The young and the restless, Russian style
We arrive at the Mariinsky in a flurry, after having been initially dropped at a theater featuring a large poster advertising an upcoming Carla Bruni concert. We run up the stairs, and rush to our seats in one of the boxes in the balcony. As everyone takes in the opulence of the house, there is a palpable excitement, almost giddiness over the extravagance. Decorated with velvet chairs, gold chandeliers, and all of the spectacle required by the tsars, just sitting down, peering over the edge, and watching the crowd feels like an event.
…And then the curtain rises and the overture begins.
For the next three hours we are treated to a near perfect example of Russian ballet fluff. As is the convention, every element is coded and placed in opposition. The costumes signal geographical locations–petticoats for the ‘west’ and silky pants for the ‘east’ –and sexual availability–head to toe coverage for the west and bare midriffs for the east. The vocabulary further indicates type–the soft, long lines for the young, virginal princess and angular wrists and cocked hips for the tempestuous first wife. The plot rivals that of any juicy soap opera. European aristocrats are felled by a band of Oriental Others. The innocent young virginal heroine is kidnapped by the sultan’s henchmen, and brought to his harem only to be killed by his jealous fist wife, who is then ceremoniously pushed from the ledge of the palace. The powerful sultan is consumed with grief. The women are the primary dancers, but the narrative is that of the man.
Ripe for analysis of historical attitudes, contemporary beliefs, and the role of the ballet in Russian politics, it also served–as ballet often does–as a delicious divertissement from our analytical thoughts and ongoing conversations.