tue 13/04/2021

theartsdesk in Siberia: Cold Comfort Krasnoyarsk | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Siberia: Cold Comfort Krasnoyarsk

theartsdesk in Siberia: Cold Comfort Krasnoyarsk

Flower paintings blaze in frozen Siberia while ballet struggles

In England you may joke about having Siberian weather with minus 7 degrees. This is really what Siberian winter looks like - at minus 26 degrees. The river is gushing steam, a hellishly peculiar sight. After travelling for 16 hours and through seven time zones to get to Krasnoyarsk at six in the morning, I am not sure I’m seeing what I’m seeing.

Krasnoyarsk is plumb above Mongolia, and nearly the last stop east on the Trans-Siberian railway before you enter the empty white taiga, where almost no one can live. It is 4,000 kilometres back west to get to Moscow - and that’s only halfway back to Heathrow. The areas of inner Russia are vaster than can be imagined. Siberia itself could contain all of Europe past the first line of Balkan states. Only 30 million people live in this vastness, though. It’s as if the population of southern England had spread itself through the whole of the European landmass, dropping just half a dozen cities through it.

My fingers, even inside thick fur gloves, are agonisingly cold. It’s extraordinary to see the main bridge in front of me simply vanishing into a wall of freezing storm-grey cloud (main picture). The steaming river is explained by its waters being heated to a constant four degrees by the gigantic Krasnoyarsk hydroelectric plant an hour’s drive south. It is 30 degrees warmer than the layer of air just above it. This is about as much physics as I can take. All I really need to understand about Siberian winter weather is that I have icicles in my nose.

Krasnoyarsk is, it’s said, Siberia’s greenest city. It is blessed with dazzling rock landscape nearby (pillar formations called the Stolbi), a fine newly created ski centre (the Bobrovy Log - the snow here lasts from November to May and it can be as cold as minus 40) and in summer it suddenly becomes a blistering 35 degrees, accompanied by a variety of ticks and mosquitoes. My impression of it in early winter, though, is much more of its chill Soviet bones; it is a sternly industrial city created by Stalin’s decree after the Great Patriotic War (as they call their end of World War II).

10_ruble_note_2It was closed to foreigners until only 20 years ago, with key defence plants and terrible hard-labour mines all around the krai (region). It has little architectural heritage before the Soviet time, a few wooden houses on Karl Marx Street, and the little hat-like chapel up on the hill above, built in the 1850s and proudly decorating the 10-rouble note (right) along with Krasnoyarsk’s rather splendid road bridge. If it weren't so cold I'd walk to admire this graceful 2.3-kilometre span, and then down to the even more spectacular iron girder railway bridge that in 1896 allowed the Trans-Siberian Railway to press relentlessly eastward its 9,000-kilometre progress from Europe to the Pacific. The railway station is disappointingly modest, but the timetable can't fail to excite, with destinations Vladivostok at one end and Moscow at the other, and eight days' sleeper travelling between them available for around 250 euros.

The view from my window is of low icy mountains amply decorated with smoking factory chimneys and huge blocks of flats for the industrial workers. We’re longitudinally midway across Asia: somewhere directly south of us is Dacca, the eastern Indian port, with Bangkok not much further east. I am expecting to find myself in an exotic, Eastern city here - instead I find a little Moscow, gentler, but distinctly European.

Moscow’s influence and crucial help is nowhere more evident than in this packed week of ballet events. To Moscow, Krasnoyarsk is a key city of the east, for its industrial importance and its strategic position as the last outpost before the steppes, and what the heavy-set visiting capitalist businessman or apparatchik wants to see of an evening is ballet girls. But the ballet VIPs congregating here want to do better than that: Krasnoyarsk has a burgeoning ballet company now being pushed rigorously forward, as far as he is able, by a well-connected former Bolshoi dancer, Sergei Bobrov, who has fixed up an astonishing constellation of visitors this week.

