My last night in St Petersburg was set for the ballet.  The seminar finished at six and the ballet started at seven, so after the clean-up Dmitriy raced through the streets of St Petersburg at breakneck speed, canals flying by, squeaking between lanes, diving under the amazing classical architecture, reversing direction like a madman to escape the evening traffic, but nevertheless we were late.

Dima suddenly found that he had business to discuss – the martial arts or the business arts seem to interest him more than the fine arts – so it is the translator Tatiana and I who emerge from the cobbled alley to a sudden and brief view of the quintessential human city over the river, spires and domes golden in the setting sun as we pass between the muscular sculptures that mark the entrance to L’Ermitage Theatre.

Bad enough that I felt underdressed, having had no time to change, but we have to sneak in after the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.  I needn’t have worried, the audience is full of young people more slovenly than me, and there are many French, Italian, and English voices among the Russian at intermission. In other words, it’s a touristic event, like much of the London theater or the top of the Empire State building.

The theater meets all expectations, grand in scale and as ornate as L’Ermitage itself.  The dancing itself, however, qualifies as top-tier amateur.  Tatiana, during intermission, is scathing – their arms are like sticks, the acting broad, they are landing too hard. This foreign audience is too easily pleased, and there is frequent clapping for what I would call ‘tricks’.  The lifts are two-staged instead of smooth, and while of course I could do no better, I have certainly seen better swans.  At times I close my eyes and let myself go into the music, as the orchestra, especially the first violin, is first rate.

I cannot turn off my professional eyes: Of the twenty dancers on the too small stage, I see about five of what I learned – in my London days with Sadlers Wells – to call ‘career knees’.  The rest will fall inevitably by the wayside, as sure as the night followeth the day.

Later, as we go to dinner, Julia – Dima’s friend and font of all wisdom – tells me the Russian school actually cultivates the hard landing, to show how hard work the ballet is, and to emphasize the wood (as opposed to synthetic) stage.  This feels like a point better made in the program than on the stage itself, as I will remember the thumps (like the thumps in the banya? seems to be a Russian theme) long after I have forgotten the mediocre performance.

The heavy dose of irony I experienced last time in St. Petersburg was not present this time.  Oh, there were the funny store names – ‘Antistress’ for a shoe store – and the mistranslated signs, and the heavy faux-French food – but this time Russia demanded to be taken seriously.  There is now a Russian-based English-language station on the TV (no CNN or Sky News) that certainly put forward a pro-Russian view on Obama, the START treaty, and gas pipelines through Ukraine, but was no more prejudiced than, say, Fox in the US.

I will be back in a year for an osteopathic conference, so we’ll see, but all in all I preferred the ironic disempowered Russia, not the one that is flexing its muscle and taking itself so seriously.


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