The Kirov Ballet of the Maryinsky Theater, St. Petersburg, has brought its latest flock of swans to Taipei this week, and while tickets are very dear indeed, this is one ballet company that no one should miss.
The Kirov Ballet is the dance world's equivalent of Mount Olympus -- the home of the gods, a place of legends. One might think the imagery a bit overwrought, a bit too dramatic. But consider the names that emerged from the Kirov -- or, as it was known in the beginning, the Imperial Ballet of the Maryinsky Theater.
While the Russian School was founded in St. Petersburg in 1738, it was in the late 19th century that the foundations were laid for generations to come. There was the dance teacher and choreographer Marius Petipa, who created the pieces that have become the standards of classical ballet, and Peter Tchaikovsky, who composed the music for those ballets, including Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were the dancers Vaslav Nijinski and Anna Pavlova, who first dazzled Russia and then the world with their performances.
There was the choreographer Mikhail Fokine, whose The Dying Swan, Les Sylphides and Le Spectre de la Rose stunned audiences of his time but were quickly included into the repertoire of companies the world over. In Fokine's creations, dance and mime blend seamlessly together and the dance, the decor and the music were for the first time all treated as equal elements of the performance.
Then there was George Balanchine, who left Russia in 1924 and went on to create the New York City Ballet.
Then there was one who stayed in St. Petersburg after it became Leningrad -- Agrippa Vaganova, a dancer with the Imperial Ballet who, as a teacher, created the Russian system of technique that bears her name and who taught generations of dancers, including Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Barishnikov.
It was that last trio, the great defectors of the 1960s and 1970s -- who stunned the Western ballet world with their technique, virtuosity and hunger to expand their dance horizons -- who reminded people of the power of the Russian dance system. But having defected, their photographs were removed from the walls and their names not mentioned at the Kirov, or its training school, the Vagonova Choreographic Institute, for decades.
The traditions and conservativeness of the Kirov have been both its blessing and its curse. They have kept the myths and techniques of the past alive -- through the political repressions and upheavals of the Soviet era -- setting a standard by which other classical companies are judged.
The majority of the Kirov's repertoire is classical ballets, because that's what the audiences at home and abroad both expect and want. But this has also limited the incentive for change to more modern ballets, and this has been the cause of some dissention. Only in the last decade or so have ballets created for other companies, such as the New York City Ballet, or the Royal Ballet, been added to the Kirov's repertoire.
So, given all that history, what can dance fans in Taipei expect? For starters, a gala of technical virtuosity today that will showcase the depth of the Kirov's talented principal dancers and soloists.
Fokine's creations dominate the lineup: Chopiniana (known outside Russia as Les Sylphides), Le Spectre de la Rose, The Dying Swan, and Polovtsian Dances, as well as Pepita's Talisman and Paquita Grand Pas.