The iconic Spartacus of all time, Vladimir Vasiliev, is heading the jury for the grandly titled 1st All-Russia Ballet Competition, and the iconic Spartacus of today, the very young Ivan Vasiliev (no relation), is buried in rehearsal somewhere preparing to perform this landmark Soviet ballet with the tender forces of Krasnoyarsk during the week. The ballet competition itself no one has too much expectations of given the entrants: important Moscow and St Petersburg companies are too busy to send candidates, and Krasnoyarsk students look likely to have an unexpected field day.

But two novelties are also on offer, which is exceptionally unusual in Russia, where new choreography is scarce as hens’ teeth: Vladimir Vasiliev’s new creation to accompany the long-neglected ballet score of Glière, The Red Poppy, once the most popular ballet in the USSR, and a new Rite of Spring by Krasnoyarsk’s own director Bobrov. I’m curious to see if anyone is breaking beyond the endemic Russian taste for emotionalism and exaggerated gesture into truly inquiring balletic movement and theatrical effectiveness. They must have some orchestra, I think, as I closed my jet-lagged eyes for a nap before business.

How anyone with any musical sensitivity can remain here with such a combination of conductor and orchestra I can’t imagine

Two hours after waking, I find myself being interviewed by two local TV crews, asking if it is true that the English decided to have ballet in their country as a result of seeing the Bolshoi Ballet tour in 1956. Er, not quite, I say, hoping that British irony translates.

Both interviewers are young lads. One asks bored stock questions. The other is more lively; he cynically asks me why an English person would come to Krasnoyarsk, can I name any other Russian dancers than Galina Ulanova, ones who are alive, and what interest is there in modern Russian art in Britain. I have the strong impression that he, like most 22-year-olds, is bored to tears with the old guard rabbiting on about the Soviet glory days in ballet, and doubts there’s any life in it now.

Ulanova_in_SylphidesI don’t blame him. Since the end of the Soviet Union’s force-feeding of culture, the dishevelled successor governments have taken a cavalier attitude to the USSR’s remarkable achievements in ballet and opera, and now it’s the private culture foundations like the Galina Ulanova Foundation here that sponsor and run a strategic ballet festival like this one. It headlines the first All-Russia Competition of the 21st Century Ballet festival, but no one knows if there will be a second. Ulanova (pictured left, in Chopiniana in 1950), the magician whose 100th anniversary is marked this year, was the product of her own mysterious individuality but also of an absolutely certain state support for the art. Now it's her foundation that tries to pick up the increasingly fragile chances for talented young children.

At the performance in the evening it’s mortifying to hear how poor the Krasnoyarsk theatre orchestra actually is, even in something as basic as Minkus’s Paquita. This ballet company is young, only 30 years (a baby in terms of establishing a work ethic). It’s so isolated, so many thousands of miles away, and the population is so small and so poorly paid, that it’s more an act of political will from Moscow to make a success of this than an enterprise full of evident promise. At the moment, though it has a couple of nice leading women, generally the company  is barely of UK regional standard. The corps de ballet have blocky torsos, some quite chunky, and don’t point or flex their feet with anything like the finesse that one is used to at the Bolshoi or Mariinsky, while their backs and shoulders lack the oriental pliability. Odd - I’m expecting to see something much more eastern here. But how anyone with any musical sensitivity can remain here with such a combination of conductor and orchestra I can’t imagine.



I’m pleased to spot across an uncrowded room a dancer whom I last saw four years ago in my garden at home, when I had a jolly lunch party for half a dozen Bolshoi dancers. He's here to star in the new Rite of Spring. Small world. We all go za gorod - out of town, stuffing a people-carrier with ballet dancers, directors, culture assistants and dance critics. Going to the country in this temperature means driving half an hour through winding snowy mountain roads for a short visit to a wooden ancient-style village where a celebrated dissident writer Victor Astafiev lived (electricity arrived only in the 1960s, telephone in the 1980s, pictured below), followed by a long happy visit to his grannie's wooden house next door for an unhurried meal of vodka, wine, various salted or pickled mushrooms and courgettes, meat slices, hot potatoes with smatana, and the routine shredded cabbage/beetroot with cowberry salad, which is light and delicious. Our toasts become fairly basic, even lavatorial, as the vodka flows.


