MOSCOW SURPRISE

December 5-10, 2001

 

(A Friend's Journal on visiting Moscow for Nina's 20th anniversary gala at the Bolshoi Theater, December 5-10, 2001)

With Nina’s twentieth anniversary gala at the Bolshoi (Dec. 7) as a centerpiece, a Friend of Nina planned her very first trip to Russia in early December. Much research was spent on the internet, finding airfare and hotel discounts, as well as ground transportation arrangements. With a majority of the American public still wary of flying due to the events of what is now commonly referred to as “9/11”, it was relatively easy to find a well-priced nonstop flight (Delta) from New York to Moscow. And, courtesy of a great website find, hotels-moscow.ru, affordable accommodations at Arbat Hotel, just off Moscow’s Bohemian pedestrian section, were expeditiously made. The website staff also quickly provided visa support papers and arranged for an English-speaking driver to pick me up at the airport. On December 4, equipped with snow boots, fur coat, hats and gloves, all incongruous in a New York City still enjoying temperatures in the high sixties F (about 20C) yours truly departed JFK  Airport with no incident.

December 5

Moscow’s Sheremetevo 2 Airport is relatively small, so there was no long walk to passport/immigration; formalities were strictly but quickly carried out. Checked luggage appeared at the carousels with no delay and to my relief, a pleasant young man holding up a card with my name on it was waiting just outside the doors. He was quick to help with my suitcase and we were soon off to central Moscow, about an hour’s ride away.

Alex, my driver spoke excellent English (I explained to him that I knew barely three words in Russian), having spent part of his early years in Australia, where his father had been attached to the embassy. Our ride into Moscow was uneventful; the scenery consisting of the usual dismal elements of exurbia, except covered with a fine mantle of snow. I also noticed that most cars were covered with an inordinate amount of mud, and Alex explained to me that the soil of Moscow has an inexorable tendency to turn into mush. Thoughts of Napoleon’s retreat from the Russian capital flitted through my sleep-deprived mind…

The Arbat Hotel turned out to be a very efficiently run establishment, with clean, spacious, high-ceilinged rooms and what looked like newly renovated bathrooms. (Friends later told us this was where Communist Party officials usually stayed when attending meetings in Moscow.) Security was good, and car service was easily arranged with the reception staff. Almost a luxury was the generous buffet breakfast during which a very accomplished harpist eased the traveler’s’ groggy passage into Moscow time. (It was somewhat surprising to wake up my first morning there, look out the window and realize that the moon was still up at 7:45 in the morning!)

A bigger surprise awaited, however. When I talked to Nina on my arrival, she hinted that all was not well. She had sustained an injury and was receiving therapy.

December 6

The next day, further conversations with Nina and her husband, Gregory, made it almost certain that Nina would not be able to dance at her own gala. By this time, many more of her friends had flown in from far flung corners of the world, and those closest to Nina urged her not to take chances with further injury by dancing.

There was nothing one could do but wait, hope, and see Moscow. I arranged for a private tour guide (from the well regarded Patriarshiy Dom Tours) to show me around the heart of old Moscow. It being Thursday, the Kremlin was closed to the public, but my knowledgeable and accommodating guide, Felix, was able to walk me around most sites in my itinerary. At my request, we took the famed Moscow Metro from the nearest stop, Smolenskaya, to one of the busiest and most imposing stations, Ploshchad Revolutsii, so I could learn the ropes of taking the subway. Moscow’s system is famed for its efficiency---a train arrives almost every two minutes, at most--- and the stations themselves could double as ballrooms in both size and splendor of decoration. The Ploshchad Revolutsii, true to its name, was filled with life-size sculptures of idealized figures---what the Communist Party would have all Russians believe were the achievements of the revolution. I wondered what current citizens make of them. Other stations are less politically controversial, being decorated simply by ornate marble facings, fanciful moldings and startling chandeliers!

We took the very steep escalator to the surface for my first glimpse of the Bolshoi Theater----the white building shone in the winter sunlight---and on its fašade hung a big banner announcing Nina’s gala. It was a wonderful sight. Whispering history into my ear, Felix and I circumnavigated the icy streets towards Red Square---pausing to enter the jewel-like Kazan Cathedral (reconstructed in 1990-93, according to my guide book) and admiring one of the main gates. From a vantage point, we enjoyed a panoramic view of St. Basil’s Cathedral. Moscow’s most famous landmark did not disappoint. As familiar as it is on posters and travel guides, the actual building remains astonishing in all its fantastic jumble of spiral domes, arches and colors. That day, the bright sunshine made the whole ensemble sparkle, while a dense plume of cloud provided a picturesque background. (A different angle proved that the “cloud” was steam from a heating generator across the river.)

