St. Petersburg State Ballet hits the ice in Patchogue and Brooklyn

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Special to Newsday

You want the St. Petersburg State Ballet on Ice to perform in your theater?


First, build a wooden border around the stage. A day before loading in the sets, put down three layers of heavy plastic, a thick insulating foam and rubber mats inlaid with capillary tubes. You'll have to have an ice compressor circulating a 7-degree mixture of water and antifreeze through those tubes to keep the surface cold but not rigid. Blanket the mats with a 1-inch layer of crushed ice. Spray the ice with a garden hose for five minutes. Wait 10 to 15 minutes until the water freezes. Spray again. Keep this up for 24 hours.

"It's pretty crazy," says producer Paul Allan of Bellport-based Gateway Playhouse, which is presenting the Russian company of 28 dancer-skaters in "Nutcracker on Ice" this week at the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts. Until he encountered the 40-year-old troupe in its first visit to the United States in 1996, Allan wouldn't even have contemplated it. Seeing the story ballets in the warm intimacy of a theater converted him.

"You're not freezing your butt off in the stands of the Nassau Coliseum, you're right there with them - sometimes only five feet away," Allan explains. "It brought the whole art of skating and ballet home to me."

The troupe's American producer, Carol Bresner, came up with this idea to bring the ice rink to the theater rather than the usual way around. At first, it seemed like a lot of trouble, says company artistic director and choreographer Konstantin Rassadin, a lead character dancer with the illustrious Kirov Ballet in the 1960s before turning to choreography.

"But then, we realized that when you perform on a theater stage, you have sets, props, beautiful costumes and theatrical lights," he says through an interpreter. "So it looks great. It's not like an ice show."

"Nutcracker on Ice" opens with the mysterious Uncle Drosselmeier inside a bubble of light as if of his own creation. With a wave of his wand, another spotlight springs up, revealing another player in the drama he will soon foment. Later, he whirls across the stage in a blue velvet cape that fans out like wings to gather the surrounding night in close: This magician carries his atmosphere with him.

When the scene shifts to the Stahlbaums' middle-class home, the stage is suffused with appropriately bright, warm light.

The production's sumptuous costumes also hint at place and character. The motley worn by the jester whom Drosselmeier sets loose on the party isn't fluorescent, as is common on modern stages, but olive green, rose and royal blue. These Renaissance hues fit the uncle's talents - how he wipes away the tidy bourgeois present for faraway fantasylands that once upon a time felt immediate and real, and soon will again.

The St. Petersburg State Ballet on Ice has always been theatrical, even when the special effects were limited to whatever a rink could support. "Our main allegiance is to classical dance and classical choreography, and the dramatic skills they require," Rassadin explains. The troupe was founded in 1967 as an offshoot of the Kirov Ballet by a trio that included leading Kirov director Konstantin Sergeyev and ballerina Natalia Dudinskaya - Rudolf Nureyev's first famous partner. "The idea was to create a new genre," notes Rassadin, who came on board as company choreographer in 1980.

Asked what kind of skater he was back then, he says he wasn't - he hadn't raced across that slippery surface since he played hockey as a boy.

Not rushin' ballet for the ice

So what did he need to learn to translate ballet to ice? Everything, starting with the skates.

You can't rise smoothly and silently from the floor when your feet are sunk in clunky boots on blades. Nor are ballet's plucky footwork and the battery of fluttery jumps worth attempting. And the lovely line of a leg tapering to a point? The foot can't point. Plus, if you want to travel, you better give up the turned-out legs upon which ballet depends.

What's left? Jumps and turns, of course, and spiky digs into the ice that simulate the pizzicato of certain ballet steps. Also, the arms and head as well as the rhythms that endow steps with their particular character and meaning.

Head and arms are a Russian specialty. "All movements begin with the participation of the arms, head and eyes, and all parts of the body are connected," former Kirov ballerina Irina Kolpakova, now a coach at American Ballet Theatre, has written about her early training. "When all parts of the body work together, one has the ability to express something in dance."

After the children at the Christmas party beat the sweet, homely Nutcracker with their fists, they clasp their hands behind their backs in sassy triumph, step with knees high in exaggerated pride and toss their pretty, defiant heads. Brats!

The ballerina doll, on the other hand, can't move her head separately from her arms. And when she spins, she does not whip the head around to steady her turns, as a human ballerina would do, but holds it stiffly and blindly forward. She's a doll, after all.

Moving the story along

One thing ice particularly lends itself to is a lyrical rush of feeling. When the Nutcracker doll transforms into a handsome prince, Clara sails after him, her arm scooping up the air between them in a low arc of longing.

"There are no tricks in this ballet," Rassadin notes. Every move advances the story.

It's no mean feat to invest steps with that kind of intention and integrity, and ballet dancers have an enormous advantage over figure skaters. At the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg - the feeder school for ballet companies across Russia - the 60 students admitted each year from the thousands who apply begin their studies at age 9; skaters don't get around to ballet until they're 16 or 17.

Russian ballet training doesn't limit itself to technique, either. It encompasses everything that pertains to the art: acting, mime and a history of ballet that gives the students the full context for works they hope to perform someday. "Nutcracker" is part of that inheritance.

There's no easy way to compensate for this depth and breadth of training. Rassadin simply has to spend intensive amounts of time "teaching the skaters to be dancers and artists," he says.

They take acting classes and rehearse for months on dry ground before heading to the ice. They practice and get coached, and practice some more - preparation as painstaking as building the theater's ice surface.

That slick surface is the first thing the audience marvels over, Allan says: "They all want to go up and touch the ice."

The second thing is the magic of the dancing - and this they can't touch, they can only feel.

WHEN&WHERE: Next week, the Millennium Theatre in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, presents "Sleeping Beauty on Ice" and "Nutcracker on Ice." Call 718-615-1500.

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