Among the important things I learn during our carouse is why Russia has no bath plugs, even in good hotels. Yuliana Malkhasyants, the exotically beautiful dancer of the showstopping gipsy number in Don Quixote (she advises the Krasnoyarsk Ballet), tells me that it’s because in Russia you don’t need to conserve water, hence only wimpy countries like the UK have plugs. We agree that if the idea of conservation has some way to go in Britain, it is going to take Russians more than a bit of convincing.

I look at my chilly iPhone later - I forgot I took a photo of the picturesque viewpoint hanging from the mountain balcony over the river, the pretty iron fence festooned with padlocks by newly weds, hoping that their love will last longer than the locks there. Some have their names painted or etched on with home-made tools - it is charming, superstitious, and sentimentally entirely Russian to put one’s life faith in a cheap metal lock.

In the evening we attend Vasiliev’s premiere. The orchestra doesn’t so much strike up as turn up at some point. I can’t see whether the conductor is wielding two batons with both hands at different tempi, but it sounds like it. Poor Glière. His grandson (I think) beamingly kisses everyone on stage at the end, while bouquets shower on and the audience stands in ovation. But as dance-theatre, The Red Poppy feels as if it was created in the dog end of the Sixties, a stale and stereotyped story of doomed love between a Chinese club dancer and a Soviet ship's captain. My eyes close involuntarily every time a droopy pas de deux starts. That certainly did not happen when Ulanova danced the original version, which was Stalin's favourite, and he had it programmed all over the USSR for some 4,000 performances. I am briefly roused by a folkloric sailors' ensemble called the Yablochka, and wonder why the whole thing hadn't been done as a folkloric creation. Vasiliev was a miracle dancer. Unfortunately, it’s not inevitable that the gods endow a very great dancer with a similar ability to choreograph. Most major ballet choreographers were only modest dancers themselves. (In modern dance, it is quite another story: brilliant dancers such as Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Martha Graham, Mark Morris, invented choreography on their own bodies.)

Later it turns out that the Moscow critics are finding it just as hard as I am to be diplomatic when they meet Vasiliev. It’s not just him; it’s that the Krasnoyarsk dancers themselves are so extremely varied in physique, conditioning and ability. But then the city is not able to draw on a huge population, and Siberia’s many, small ethnic races are on the short, sturdy side. There is also a running battle going on between the ballet companies and the government about compulsory national service for Russian boys; they go straight out of ballet school into the army for two years and come back wrecked. Moreover, most good teachers or burgeoning dancers flee thousands of miles away to decently paid jobs in Moscow or Europe if they can. Krasnoyarsk has industrial money from the gigantic nickel and aluminium corporations, but very little of it comes culture’s way. On the other hand, there is a smiling brightness in the eyes of some of the younger dancers, a direct engagement with each other and with the audience by glance or gesture, that is sweet and simpatico, not like the tense anxiety often found in Moscow dancers.

I’m given a copy of the UK tour schedule for the Krasnoyarsk ballet - entitled in England the Russian State Ballet of Siberia. Three and a half months away from home, 16 December to 1 April, with only six days off marked down. These kids are going to need their smiles.



Shaman_case_in_museumA wonderful three hours in the Ethnographic Museum which is the Natural History Museum and V&A rolled into one inside a concrete museum kitschly decorated with Egyptian-style murals outside. The contents are eye-opening: Siberia was a territory of culture-collisions, not just European Russia and Chinese east-west but of Turkic southern merchants trading with northern Siberians from the Arctic. The fashions and jewels in the cases, the cameras and furnishings (even an English grandfather clock got hauled out there somehow), testify to the overwhelming invasion of European preferences from the 18th century, but down in the basement there is a vivid show of costumes, hunting implements and huts from several  northern tribes whose lives barely altered over hundreds of years.

Siberia occupies 10 per cent of the world’s landmass area; it is chock full of small distinct races, some notably Chinese in their styles, dying and embroidering their woven clothes, others almost like American Indians, painting and beading elk skins. Homes come teepee-framed with sticks and skins, or furry and domed with tusks and antlers, or circular and sewn with bark. Early 20th-century photos by anthropologists show faces ranging from pale to almost black, stocky here, wiry there. A display of various shaman mannequins (pictured above left) has a spooky resonance with the impending premiere Sunday night of a new Rite of Spring, with its ritual human sacrifice so alien to us now. The shamans’ carefully fashioned iron fetish dolls and sculpted bear-claws make my neck-hairs prickle.