Another landmark, the department store GUM, provided respite from the cold, as well as insight into the new Russia. While this large shopping arcade was infamous during Soviet times for having nothing to sell, now it seems to have embraced all the famous Western labels to its bosom. A shopper accustomed to the temptations of Saks Fifth Avenue would feel right at home. Cafes and restaurants provide fuel for the weary.

Emerging at the other end of GUM’s, we at last approached the great cathedral, the formal name of which is the Cathedral of the Intercession at-the-Moat. It was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible to celebrate the fall of the Mongol stronghold of Kazan in 1552. (St. Basil was one of those “holy fools” beloved and venerated by Russian Orthodox believers; a chapel was added to the building to house his remains.) Familiar as I was with the spacious naves of Gothic cathedrals, the interior of St. Basil’s was a surprise. It comprises of relatively tiny spaces, each a chapel dedicated to a particular saint or event, connected by colorfully painted corridors. Light only streamed in from the windows below the high domes of each chapel. The approach to the main Chapel of the Intercession was a challenging set of high steps. It is difficult to see the figures on the iconostases, but they looked impressive in the dim light. Perhaps because St. Basil’s is operated as a museum, it did not exude the atmosphere of holiness other churches have.

Our walk took us past the Old English Court, while Felix filled me in on how the English cleverly negotiated trade agreements in the 17th century with the reigning tsar. Our goal was the Palace of the Romanov Boyars; alas, a school group was in residence, presumably learning history, so we were able to view only the exterior. We were likewise left to admire only the impressive fašade of the Church of the Trinity in Nikitniki, which is currently being renovated. Another ride on the metro brought us to the newly reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer, originally built to commemorate Moscow’s deliverance from Napoleon’s invasion. It was destroyed in 1931, Stalin having planned to replace it with a grandiose Palace of the Soviets. When that plan was abandoned, the site was developed as a municipal swimming pool! The reconstructed church once more dominates a prominent junction of the Arbatskaya section of Moscow. It is a splendid building inside and out, but naturally---in comparison to the older churches---it lacks the gravity of age.

In the afternoon, I met with a Japanese journalist who had come to cover the gala for her magazine. She had resourcefully found out that a cousin of Nina’s owned a Georgian restaurant (Souleiko) in Moscow, so we went for a late lunch there---a fitting prelude to another memorable Georgian meal later that week.

Just when I thought I had had enough surprises, another one popped up around midnight. My American hotel-mate, who also happens to be a good friend of Andris Liepa, invited me to join them for a late supper. So off we went to, of all places---the Starlite Diner---an honest-to-goodness American 1950s style, chrome-clad diner, right in the heart of Moscow. I had met Andris during his previous visits to New York, and who can forget their first sight of Nina and Andris dancing together?  (Mine was in 1987 - at the Metropolitan Opera.) It was a magical partnership and their fans still mourn its premature termination. Andris is retired from ballet now, and is busy producing shows. At dinner, he told us he had recently come to an agreement with the media giant, Universal, to distribute his film, Return of the Firebird. So, we will all get a final look at Nina and Andris, together in The Firebird. The DVD is slated for release in Russia this month.

December 7

With practically no hope of seeing Nina dance that night, another U.S.-based Nina fan and I spent the morning viewing Russian art at the famed Tretyakov Gallery, which displays its remarkable collection in chronological order. Just viewing the pictures gives you a stunning overview of Russian history. On leaving the museum, we walked around. Enchanted by the beautiful, snow capped views of the Kremlin towers, my companion and I strayed from the usual taxi hubs, and before we knew it, we were shivering in the cold in a riverside park, with no transportation in sight. As we had been instructed by another friend to do, we started waving our hands, hailing any car that might offer a ride. Sure enough, after a few minutes, a private car stopped for us; we told the well-dressed young man where we wanted to go (actually, we just kept repeating our hotel name and the street it was on), and we had our ride! (We had by then learned that about 300 rubles seemed the going rate for any ride within central Moscow.)

