The Perm Ballet has become a regular fixture in France over the past six years. Incredibly, however, Paris has yet to see them: instead of prestigious runs at the Théâtre du Châtelet or the Champs-Elysées, the company embarks every winter on a countrywide tour akin to a Ballets Russes expedition. This year, they visited 19 different venues, most of them for one night only, and alternated between respectably-sized cities like La Rochelle, Grenoble or Toulon and tiny stages in towns most Parisians would be hard-pressed to pin on a map.
It’s good news for smaller cities and regional audiences, so often short-changed, but it is a telling sign of the times that Paris theatres still haven’t taken notice. The Perm Ballet’s French producer, Béatrice Gruber, told Danses avec la plume in January that “for a director, the name of the company needs to include “St. Petersburg” or “Moscow,” otherwise they’re not interested.” Indeed, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, one of the rare venues that can accommodate big ballet companies outside the Paris Opera, has been involved in depressing long-term partnerships with the Irina Kolesnikova St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre and Andris Liepa’s Russian Seasons of the 21st Century. Recent subway posters for venues like the Palais des Congrès, meanwhile, touted the arrival of “the Bolshoi of Minsk” or the “Moscow Theatre Ballet,” with dubious results for ballet’s reputation.
The Perm Ballet is on another plane entirely, a fine classical company with an illustrious history and school to boot. Most tour stops this year were treated to Giselle, Don Quixote or Swan Lake, but two cities chose to host a Balanchine/Forsythe mixed bill. One of them was Creil in Picardie, a 30-minute train ride away from Paris, and while the weather wasn’t exactly welcoming, the proximity with the dancers on stage at La Faïencerie and the cheapest interval nibbles in ballet more than made up for it.
The program included two Balanchine ballets, Concerto Barocco and Serenade, the latter as a replacement for Kylian’s Les Noces. Serenade has already been seen on several Perm tours, and was the weakest link on a Balanchine/Petipa bill at Lyon’s Maison de la Danse in 2012. The company’s rendition has improved beyond belief, however. It remains intensely Russian in its focus on beautiful, deliberately static positions and lack of musical daring, but in Creil the corps achieved a new unity of purpose to deliver a serious, soulful homage to ballet.
Albina Rangulova, now a soloist, returned as the Russian Girl. A strong, fast dancer with a buoyant jump, she is fully at home in the Balanchine repertoire. Ekaterina Gruzdeva, who is nowhere to be found on the company’s roster, was the fair-haired Dark Angel, and handled the part with confidence, breezing through the tours en arabesque supported at the thigh.
The leading role went to Inna Bilash, a 2009 graduate of the Perm School and one of four principal women in the company. She is in some ways a typical young Russian ballerina: frail to the point of gauntness, with arms and legs for days and a brittle manner in movement. She is logically at her best in adagio sections, and danced the central pas de deux with real freshness.
Casting her in Concerto Barocco was far less auspicious, however, and the ballet was a shadow of its usual self in Creil. Barocco has been in the Perm repertoire since 1996, and while Serenade can accommodate Russian-style lyricism to an extent, this 20-minute précis of musicality for three soloists and eight corps women amounts to little without commitment to the style. Dancing off the beat, with languid legato phrasing, doesn’t cut the mustard. The interplay between the two violins (Bilash and Natalia Makina, with Ivan Tkachenko to partner them) was what the French would call a dialogue de sourds – a dialogue of the deaf. Both women visibly struggled with the fast changes of direction and intensity required, looking brittle and ill-at-ease. The corps, meanwhile, danced as if in the army, which perhaps this tour was for them.
If this was the case, however, the cast of The Second Detail didn’t let on. The Perm dancers returned a changed company after the second interval, tearing into Forsythe’s choreography with the kind of hunger and edge that might have served them well in the other works. It may be that Balanchine, with his Russian roots and scores like Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, doesn’t seem foreign enough to warrant a radically new movement quality; it may just be a Russian affinity with Forsythe, as the Mariinsky took to his work with similar gusto. In their own way, through the selection and training of ever more extreme bodies, the Perm School and the Vaganova Academy have been on a quasi-Forsythian quest to deconstruct and push the limits of what ballet technique can withstand. To see them in Forsythe is to see them unleashed, and newly at home.
And the performance shocked the audience out of its Sunday afternoon apathy. Created for the National Ballet of Canada in 1991, The Second Detail is now one of the most ubiquitous Forsythe ballets, and it has all the ingredients of the best: a pulsating electronic score by Thom Willems; miracles of syncopation, patterns and speed variations; a postmodern vibe that has yet to be bettered, here with spare, grey-blue sets and costumes (Perm uses the original unitards by Issey Miyake rather than the more recent designs by Yumiko Takeshima).
The ballet was a Russian premiere in Perm in 2012, and the dancers’ aloof elegance and innate sense of line brought the choreography into sharp focus in Creil. Its playful complexity goes far beyond the Forsythe clichés of hyperextensions: classical positions are stretched and bent from every angle, arms lengthened into clean-cut lines, pelvises tilted to give a simple dégagé a shot of energy and allure. With a row of chairs at the back, the dancers sit and stand up again, walk casually, suddenly catch up with the beat. Surreptitious references to Serenade seemed to emerge, notably in the patterns for an uneven number of dancers. A barefoot woman in a white dress appears towards the end, with shadows of Artifact Suite’s lone leader of the corps or other Forsythe characters about her. It’s Forsythe as the ballet world loves him, with good reason, and the Perm Ballet could easily delve further into his repertoire.