballet and opera performances where, with a few solitary exceptions - usually children - the whole audience is over 60.
In Perm the greater part of the audience seemed to be under 40, with many of them under 30. It was by some distance the youngest audience for a ballet performance I have ever seen.
Moreover it was an audience that was clearly very well educated in what it was seeing, being both properly critical and appreciative in ways that audiences in London today rarely are.
To those who might think that it is an audience whose ideas of ballet are frozen in time, I would say that the company’s repertory includes several modern ballets, as well as several ballets by Balanchine. A television screen in the bar showed excerpts of performances of these ballets during the intervals.
Moreover it quickly became clear that interest in the opera and the ballet was not limited to a small group of people in the city, as it tends to be in England.
Throughout my visit people were constantly bringing up the subject of the city’s opera and ballet company and of their pride - and interest - in what Currentzis is achieving with the opera company.
Cultural life in Perm is not confined to the art gallery and the opera house.
Most - though not all - of my connections were with people connected to the university - both teaching staff and students.
It was clear that the university is itself a major cultural hub, with any number of sports and cultural societies. The students were in fact in the process of staging a major arts festival - principally for themselves - whilst I was there.
In other words, far from being plunged in provincial darkness, Perm is a city with a rich cultural life - far richer than that of many British towns today.
Since I was visiting the city whilst the university was hosting an academic conference, I was able to meet with people from all over Russia. It was clear to me that though other Russian cities may not have the good fortune of having their local opera directed by someone like Currentzis, in terms of the general interest in culture Perm is by no means exceptional.
Just as generalisations about the supposed economic backwardness of Russia’s regions have no justification, the same is therefore true of generalisations about levels of culture there.
Talk of “provincialism” is out of place. On the contrary, far from being cultural backwaters, I would not be surprised if cultural life in the regions is sometimes more intense and dynamic - and better appreciated - than it is in the two capitals.
For example I suspect that the standard of performance of Mozart’s operas in Perm under Currentzis’s direction is now actually higher - or at least more exciting and innovative - in Perm than it is in St. Petersburg or Moscow.