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.

By reconnecting with Russian ballet’s diasporic counterpart, the Perm company has taken a conservative approach to the problem of repertory. The opera company that shares the Tchaikovsky Theater has followed a different path. Rejecting the ballet’s archeological-genealogical approach, Georgii Isaakian, the theater’s artistic director, uses staging to update older works and infuse them with a contemporary spirit.

Thus, he has conceived Massenet’s 1914 opera Cléopatre as a dizzy display of artistic styles–Egyptian/exotic in Act I, kitsch Hollywood (complete with clips of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) in Act II and drab neorealism for Cleopatra’s death in Act III. For Rodion Shchedrin’s Lolita, based on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Isaakian creates a fantasy America of the 1950s, playful and absurdist, with beach towels and patio furniture, a real car (though not an American model with tailfins) and Day-Glo lighting.

The 1930s ended experimentation, not only in ballet but also in what was called “free dance.” With Russia virtually sealed off from abroad, developments in American modern dance or European contemporary dance remained virtually unknown until the 1980s. Amazingly, the liveliest contemporary dance scene in Russia today is in the Urals. In 1990, on my first visit to Perm, I met that scene’s charismatic godfather, Yevgeny Panfilov, who was stabbed to death last year in an unsolved crime. Founder of the Experimental Modern Dance Theater, he had a studio in a palace of culture sponsored by the Perm Electrotechnical Plant. I watched a company warm-up and run-through of a work that reminded me of Pina Bausch but impressed me by its commitment to movement exploration. Gesture, pedestrian movement, ritual, acrobatics and even speech made up his idiosyncratic idiom.

The festival’s all-Panfilov program included a surprise hit–Country Women, 1945. Performed by an amateur group called the Fat Ladies Ballet (the women, all large, had to promise not to lose weight), this is a moving tribute to those ageless, shapeless Russian women who scrounged for food, kept homes and children, and waited for men who would never return from the Second World War. Using the simplest of means, Panfilov shows his fourteen heroines yearning for tenderness and expressing gaiety, even glamour; they march smartly to military tunes and couple off to dance, discovering in movement both physical and emotional pleasure. Country Women struck a deep chord in the audience; despite skepticism about all things Soviet, the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call World War II, continues to be remembered as a time of popular heroism.

Tiuriaga was more troubling. Performed by the all-male Boitsovskii Club Dance Company, an amateur group from a local military school, the work has strong political and homoerotic overtones. The setting is a camp in the gulag, the inspiration Walt Whitman’s poem “The Singer in the Prison,” the movement style gymnastic. During the Soviet period, male eroticism was kept tightly under wraps. Yet the male body was also celebrated. No country produced so many Olympians as the Soviet Union, or so many great male ballet dancers. Panfilov (like the better-known Boris Eifman) eroticizes the male body, depicting it as sexually active, attractive both to women and to men–a reason perhaps that audiences do not necessarily perceive it as homosexual. In Tiuriaga, scenes of same-sex tenderness are followed by self-indulgent fantasies of a male brothel, presumably an attack on Soviet puritanism. Unlike in the United States, in Russian contemporary dance, men have the edge on women.

Tatiana Baganova’s Svadebka, set to the 1923 Stravinsky score known in the West as Les Noces, was another happy surprise. Over the years I have seen several versions of Les Noces, but none ever approached the emotional power of the original, a masterpiece of ballet modernism choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska. Baganova’s, amazingly, did just that–with an ensemble of only ten dancers, members of her Ekaterinburg-based company, Provincial Dances Theater. She draws on the country’s rich stock of folk traditions, the mother lode of Russian art. The strange scurrying figures robed like saints, with the tilted heads of icons and the angular gestures of lubki (folk art prints), seem to spring from collective Russian memory, while the pathways followed by the dancers come from the treasury of Russian folk dances. Baganova makes the cutting of the Bride’s braid the ballet’s culminating ritual, an act as violent as rape.

Under the energetic direction of Nadezhda Beliaeva, the Perm State Art Gallery has also set about recuperating the modernist past. Some of that past lay packed away in the gallery’s own basements–paintings by Kliun, Popova, Rodchenko, Goncharova and other avant-garde masters, bought by the new Soviet government in the 1920s for a museum of contemporary art in Moscow, and later scattered. In recent years, the collection has been augmented by donations from private individuals. For the festival it was further buttressed by a dozen paintings lent by a German collector, Edic Natanov, which included Tatlin’s splendid Peasant Woman, from 1911, two wonderful Popovas and a pair of Malevich paintings, executed less than two years apart, that exemplified the rapid transformation of the Cubo-Futurist artist into a Suprematist at the outset of World War I. Beliaeva’s next big project is an exhibition on gentry life in Perm before the revolution, with old pictures, samovars, furniture, magazines and icons–the detritus of an unforgotten class and time.

The obsession with recovering pre-Soviet tradition operates at all levels of society. Everywhere people talk of the past. For the first time I hear of Grand Duke Michael’s execution by the Cheka in 1918, and on a short tour of the city, I am shown the building where he lived, now marked by a plaque. I learn that Ekaterina Geidenreikh, a protegée of Agrippina Vaganova and a formative influence on the Perm ballet school, was arrested at the start of World War II and sent to a camp in the Perm region. After her release she remained in Perm (as an “exile” she could not return to Leningrad). Churches are being rebuilt, monasteries reopened, icons buried in the 1930s seeing the light of day. The golden domes of newly restored churches gleam in the sun, not only in Perm but also in run-down villages on the way to a monastery, where I was stunned to see colleagues bowing rapturously before icons and drinking water from a holy spring. The church on the Diaghilev family estate is being restored, and a volume containing the long-hidden memoirs of Diaghilev’s stepmother, letters and the prison photographs of Diaghilev’s brother Valentin and Valentin’s son Sergei has been published. Participants in the conference portion of the festival included Alexander Laskin, a professor at the St. Petersburg Academy of Culture, and others whose research has mined the rich Diaghilev archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

In 1990 the Diaghilev House museum occupied a single room of Public School No. 11. Now, in addition to a library (with more than a thousand volumes), it has grown to several rooms. The walls are covered with photographs, posters and reproductions of set and costume designs, while a hodgepodge of collectibles add period atmosphere. Ballet costumes of recent vintage stand in the music room, and throughout one sees newly commissioned paintings of Diaghilev and his dancers that he definitely would have found wanting.

When I first went to Perm, few people spoke more than a few words of English. Today, one encounters people who speak excellent English, who have spent weeks and sometimes months studying in England, who read English novels for pleasure and know the television version of Pride and Prejudice inside out. Many have traveled to New York and Washington, journeys unimaginable in 1990. These are the success stories of the new Russia. But in a city like Perm with high unemployment (although the severe crisis of the mid-1990s has eased), many young people drift, becoming monks or junkies in a society with no place for them. Beer ads are everywhere, and public drinking, especially among young men, prompts much public concern. And despite the restoration efforts, much of the city looks shoddy and ill-kept.

But in the arts hope far outweighs the signs of anomie. The Soviets may have used the arts for their own purposes, but they never ignored them. Today, even as critics decry the “crisis of culture” and the “crisis of ideas,” they do so convinced that art has a privileged role in voicing a society’s most cherished beliefs. It’s hard to imagine anyone in America ascribing to art, to say nothing of ballet, quite so exalted a cultural role. But then, in Russia, even in Soviet times, audience appeal was never the sole yardstick measuring the worthiness of high art. MTV may have come to Russia, but it has yet to seduce the country’s artists and intellectuals from the conviction that art–high art–still matters.