The Malta Independent 3 June 2020, Wednesday

Crystal Palace: Ballet in a baroque ice palace

Monday, 17 July 2017, 10:50 Last update: about 4 years ago

John Cordina writes about the Crystal Palace, a unique ballet inspired by a remarkable true story, featuring dancers and musicians from the legendary Bolshoi Theatre, which will be held on 21 July to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic ties between Malta and Russia

A ballet is perhaps the logical choice for an event celebrating diplomatic ties between Malta and Russia, especially if it's a production which brings together people from both countries.

Crystal Palace is the brainchild of the European Foundation for Support of Culture (EUFSC), a non-profit organisation which organises numerous cultural events - primarily in Malta, but also overseas - and supports various others, and in which Malta's Russian community is well represented. Appropriately enough, given the occasion, the EUFSC asked composer Alexey Shor (right) - a naturalised Maltese citizen who was born in the former Soviet Union - to compose the ballet, which, unusually, also features singing.

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The production, which marks the ballet's world première, will see the involvement of no less than the legendary Bolshoi Theatre, home to one of the most renowned - and by far the largest - ballet companies in the world.

Director Ekaterina Mironova and choreographer Alexander Somov both hail from the Muscovite theatre, as does the conductor, Pavel Klinichev, who will be directing the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra in its first involvement in a ballet production.

Three renowned ballet stars - Ivan Vasiliev, a regular guest principal at the Bolshoi, Milan's La Scala and New York's American Ballet Theatre; his wife and Bolshoi soloist Maria Vinogradova, as well as Bolshoi prima ballerina Maria Allash - will be playing the leading roles. The production will also feature Bolshoi Opera soprano Anna Aglatova, who is regularly featured in the theatre's opera productions, and stage and film actress Mariya Poroshina.

Shor describes this collaboration as a rare honour.

"Some of my most vivid childhood memories are from going to Bolshoi," he notes. "I can't even say that this is a 'dream come true', because I never even dreamt of working with Bolshoi dancers and musicians... it's an incredible honour, privilege and an opportunity."

Beyond the production itself; however, there is another reason why it makes sense to celebrate Russian-Maltese friendship with a ballet: the dance form itself was brought to Malta by a Russian émigré nearly a century ago.

The Russian princess' ballet school

While diplomatic ties between Malta and Russia, then a component republic of the Soviet Union, date back to 1867, links between the two countries date further back.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war led to many Russians leaving their homeland, primarily those either linked to or supporters of the imperial government that had been deposed.

Malta - as a British colony, one of the closest safe destinations for refugees departing from Black Sea ports - was the first port of call for a fair amount of Russian refugees, although most soon moved on to other lands.

These refugees included 16-year-old Princess Nathalie Poutiatine, a member of the Romanov dynasty that had ruled Russia for three centuries, whose family fled to Malta in 1919. The family spent two years in the island before moving to Paris, and during that period, the young Nathalie gave a number of ballet performances.

But she also fell in love with a Maltese man, Edgar Tabone, and the couple maintained a long-distance relationship which culminated in their marriage in 1929 and her return to Malta. Within months of her return, Nathalie opened the island's first ballet school, starting a tradition that continues to flourish to this day.

Accordingly, the production of Crystal Palace will also feature students of the Brigitte Gauci Borda School of Ballet, whose principal and namesake had studied at the ballet school Nathalie had founded, under the guidance of one of her students.

 

Recreating Baroque splendour

Crystal Palace is set in 18th century Saint Petersburg, then a young city - it had only been established in 1703 - which represented a conscious effort to bridge a cultural and economic gap between Russia and Western Europe. Consequently, the Baroque style which was the rage in much of Europe also took root in the imperial capital.

Recreating this atmosphere faithfully for the ballet's production was a priority for the organisers, and a particular challenge for stage designer Sergei Timonin and costume designer Elena Netsvetaeva-Dolgaleva, two Bolshoi veterans. They carried out extensive research and delved into historical archives to ensure that the stage decorations and costumes are as authentically Russian baroque as possible.

And while the music is Alexey Shor's original work, it nevertheless seeks to recall the heady atmosphere of the time.

"I'm not trying to reconstruct the music of 18th century Russia; but at the same time, my music definitely cannot be described as modern," the composer points out, describing it instead as the "18th century through the eyes of a person of our time."

 

The true story of the crystal palace

While many ballets are inspired by legends, myths and folk tales, the inspiration for the Crystal Palace is a true story; a bizarre incident that happened in the winter of 1739-40, in the Russian imperial capital of St Petersburg, founded by Tsar Peter the Great.

At the time, the Russian empress is Peter's niece, Anna Ioannovna. But while her uncle achieved a stellar reputation - as his epithet suggests - Anna's own is far less favourable: she developed a reputation for cruelty and eccentricity.

A few weeks before winter arrived, Russia concluded a four-year war with the Ottoman Empire, and while this only led to modest territorial gains, it gave the empress - who was fond of festivities -sufficient reason to launch organise celebrations in the capital. An unusually cold winter inspired the empress to order the construction of an ice palace, decorated with ice sculptures and filled with ice furniture: the first structure of its kind known to have been built.

But celebrations were not the only thing on Empress Anna's mind when the palace was built: revenge was also on the menu. The target of her ire was Prince Mikhail Golitsyn, whose "crime" was to convert to Catholicism after marrying an Italian woman. His wife's death, not long after the wedding, did not soothe the empress' anger.

The prince was made a court jester - among other indignities, he was made to sit on a nest of eggs in the empress' reception room and pretend to lay them when visitors came to see her. Anna also ordered him to marry one of her maidservants. Their wedding day was a particular humiliation: the couple were dressed up as clowns, made to ride elephants, and followed by various animals and circus freaks in a procession along the city's streets.

But what followed was even worse, as the newlyweds were stripped naked and forced, under heavy guard, to spend their wedding night in the ice palace, on a bed made of ice. The risk of death was very much real, but a bit of bribery helped them survive the night: the bride gave a pearl necklace to one of the guards, who gave her a sheepskin coat in return.

Both newlyweds outlived the empress, who died later that same year. While few Russians missed Anna, her ice palace did capture the public's imagination; that the City of St Petersburg has begun rebuilding it every winter.

Shor counts himself among those fascinated by the unusual tale.

"When EUFSC approached me with the outline of the project, I immediately fell in love with the story and the overall vision: the outline of the story, the idea to combine ballet with singing, the period decorations..."

 

The première performance of Crystal Palace will be held on 21 July at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta, starting at 8pm. Tickets can be purchased through showshappening.com.


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