Painting is Krasnoyarsk’s pride, with the 19th-century historical painter Vasily Surikov (1848-1916) heading their small international hall of fame. His paintings are in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum in St Petersburg and, like most of his city’s best talents, he rapidly escaped sleepy old Krasnoyarsk to Moscow where he lived and is buried. But contemporary art is much more this city’s thing with around 20 studios, and a marvellous Museum of Contemporary Art (the Council of Europe awarded it its 1998 Museum Prize).

corridor_PozdeyevAn unpromising liver-coloured building - not a good colour even in the overnight fall of fresh snow - it is a large high space converted by a spiral of walkways into a magic box of different exhibitions that segue one into the next. Andrey Pozdeyev, a rightly loved colourist from the area who died in 1998 (and is in the Tretyakov in Moscow, apparently), has a permanent exhibition (pictured right) of about 50 flower paintings, each of blinding brightness and joy, all using paint in mood-swinging ways. Sometimes to block in pieces of colour, sometimes to swirl colour together like a cook swirling ripples into ice cream, sometimes almost to mould the paint to the canvas. The starbursts in the paint surfaces, even in uniform paint backgrounds, have secret aster affinities, squiggles and wiggles of yellow along a vase, or the fan-slicing of drying surfaces, have rose-like curlicues. But mostly one just reels back from the impact of so many life-loving, confident flower paintings in an industrial town that is whited out for six months a year.

Best of all, in the middle of the art display, five tables set out carefully with paper, paints, crayons and pots for children to come and look and learn and do their own thing among the paintings of someone who did know what he was doing. This is not what you find in great city galleries: these pictures, you feel, have been truly given to Pozdeyev’s fellows to make their own imaginative use of.

There is more inventiveness in the Lenin exhibition, which with sophisticated Revolutionary wood and metal war maps (artefacts in themselves, one pictured below), working models of mine complexes and an unafraid exhibit of Lenin’s books, glued with photos of New York streets with connections to his work, makes learning far more appealing and inquiring than the usual.

Soviet_wall_mapAn Afghan war exhibition is more a passionate shrine to the young dead soldiers than any explanation, with a son et lumière in a tunnel of nightmarish war noises and traumatised children’s pictures. A large totem in white polystyrene is cut like stone sculpture (which can’t be easy), with white shards of more polystyrene stacked and lit rather spectacularly in the corners. Over the deceptive monument plays projected film of soldiers running into the flames of explosions. Icy, fiery, hi-tech, disposable.

For a few moments I gaze in bewilderment at the representation of the vast blasted impact zone of the famed and almost entirely mysterious Tunguska meteorite event of 1908 which was heard even in St Petersburg and whose scientific research was heavily obstructed by Stalinist needs for certain and manipulable explanations. Then bam, into a boxy white room of artworks by St Petersburg artists on themes of fairytales. One is a nasty little assemblage of a toy egg inside a barbed wire nest under a microscope whose lens is an old army revolver pointing into the egg. There are some scarred imaginations working here. Highly detailed, despite its restricted outward view, this museum is a superbly clever use of space, a roller-coaster for thought and fantasy, lively as anything, whatever you may think of the art.

It's as if in such an unfriendly climate, all their imagination is turned in vivid colours inwards, to emotion, to stories to while away the dark hours

Later I’m discussing all this with a ballet critic from France, as we share our wonderment at the total lack of interest in abstract work in ballet in Russia, and I realise that I have not yet seen a truly abstract artwork either. It’s as if in such an unfriendly climate, where you enjoy nature for a minority of the year, and resist it the rest, all their imagination is turned in vivid colours inwards, to emotion, stories to while away the dark hours, escapism to contrast with the polluted, deeply uncomfortable conditions of much of the daily life. I wonder if many Siberians plunge into the churches quite as much to warm up in the 25-degree heat inside as to commune through the gorgeous gold fixtures with the reassuring beauties and parables of Our Saviour, the Mother of God and all their bishops and saints. I’m presuming that theatre and galleries feed the same need; the environment, flat, empty, white (much of it), is perhaps their fill of abstract sights.

