BRADFORD - The people of different nations often become especially known for one particular artform, which seems to express the needs and the beliefs of their people better than any other genre.
For the giant country of Russia, the foremost artform is undoubtedly ballet.
Readers who were alive in the days of the Cold War between the U.S. and that country, which was then the largest element of the U.S.S.R., will remember the thrill of performances by dancers such as Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Alexander Godunov, and Natalya Makarova.
While ballet was relatively new to our own country, and centered only in our largest cities, Russian choreographers and teachers had been developing techniques involving powerful leaps and turns, astonishing lifts and stunning speed. Seeing these feats performed on our stages inspired the springing up of dance companies across our country, and made film stars of male dancers, who demonstrated a power and grace which shone across the footlights and thrilled members of the audience.
Approximately 30 dancers from Russia will perform Tuesday evening at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. The Russian National Ballet Theatre first performed at Pitt Bradford in 2009, when their performance of ''The Sleeping Beauty'' sold every seat in the Bromeley Family Theater. Tuesday evening's performance is expected to sell out, as well.
Let me tell you about the specifics of the Bradford performance, and then I will share with you some things which I learned about the company, and the results of an interview which I performed with the ballet master of the company, Alexander Daev.
The company will perform a program featuring two different ballets. The evening will begin with ''Chopiniana,'' a set of short dances, set to music by Polish composer Frederic Francois Chopin.
Following intermission, they will perform their own version of William Shakespeare's classic ''Romeo and Juliet.'' The choreography is based upon the original choreography of famed genius Marius Petipa.
While in our country, that ballet is usually danced to the more contemporary music of Sergei Prokofiev, this company will perform to the more romantic fantasy overture by Piotr Illych Tchaikowsky.
The performance will take place in the Bromeley Family Theater, which is located inside Blaisdell Hall, on the campus of the university. Tickets range in price from $32 to $28 for the general public, and $28 and $24 for members of Pitt Bradford faculty and staff. Student tickets range in price from $14 to $12.
There are tickets available at the time of this writing, although readers are reminded that my columns must be written a week in advance. Check for availability by phoning (814) 362-5113. It is not uncommon that dialing that number results in contact with an electronic answering machine. Callers will be phoned back promptly, and should not be discouraged by the mechanical response.
Also on Tuesday, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., on that day, one of the Russian company's principal dancers, Ballerina Elena Khorosheva, will lead an advanced dance workshop in the dance studio of the campus's Sports and Fitness Center.
The class is limited to 20 students. Pre-registration is required for participation. Participating dancers should be advanced, and should have at least four years' dance training, according to Randy Mayes, the director of arts programming at the university.
Students with ballet training are preferred, although those with training in other areas of dance will be considered for participation. Those who join the class should wear standard studio attire and either ballet slippers or jazz shoes. This should be considered an intense workshop.
For additional information, or to reserve a place in the class, phone Patty Colosimo, assistant director of arts programming at (814) 362-5155.
ABOUT THE COMPANY
During the Soviet years, ballet fans outside that country saw Russian ballet only as performed by the Bolshoi troupe, from Moscow, and the Kirov troupe, from the city which was then called Leningrad, and which is now called St. Petersburg. While those companies were known world-wide for the quality and skill of their dancers and choreographers, the kinds of performances which they were allowed to give and where a given artist was allowed to perform and in what style of performance, were tightly government controlled.
This tight control was responsible for the defection of artists such as Nureyev and Baryshnikov, who sought to develop new techniques and the opportunity to learn from other teachers and choreographers.
In the late 1980s, as Russia and other republics won political independence from the Soviet government, dancers from the country's top choreographic schools began to form new companies, where they could express their own ideas in dance. Top dancers, not only from the two large companies, but from respected dance companies in Soviet-controlled cities such as Riga, Kiev, and Warsaw sought to join the new companies.
One of the largest and most successful of those newly-formed companies was the Russian National Ballet. The company is so large that if it were translated to the U.S., it would be the third-largest company in the country. Only New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre are larger.
Legendary Bolshoi dancer Elena Radchenko was made the company's first artistic director, a post which she still holds. She has restaged Petipa's choreography for the company.
The company's repertoire includes all of the creations of famed choreographer Marius Petipa, including ''Don Quixote,'' ''La Bayadere,'' ''Sleeping Beauty,'' ''Swan Lake,'' ''Raymonda,'' ''Paquita,'' ''Coppelia,'' and ''La Sylphide.''
They also perform creations of other choreographers, including ''Nutcracker,'' ''Sylvia,'' and ''La Fille Mal Gardee.''
Since January, the company has been on a four-month tour of the United States, which will take them from coast to coast.
