A feast for the eyes, for the ears, but above all a balm for the morale in this gloomy period which deprives the public of the performing arts, when it sorely needs it.
I waited months praying for the ballet to come back, and when the theaters reopened I came running Kira said, taking the tickets out of her purse.
We met her in the cloakroom of the Mariinsky Theater, where she came to see The Bayadere, one of the favorites of the classical ballet repertoire and one of the cornerstones of this cultural institution in Saint Petersburg.
Russians have been deprived of their arts for five long months, this spring and last summer, as theaters have had to close due to the first wave of COVID-19.
Since the fall, ballet, opera and symphonies have made a comeback.
Relieved and determined, the artists returned to the stage despite all the dangers.
Obviously it’s risky, but our life is a big risk these days, said ballerina Renata Shakirova with a smile.
She knows something about it. She is just recovering from COVID-19.
Not surprisingly, since the reopening of the Mariinsky, at least 40 performers have been infected.
It’s constant stress. Every morning, we wait for the tests, asking ourselves: “who will get sick? Who will have to be isolated?” It’s a tough time, this Renata.
The artists are tested every two weeks and alternately.
The week we were at the Mariinsky, in early December, at least eight dancers were in isolation and had to be replaced at the last minute. But it is our passion and our life, concedes the ballerina.
It’s hard to believe that she has just overcome the virus when we see her at the top of her form in what is one of the most beautiful scenes of the show.
We cheer up, we try to get through this crisis together. And there is nothing like the energy of the audience and the applause.
From the top of his majestic golden balcony, the director of the Mariinsky ballet company observes the third act of The Bayadere.
If he hasn’t seen The Bayadere 400 times is just like. With folded arms, Yuri Fateev moves his head to the rhythm of the music.
When I ask him, once the curtain falls, what the pandemic has changed for ballet, he responds without hesitation that his dancers are more dedicated.
They are more precise, more smiling, they appreciate the present moment more. They know that their situation is unique, that theaters are closing all over the world and that only in Russia are they still performing.
But at what cost?
Our survival, says Yuri. The biggest risk for us is to stop everything, because it is our life and our identity.
It is the same passion that animates the maestro Christian Knapp, an American who since 2011 has directed the greatest operas of the Mariinsky.
He respects and understands the decision of theaters around the world that have canceled their seasons, although he admits that there is no ideal solution to an unprecedented epidemic.
Despite all the precautions taken since the fall, several musicians have been infected within the Mariinsky orchestra. To reduce the risks, he had to make artistic compromises.
The rehearsal we attended was the only one on the schedule this week, as he tries to limit them.
Christian Knapp has also had to give up sacred repertoire pieces that require too many instruments, such as Richard Strauss’s grand opera.
And if you look at the orchestra today, for an opera by Verdi, you see that there is only one musician per section, explains Christian Knapp. We only have eight first violins when we should have 12 or 16. We just can’t safely accommodate an orchestra of this size here.
But he considers it a very small price to pay for having the luxury of playing in the midst of a pandemic, while his colleagues in New York, Rome or London have been performing on the Internet for months.
That’s what always attracted me to Russia. There are peoples and cultures who can deprive themselves of ballet, opera, classical music, but for people here, especially in St. Petersburg, it is a need, really. It is a society that does not function without culture and without nurturing its love of the arts.
Culture in the veins
Theaters continued to entertain the people even during the siege of Leningrad in 1943. This relationship of the Russians to culture is a unique phenomenon., proudly explains Vladimir Kekhman.
He is the artistic director of the Mikhailovsky Theater, another St. Petersburg institution that survived a revolution and two world wars.
He told us that if it weren’t for the pressure exerted on President Vladimir Putin by big names in the arts, the theaters would probably still be closed.
They reopened, but with strict rules to follow. All spectators are listed so that they can be traced in the event of an outbreak, the temperature is taken at the entrance and the number of tickets sold is limited to ensure a distance from one spectator to another.
But COVID-19 was also invited to the Mikhailovsky and the worst happened this fall.
The famous conductor and musical director Alexander Vedernikov died of it on October 30, at the age of 51.
We will never know if it was in the theater that he was infected, but he had given his last show three weeks before his death.
However, getting back on stage is a consolation and a source of comfort, explains lead dancer Ivan Zaytsev.
I think it’s fate that drives us to come back on stage, it’s what we do best, give ourselves to the audience and sow joy.
Our team was invited backstage hours before The Sleeping Beauty by Tchaikovsky, where he rehearsed with his partner. He says the months he spent in isolation last summer were a nightmare, both for his body and for his morale.
If we allow people to fly, how can we justify closing the theaters? It is, according to him, compromising the survival of the performing arts. The equivalent of a cultural crime, says Ivan.
That same evening, he played the Blue Bird and enchanted the whole room.
It’s an antidote to the general depressionLila said during intermission, holding her six-year-old’s hand.
It is a tradition to come and see a ballet with her daughter and even more important, according to her, to continue her in these uncertain times to encourage artists.
Because the more the pandemic progresses, the more the threat of containment hangs over the theaters of Saint Petersburg, which had to reduce the number of tickets sold to 25%, at the request of the city authorities.
I have never seen anything like it in my life. It is a shock for me to see a theater as prestigious as ours half empty, when all the shows are normally full.said the director of the Mariinsky ballet, looking at the empty seats.
But 25% is better than nothing. We risk losing everything, the quality, the dance company, losing everything if we stop completely.