St. Petersburg State Ballet hits the ice in Stamford

Tuesday, October 21, 2008
There's no business like snow business for the St. Petersburg State Ballet, which will perform “Sleeping Beauty” on Sunday, December 7th in the Palace Theatre in Stamford
You want the St. Petersburg State Ballet on Ice to perform in your theater?

No problem.

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 gets pretty crazy," says producer Maria Shclover of Maestro Artist Management, which is presenting the Russian company of 35 dancer-skaters in “Sleeping Beauty” on ice next week at the Palace Theatre in Stamford.

"You're not freezing in the stands of some impersonal venue, you're right there with them - sometimes only five feet away," Shclover explains. "It brings the whole art of skating and ballet home."

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.

"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."

The productions’ sumptuous costumes also hint at place and character. The Sleeping Beauty ethereal heroine’s costume, executed in pale shimmering fabrics, attests to her innocent charm.

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 Rassadin 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 ballet school 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."

Moving the story along

One thing ice particularly lends itself to is the fluidity of movement. Combined with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s lush score, the emotion of the characters comes through in every gesture.

"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. “Sleeping Beauty” 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 will marvel over, Shclover says: "They will want to go up and touch the ice."

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

Maestro Artist Management presents the St. Petersburg State Ballet on Ice in “Sleeping Beauty on Ice” on Sunday, December 7th at 2 pm and 6 pm in the Palace Theatre, 61 Atlantic Street, Stamford. Tickets for “Sleeping Beauty on Ice” are $37.50, $50, and $60. Tickets are available for sale online at www.stamfordcenterforthearts.org, over the phone, 203.325.4466 or at the Box Office: Mon-Fri 10AM-6PM and two hours prior to show time. There is a $5.00 per ticket handling charge on all orders. Group discounts are available.

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