When representatives of Pitt Bradford contacted me and offered me an opportunity to interview a member of the Russian National Ballet, I was thrilled. My excitement cooled only slightly when I learned that the interview would have to be conducted by sending written questions and getting responses from the dancer in writing, days later.
The problem with that is that it is impossible to read the facial expressions and the tone of voice of the interviewee, and it is impossible to ask a follow-up question, if something he has said needs additional detail, or if inspires a new thought in my own head.
Worst of all, the dancers were said not to speak enough English to conduct the interview directly, so the questions had to pass from my mind, to my writing, to the interpreter's reading, to his mind, to his speaking in Russian, to the dancer's hearing - and then the entire process would need to be reversed.
I remembered last autumn, when I conducted a similar interview with American ballet great Suzanne Farrell - and that didn't even need an interpreter. The results were interesting - at least to me - but not all I had hoped to achieve.
Still, how often do we get to communicate in any way with a headliner dancer from Moscow? Here is the result of our efforts:
Speaking with us was Alexander Daev, a dancer of considerable experience, having performed with the company since its founding. Daev is now Ballet Master of the company.
I asked Daev about his position as Ballet Master. He replied, ''I now have a great deal more responsibility. Not only am I responsible for my own performance, but for the performances of 50 artists! Of course, I now perform a bit less, as it is necessary to monitor the performance every night, but I do ballet class every day, without fail."
In the Bradford performance, Daev is scheduled to dance the role of Tybalt, Juliet's hot-headed cousin, whose attempts to throw Romeo out of his family's home results in the deaths of a number of characters, including himself.
Considering that the given reason for all the defections by dancers, some years back, was a lack of freedom and innovation in dance companies, does the Russian National Ballet perform only traditional classical ballet, or do they perform works inspired by what we call modern dance, and other dance forms which don't involve traditional positions and the continued turnout of the dancers' bodies?
He answered, ''We are strictly a classical ballet company.''
I said that his country had undergone a significant political change, around 20 years ago, and I wondered if the life of a professional dancer had changed, as a result. He responded that they are now able to dance anywhere in the world where they wish to dance, and there is no longer any restriction on their travels. I would have love to have improved my question by indicating that I was curious about the day-to-day life of a dancer, but that opportunity was not to be.
Considering how many different ballets the company performs, does Daev have a particular role which he especially enjoys dancing? He said he enjoys the role of Basilio, the barber, from their production of ''Don Quixote.''
If you are familiar with more traditional versions of the story of ''Don Quixote,'' you may be familiar with a bar maid named Aldonza, who the Don believes to be his true love, the pure Dulcinea. In the ballet, the object of the old knight's affection is a young woman named Kitri. She is in love with the barber, Basilio, but her father insists that she marry a rich, older man.
Why does that role appeal to the dancer? He answered, ''I feel this role suits my personality. It is technically exciting, but it is emotional and comic, at the same time.''
Daev told me that his favorite composer of music for the dance is Sergey Prokofiev, and his favorite choreographer is Yuri Grigorovich. A quick computer search says that he is a former director of the Bolshoi.
Many dancers have told me, over the years, that they have been inspired to try for a career as a dancer by watching the performances of a particular individual. Does Alexander Daev have such an inspiration? He answered, ''Yes, I was most inspired by Mikhail Barishnikov. For me, his dancing was perfection.''
Dancers on tour spend a great deal of time travelling, rehearsing, performing, etc. Has he had much opportunity to interact with Americans? ''We have a wonderful team of Americans with us on the tour, and we interact with them, as well as people at the theaters.''
Living in Russia, he must have formed some idea of what life in our country is like and what our people are like. Have those ideas been changed by spending so much time here? He answered, ''From movies and popular culture, I had an idea of American life - much more so, I think, than Americans have of life in Russia. Now I have been here many times on tour, and I am very comfortable and I feel I understand Americans more and more.''
For some reason, in the U.S., dance is traditionally one of the lowest-paid careers in the arts. Unless a dancer in this country becomes an international celebrity, he can expect only a moderate income. Does a Russian dancer command more support for his life style?
''No. We have the same situation.''
What role does the presence of an audience play in the dancer's performances. Would his dancing be the same if the seats were empty, or does he respond in his art to the people who watch? A Russian pianist told me, not long ago, that American audiences respond noticeably differently to his performances than do European or Russian audiences?
I would have especially loved to have had the opportunity for a follow-up question to this particular answer. His immediate response was that the audience plays a big role in a performance. He then said that the size of the audience doesn't matter and that they always perform at their highest level.
He said the American audience is not very different from European audiences, but then he said that members of the company find American audiences to be more emotional in expression.