Warned about intermittent traffic jams, we arranged to have a car pick us up at 5:30---so of course there was no traffic and we arrived almost an hour before the 7:00 p.m. curtain. Fortunately, they open the doors early at the Bolshoi, so we didn’t have to wait long in the cold. It was fun to observe and participate in the rituals of the theater. The ushers make little rips in your ticket then hand them back to you (great for souvenirs). They then offer you an array of brochures, including the evening’s program; there are also albums of Bolshoi history and lists of upcoming presentations, all for a modest price. The snack bars open before curtain time, so hurried patrons can have open-faced salmon and red or black caviar sandwiches, along with a full array of beverages. It is obligatory to check coats and big packages before being admitted to the auditorium, and here again they check your ticket to make sure you are handing your coat to the assigned coatroom. At last you enter the great white, red and gold hall and at once you feel that this place is special. History seems to emanate from the six tiers of the auditorium. The chandeliers dazzle. You are charmed by the individual armchairs that accommodate each viewer on the orchestra level. Since Nina seated us in the first row, we couldn’t help noticing that the stage curtain still bears the CCCP initials of the old regime.

The program confirmed that our ballerina has heeded advice and is not dancing. People all around us are distraught, although most friends had had an inkling of this disappointment. Nina appeared before the curtain to explain her condition and apologize to the public. Her colleagues from the Bolshoi and American Ballet Theater are courageously filling in for her. (Later, I learned that Nina also appeared on TV that evening to explain her absence from the gala.)

The first half was comprised of Act I of Don Quixote, with Anna Antonicheva as Kitri, Andrei Uvarov as Basil and Maria Alexandrova as Mercedes. The energetic forces of the Bolshoi Ballet showed themselves to be in great form, under the baton of the masterful Alexander Sotnikov. ABT’s Paloma Herrera and Jose Manuel Carre˝o followed with Balanchine’s Sylvia Pas de Deux. Other numbers included excerpts from Bournonville’s Flower Festival at Genzano (Anastasia Goriacheva, Andrei Bolotin), La Sylphide (Inna Petrova, Sergei Filin), plus Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (Herrera with Giuseppe Picone. The rousing finale was a truly exciting performance of Ratmansky’s international hit, Dreams About Japan---with most of Nina’s parts simply excised. All the participating artists showed their love and respect for Nina by dancing with utmost virtuosity and feeling. Uvarov was particularly fierce and playful in Dreams, while the Bournonville dancers were so good, Frank Andersen, the Royal Danish Ballet artistic director-designate, was reported to be ready to steal them all away.

Flowers, speeches and confetti filled the stage at the conclusion, of course, but that was not the end of the evening for many. The Nina lovefest continued at (another surprise) that same Georgian restaurant the journalist and I had visited the day before. The party included probably all the international guests, almost all the artists and musicians and Nina’s significant others, including her parents, who came from Tbilisi. And what a party! Table hopping among the Houstonians, New Yorkers, Londoners, etc. was rampant and joyful. Georgian music and a capella singing added to the general gaiety. Alexei Fadeyechev arrived early, and we conversed about his new company, the Moscow Dance Theater. Nina arrived late (from other fŕtes hosted by gala sponsors) and quickly announced that though she may dance another twenty years, she will never again have a gala with her name on it! We all competed in reassuring her we loved her whether she danced or not.

Of the food, I seem to remember tasting at least a dozen appetizers, including roast suckling pig and various wonderfully spicy eggplant concoctions. Suffice it to say that at 2:00 a.m., we were just starting on the main courses (including a wonderful, garlicky chicken dish)! Those who stayed to the end reported that the party finally broke up at 5:30.

December 8

Determined to see more of Moscow and environs, I made myself get up early enough the next morning to make a trip to the famed Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius at Sergiev Posad, about 47 miles from Moscow. On the way, Felix filled me in on the history of this religious center, which intimately intertwines the rise of Russian Orthodoxy and the formation of the Russian state. It was an eye-opening lecture, and gave more meaning to all the sights I saw later in the day. The first view of the walled monastery complex, from a snowy promontory just outside, is truly awesome. Even from that distance, the various styles of architecture of the most prominent buildings are intriguingly obvious. But what stands out most in my memory are the blue and gold domes of what I later learned is the Cathedral of the Dormition (Assumption), the monastery’s main cathedral. At the gate, we were met by our official guide (a novice monk who it turned out is also a poet, who had spent some time at a writers’ community in upstate New York!) He completed my initiation to the history of the place, and the various buildings donated by rulers of Russia from every epoch.

