Few Westerners have ever heard of Perm. A former czarist administrative center, rustbelt Soviet city and gateway to the gulag, Perm was long off-limits to foreigners. In 1990, shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev opened the city, I became one of the first Westerners to visit. This spring I returned.
Perm has played a small but important role in the history of ballet. During World War II the Kirov (now Maryinsky) Ballet was evacuated there from besieged Leningrad. The city has an excellent ballet company and one of the best training academies in Russia. But its main claim to fame is that Serge Diaghilev, the founder of the celebrated Ballets Russes, grew up there. Between 1909 and 1929, the Ballets Russes brought ballet into the twentieth century and Russian ballet to the West. Diaghilev commissioned music from Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy and Prokofiev; designs from Picasso, Matisse and Derain. His choreographers, who included Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska and George Balanchine, dominated ballet until the 1970s.
The Ballets Russes never performed in Russia, and except for Firebird and Petrouchka, which entered the Soviet repertory just after the revolution (only to vanish by the 1930s), the modernist and neoclassical traditions associated with the company were anathema to cultural commissars. As for Diaghilev, who died in 1929, he became a Soviet nonperson. He was gay, a cosmopolitan, a champion of “formalism,” with brothers who had fought for the Whites. Not until 1982 did a collection of writings by and about him appear in the Soviet Union. And only in 1987 would a conference about Diaghilev take place in Perm.
The collapse of the Soviet Union brought many changes to the ballet world, including a sometimes-frenzied effort to reconnect with both the West and the czarist past. Dancers flocked abroad, returning with videotapes, and works by once-proscribed Western choreographers like Balanchine entered the Russian repertory. The Kirov, using notations spirited out of Russia in 1918, mounted czarist-era versions of The Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadère that sought to obliterate the Soviet imprint on these ballets. The company also mounted an all-Diaghilev program.
I went to Perm this May to attend an arts festival with the somewhat grandiose title “Diaghilev Seasons: Perm, Petersburg, Paris.” Sponsored by the Perm Tchaikovsky Theater of Opera and Ballet, the Perm State Art Gallery and various regional and municipal organizations, the festival showcased the city’s ballet, modern dance and opera companies. Even if Diaghilev was only a pretext for the festival’s civic boosterism, the performances were a barometer of the state of dance in Russia today, especially among companies seldom, if ever, seen in the West.
Since 1995 the Perm State Ballet has acquired several Balanchine ballets. Three were performed during the festival–Apollo, Balanchine’s oldest extant work and first collaboration with Stravinsky, the ballet that he later said marked the turning point in his evolution to neoclassicism; La Sonnambula, a haunting work from 1946; and the 1941 Ballet Imperial, a rhapsodic homage to old St. Petersburg and the imperial traditions of its ballet. In addition to Apollo, commissioned by Diaghilev in 1928, the company performed two other Ballets Russes works–Fokine’s Chopiniana, as Les Sylphides is known in Russia, the first plotless ballet; and Le Spectre de la Rose, a pas de deux that celebrated both the androgyny and the virtuosity of its first male star, Vaslav Nijinsky. And to complete the ballet offerings there was a revival of The Sleeping Beauty, freshly costumed and with new scenery.