by Suzanne K Walther, June 6 2012

Can a ballet be created about two people who are soul mates, best friends, almost lovers – yet who chose never to meet or exchange a word in person?  Life is indeed stranger than fiction, and a strange life is brought back to reality in Venti Petrov’s ballet about the relationship between Nadezhda von Meck and Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky.

This ambitious new ballet, Dear Nadezhda, premiered on April 28, 2012 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center.   The title repeats the heading of the letters Tchaikovsky wrote to his patron and confidant of fourteen years, Nadezhda von Meck.  Through this lengthy correspondence their relationship evolved into a platonic love affair with the exchange of the most intimate thoughts and feelings.  Venti’s ballet captures the unusual intensity of the emotions that sprang up between these lonely souls in their bizarre situation.  Nadezhda had always been a devoted music lover, and she became the wealthiest woman of her time after the death of her husband. She had borne him many children, and after he died she devoted her life to managing the immense estate that she had inherited.   A woman of intellect, education and a strong will, somewhat eccentric but with solid financial abilities, she built upon her husband’s talented work as an engineer and created a railroad empire.  The trains that she built, implementing his designs, ended up crisscrossing the entire Russian countryside from Moscow to Siberia.

Nadezhda was a generous patron of the arts, and her greatest passion was music. When her friend Nicholas Rubinstein played the piano overture that Tchaikovsky had written for The Tempest, she was so moved by its magnificence that she sent a letter to the composer commissioning a work for which she offered to pay handsomely.   Many similar commissions followed, and money from her became Tchaikovsky’s major support. Their relationship quickly deepened, but von Meck laid down the condition that they should never meet face to face and never speak to one another in person.  Herein lies the obvious challenge for the ballet treatment: how to communicate to the audience, through the classical technique, a relationship without physical contact.  The ballet pas de deux, for example, which are defined by physical contact, must nonetheless maintain the spirit of aloofness and the separate privacies of the worlds of Nadezhda and Peter Ilyitch. This is the central challenge of Petrov’s choreography here: to convey two people’s love and longing and emotional unity on a purely spiritual level.

The choreography creates an atmosphere of spiritual community based on corporeal inaccessibility. It is as if Nadezhda and Peter Ilyitch were inhaling and exhaling separate air, no matter how close to one another they appeared.  The eyes were always averted, the head turned away.  The focus of the eyes was always something distant and compelling, not the physical embodiment of the identical thing.  The intensity of their devotion was developed through a process in which they confided to one another, through the actual medium of writing, their deepest thoughts and their true love.   This intimate quality of mind and feelings is understood to be a thing that might have been unachievable in person.

Oxana Maslova, who danced Nadezhda, was perfect for the role and performed it with exceptional understanding.  She is an outstanding dancer; every movement is seamlessly connected with the next, without a single jarring step or hesitation.  She is dance itself, her small slim body gliding over the floor as if skimming without actually touching it.  When she rises to pointe it is so natural and comfortable that one might think everyone walks like that on the street. Rising from her writing desk she circles the stage with a simple step that quickly transforms into the rapid movements of a bird.  The entire cast performed exquisitely with sophistication and technical skill.

In pas de deux with Venti in the role of Tchaikovsky, her choreography brought out both the dancer and the character she portrayed.  They excelled together in unbelievably fast and difficult lifts, where upside down and right side up changed so fast that it was nearly impossible to see how it happened.   She is slender, small but strong; her dark eyes flash from her oval face and a black lacy dress accentuates her slender figure and mysterious many-sided personality. She is also a good actress and her mobile face expresses the emotion of the role.  The costumes were created by Svetlana Katon-Noble.

Petrov is a highly inventive choreographer who always stays within the classical vocabulary.  He does not employ gimmicks or novelties or experiments. He does not insert or borrow from other dance styles.  He proves that the purity of the classical style can produce exciting dancing.  It is not acrobatics that make a ballet new and lasting, but the ideas it expresses.  Oxana’s side extensions would have hit the ceiling if it were lower and her legs grazed her ears, but that wasn’t what made her performance great. Those bravura elements made smooth contributions to the totality of the movement.  Designing and connecting movement in ways that are exhilarating and also have important expressive effects is the prescription for how the choreographer creates a good ballet.  Ballets like Venti Petrov’s Dear Nadezhda would enrich and revitalize the current repertoire, were they to be accepted within it.

The program on April 28 consisted of Dear Nadezhda as a first act, and a second act consisting of selected short works from Petrov’s oeuvre.  Venti is full of interesting ideas.  In one of his solos, entitled Patent Pending, he dances a typewriterIt is incredibly comical and difficult; it could have been an episode in Massine’s Parade. Here it was danced by Anton Kandaurov with the appropriate aplomb.  Both he and his wife Oxana trained in the Ukraine and Russia, and this is manifested in their exceptionally strong straight lines.  Anton sliced the air with extended legs; the rapidity brought the flash of a missile to the stage.

The Butterfly was performed by Lauren King, a guest artist from the New York City Ballet.  It is a short, light, flighty dance depicting carefree beauty. The dancer flies around the stage, gathering space into the twirling and balancing reality of a butterfly in a garden of flowers.  The program closed with Liebestraum, a duet danced by Oxana Maslova and Anton Kandaurov to the music of Franz Liszt.  It is a lyrical love duet, portraying a happy couple basking in the glow of their growing love in slow, romantic poetic movement. Where Dear Nadezhda presented tortured longing in a profound but frustrating relationship, Liebestraum showed an alternative consummation of fulfillment and happiness.