Moscow — The first notes of a recorded rock score by Peter Gabriel generate happy squeals throughout the theater as the curtain rises on Dmitry Bryantsev's "Salome." One of two steamy Bible stories being performed tonight by his company, the 75-member Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet, the dance drama represents a display of both the company's classical training and its contemporary sensibility.
Replete with simulated nudity, the costumes by Vladimir Arefyev mediate between the fashion extremes of ancient, upper-class Judea and millennial, urban Russia. In the same way, Bryantsev's choreography fuses a narrative about the murder of John the Baptist with the flash, danger and compulsive hedonism of contemporary late-night Moscow.
An English weekly here rates the city's bars and nightclubs on the basis of money (how many rubles you need to spend per hour), threat (the likelihood of being attacked by flatheads, the new breed of Russian thug) and sex (the chances of scoring) -- and "Salome" drips with all three. Focused on a power- and sex-mad family, it culminates in an eerie trio showing Salome and her mommy dearest, Herodias, gloating over the Baptist's severed head while a lustful, drugged-out King Herod reels away in disgust.
Created in 1998, "Salome" was not included in the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet's repertory at the Kodak Theatre this summer. Instead, there were multiple performances of the full-evening "Swan Lake," "Don Quixote" and just a single night of mixed repertory with only one piece by a living choreographer (Bryantsev's "Spirit Ball"). Reports suggest that the company's return engagement next spring also will be dominated by familiar classics, and that pattern holds for virtually every Russian company that visits Southern California. The big exception: St. Petersburg-based Boris Eifman, with his intense historical dance-dramas.
So what we see on our stages creates the illusion that Russian dance audiences spend all their time at hoary tutu ballets. And that means the reality of Russia's exciting, multifaceted contemporary dance goes virtually unrecognized.
Not tied to the classics
Besides being a new Sodom, Moscow offers a dazzling performing arts scene. In one recent week, you could have chosen from two adaptations of Victor Hugo's "Notre Dame de Paris" (one a musical, the other a ballet), two stagings of Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac" (one traditional, the other a brilliant modern-dress production), performances at two Moscow Art Theatres (one a monument to Chekhov, the other Gorky), a world-class "Turandot" at the Bolshoi, and "Lord of the Dance" at the Kremlin. Meanwhile, satirical revues undermine official views of the world and contemporary work of all kinds relishes the freedoms of the post-Communist era.
In the middle of this activity, Bryantsev runs a ballet company that tries to cover all bases. Each month, his company dances about 12 performances, sharing the Moscow Stanislavsky Music Theatre with a resident opera. Five ballets are usually classical, five contemporary and two aimed at children. A new theater complex will open in 2005, he says, and a planned second stage will allow ballet performances to take place on nights that now belong to the opera. He's even planning a second company to dance small-scale and riskier new works in another Moscow venue.
"I'm looking forward to being part of the 21st century, doing different things," Bryantsev says, and his varied body of work supports that statement. In addition to "Salome" and its equally macabre companion piece, "Shulamite" (about the doubly fatal adultery of King Solomon), his work ranges from the nostalgic, dreamlike "Spirit Ball" to a two-act "Taming of the Shrew" full of sunny, Mediterranean humor, and a completely re-choreographed, neoclassical "Le Corsaire" that just may be the most dramatically astute version anywhere.
He's also known for a series of experimental short pieces that Russians call "miniatures," some of them extremely daring thematically. In 1987, for example, he choreographed "The Road," a duet for dancers portraying Christ and the woman taken in adultery -- but it was kept off the stage for two years by government authorities until the downfall of Communist restrictions (and, soon after, communism itself) freed it.
Veteran company member Dmitry Erlykin, who dances such character roles as Herod in "Salome," says that "when Bryantsev came to the company in 1985, it became something new, combining what we already had -- 'Esmeralda,' 'Snow Maiden,' 'Swan Lake' -- with innovative choreography from the modern point of view." And that combination has become the company's chief distinction.
"I do not feel anything bad about the classics," Bryantsev says. "It is our heritage. But I try not to be tied only to classical style. Whatever story or character or image I want to create, I do it. I use anything. Our movements must be as free as our emotions."
Foreign companies' influence