As a brand, Russian ballet has a bit of a marketing challenge right now, thanks to the war in Ukraine.
Take the World Ballet Series, formerly known as the Russian Ballet Theatre. As a touring group of 40 dancers with 130 American cities scheduled for 2023 (“No stage is too small”), they tout their training in the Vaganova Technique, (Agrippina Vaganova, 1879-1951, danced with the Imperial Russian Ballet and wrote the Basic Principles of Russian Classical Ballet). Many of their dancers either trained in or are professionally connected with Russia. As the World Ballet, however, they have quickly pivoted away from Russian roots by hiring dancers from 10 countries, including Japan, Poland, Italy, and France, and it emphasizes in press materials that their costumes and sets were made in Ukraine.
The group brings its production of Cinderella to the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Thursday, March 16.
Producers Sasha Gorskaya and Gulya Hartwick once produced Russian rock band tours but found that ballet suited their goals better. The company rotates between productions of Cinderella, Swan Lake, and TheNutcracker. “The moment you get involved with ballet, you are surrounded by beauty 24/7,” Hartwick says. While they had no background in dance, as producers, they surrounded themselves with a staff of ballet and theater pros. “We are now the largest touring ballet company in America,” she says. “We hope to expand around the world.”
She wears a lanyard around her neck that says, “Ballet is not boring.” During the pandemic, when touring opportunities dried up, she and Gorskaya started an online candle company, Noble Objects, specializing in “literary candles” stamped with book covers from such classics as Little Women and War and Peace. The two California-based women are young entrepreneurs and survivors. Hartwick is from Latvia, and Gorskaya was born in Belarus.
“Our Cinderella is very unique,” Hartwick says. Marina Kessler, from the Estonian National Ballet, choreographed the production. “There are elements of neo-classical ballet, but so much humor. It’s interesting how we can make jokes with bodies. The stepsisters and stepmother are such great actresses.” The production is oriented toward families, and the ballet has been shortened for younger attention spans.
The famous Prokofiev score, written during World War II, is lush, powerful, and melodic, Kessler says. But there are other scores and many, many other versions of the Cinderella story — told through ballet, movies, opera, books, and other forms. The story of a young woman who rises above her lot in life to marry nobility is a plot that has existed for centuries. The fairy tale trapping of the Disney version came much later.
One of the first Cinderellas was Greek. In the sixth century B.C., Rhodopsis, a courtesan, has a shoe stolen by an eagle, which flies to Egypt and drops it in the lap of a king. In a ninth-century fairy tale from China, a young woman named Ye Xian is granted one wish from some magic fish bones. She creates a gown, hoping to find a husband. The version which inspired the Disney animators — and is the most familiar version of Cinderella — is French, a fairy tale written by Charles Perrault in the 1600s called “Cendrillon.” He introduced the glass slipper, the pumpkin, and the fairy godmother to an Italian version which earlier in that century invented the stepmother and stepsisters. Even the Brothers Grimm offered a German take on the story. Aschenputtel appeared in the 19th century and was notably darker. One of the stepsisters cuts off her own toes to try and fit into the glass (gold in this case) slipper. Later, Cinderella marries the prince, and doves peck out the eyes of the stepsisters during her wedding.
As a ballet, Cinderella was first presented at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1893. It was created by ballet pioneers Enrico Cecchetti, Lev Ivanov, and Marius Petipa with music by Baron Boris Fitinhoff-Schell. The Prokofiev score debuted with the 1945 production at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, with choreography by Rostislav Zakharov. Twentieth-century versions in the U.S. have included those by the Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and a 2012 production choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon for the San Francisco Ballet and the Dutch National Ballet.
Leonardo Celegato, Ekaterina Malkovich, Konstantin Geronik, Ekaterina Lukianova, Igor Gancharyk, Angelina Zgurskaya, Anastasia Pavlova, and Darya Medovskaya are some of the leading dancers in the production. Celegato, playing the prince, is from the Estonian National Ballet. Cinderella is danced by Malkovich, from the Ural Opera Ballet. Angelina Zgurskaya, who plays the wicked stepmother, danced with the Bolshoi Ballet of Belarus. The dancer with the most Western-sounding name on the cast list, Joy Gillian Redington, is originally from London and graduated from the Perm State Ballet School in Russia. Yuka Ozaki, a Japanese dancer, also studied in Russia at the Perm School. Cristina Pavone, from Milan, danced with the Romanian Opera Ballet.
Dancing in 130 towns and cities in America, almost all one-night stands, has to be a grueling assignment for anyone, let alone a ballet dancer, whose body is her instrument and for whom the physical act of traveling every day must take a toll. Gorskaya and Hartwick, who started off in the rock ’n’ roll world of touring, have chartered buses emblazoned like a Cinderella billboard. “The dancers are enjoying seeing America,” Hartwick says. “We’ll be touring Cinderella until May. Then they will get a vacation.”