Not all of these buildings are open to the public, but even an incomplete tour gives the visitor an inkling of the importance the monastery plays, even today, in the lives of believers. The candle-lit interiors were filled with pilgrims eager to view important icons, touch relics and offer prayers. Even a non-believer has to be touched by such faith. The contrast between the bright exteriors and dimly lit interiors of Russian churches was most stark here, perhaps because the snow-covered ground gives startling brilliance to the pastel-painted edifices.

An anecdote related by Felix sticks in my mind. One of the buildings, a charmingly blue-painted circular baroque one called the Church of the Virgin of Smolensk, apparently served as a sort of prison for the future Catherine the Great. She was kept there by her mother-in-law, Empress Elizabeth, to learn her Orthodox catechism. The young princess apparently was denied even her meals until she could recite her day’s lessons by heart. She had her revenge years later by not donating a single ruble to the monastery!

The trip to and from St. Sergius, with a leisurely lunch and a slight detour to Radonezh, the saint’s birthplace, took seven hours and was well worth it. However, the highlight of the day was still to come, as a company of friends were invited to Nina’s place for dinner. What a treat to see Nina and Gregory’s apartment in Moscow---with art-filled rooms overlooking the river. Nina proudly showed us her “ballet study” where custom designed closets housed all her tutus and other costumes in orderly array. A roomy corner of the apartment also sported a short barre.

After dinner, we viewed tapes of Nina’s most recent works. In November, Moscow Dance Theater gave the premiere of Leah, a piece based on The Dybbuk, with choreography by Alexei Ratmansky and music by Leonard Bernstein. Nina danced the title role, with Giuseppe Picone in the role of the lover/ malevolent spirit. The new ballet was very well received in Moscow, and another performance was planned for late January as of this writing. It is a vividly dramatic piece and gives Nina and Giuseppe strong character parts. The effectively color-saturated settings should be wonderful to see live.  Other dances we saw on tape included the lyrically gorgeous Green by Stanton Welch, a piece any company would be fortunate to have. (See Photos by Igor Zakharkin)

December 9

More snow started falling this morning, topping up the former accumulation with a fresh layer. Finally tuckered out from sightseeing, I spent the morning just window shopping on Arbat Street, a pedestrian walk with many antique shops, cafes and street vendors offering the usual souvenirs---meticulously painted lacquer boxes, nesting doll sets, hats, scarves etc. In the end, I bought only a subtly tinted watercolor of a wintry scene, with the domes of a neighborhood church peeping above snow-covered houses. I will think of my first visit to Moscow every time I see it.

That evening, we went to the Bolshoi again---to see Vasiliev’s Anyuta. I found the production enchanting, although the ballerina in the title role, a very capable dancer, did not have the requisite charm to bring off the character. But then, I have the tape of Maximova… I was more impressed by the various male dancers, especially Gennadiy Yanin as the husband, Modest Alexeyevich. Alexei Barsegyan and Rinat Arifulin, both tall dancers, also caught my eye in the roles of the Student and Artynov, respectively. The orchestra was again outstanding, conducted by Fuat Mansurov.

This last night was capped by another meeting at the Starlite Diner with Andris. This time, we were joined by his wife, Katya, an ex-Kirov dancer who now directs fashion shows. In fact, she was overseeing one the next day---for the house of Kenzo. Meanwhile, Andris was putting the last touches to a gala honoring his father, Maris, who was also a star dancer of the Bolshoi. But the main event of this meeting was viewing Nina Alovert’s portfolio of Andris’s photos, from the start of his career. He is planning to have a photo album published in Moscow. Watch out for it.

December 10

Another snowfall accompanies my mid-morning departure from the city. The pre-boarding inspection is tighter in Moscow, and I have to unpack my in-flight bag to show the inspectors a harmless metal instrument which showed up on the scanner screen. But all is well, and I pass. In the lounge, I meet a fellow Nina pilgrim from New York who has caught a cold. She gratefully accepts some Comtrex from my emergency kit. The flight, thankfully, was uneventful. My first trip to Moscow certainly was not. I will remember it all my life.