I add a presumption that abstract art (the ultimate subjective art) is a counterpoint to the availability of facts (the supposed objective) - and since facts and the truth are so elusive and mistrusted in Russia in every way, people may simply relate to telling stories about everything. It might be why, enragingly, they put so little value on fixed aesthetic principles in staging classical ballets. They don't accept such things could exist.




We visit the new ski centre on the first day of its winter season (it’s governed by the temperature). This is much more like the Siberian idea of relaxation. It’s determined to be world-beating (alas, it is now a tiddler in comparison with Sochi, President Putin’s preferred ski resort and intended Olympic site). It’s like a vertical golf course, fir trees blasted tidily away, and lots of happy skiers plummeting down various runs while we soar over their heads on the funicular. Costs about £10 for two hours' skiing apparently, and about 75p for the funicular ride. It’s wonderful. So quiet, so secret, so incredibly cold. At the top in the slick modern little bar you can get a plastic mug of mulled wine which rapidly restores the circulation to your agonisingly numbed fingers. I am coming round to the lethal Russian argument about alcohol being a necessary adjunct to survival in this kind of cold.

Vasiliev_SpartacusThat evening we have the unbelievable and totally transporting experience of the Bolshoi’s most astounding young star, Ivan Vasiliev, dancing Spartacus (right) and the ropey Krasnoyarsk Ballet are inspired to their best by the experience. Rarely in a lifetime do you encounter such an explosively dramatic dazzler as this boy - ironically he has had far more exposure in London on Bolshoi tours than in most other corners of the world, to whom he has been merely the next great Russian ballet legend to be venerated, because Moscow says so. Even my abstract-contemporary-dance-loving French friend is totally seduced. She says that suddenly she now understands why the Bolshoi, and their style of dramballet, is irresistible. This kind of topsy-turvy conversion chimes with my own very strange sense that coming here, to a city I could never have normally sought out as a tourist, has scrubbed my mind. It has been hugely assisted by bringing Colin Thubron’s engrossing and deeply troubling travelogue In Siberia.



It’s curious to take in on one outing both Krasnoyarsk’s vast hydroelectric dam (a dour and gigantic Soviet monument opened in 1972) and its exact counterpart, Astafiev’s old-world wooden village a few miles before it. There, after observing how seismically the dam had changed not only the environment but the climate too (the river never freezes now; it looks like boiling water, picture below left), he wrote his book Queen Fish (Tsar-Ryba) which argued strongly against the environmental damage made by vast technology.

hydro_electric_waterThe  16-year dam-building project caused the resettlement of nearly 50,000 people, apparently, as 250 miles upstream was flooded. It was the largest dam in the world, and now most of its power is taken up for the gigantic aluminium plants nearby. Astafiev, who had built a name for courage with candid books about both the Soviet and German soldiers’ experience in the Great Patriotic War, got just as much heat for the environmental one, and the Siberian environmentalists remain lost prophets in the wilderness.

I finally find something very reassuring in Krasnoyarsk’s dance with a visit to its Youth Centre where a performance by amateur adults and children of Siberian folkloric dance is about to start. They all do it after school for fun. The colours of the costumes blaze like Pozdeyev’s flowers, the girls have rouged cheeks and doll-like lipstick. The boys spring and squat-jump enthusiastically and each dance is a mating rite. All the girls have been trained to open their eyes wide and smile big red smiles at the audience, and when they glide on in their long embroidered dresses with pearly headdresses like good little brides I feel a sinking feeling. But suddenly the little ones break into ferocious pirouettes, hopping fouettes and swift outbreaks of tap, faster and more exhilaratingly varied in tricks than the boys actually. The pink cheeks are real, the laughing smiles are real, and these children are captivating performers of a very exciting form of dance that’s as alive as they are.

The new threat by the government to stop ballet school funding under 16, except for Moscow and St Petersburg, will decimate regional cities' hopes

The Siberian Dance Ensemble of Krasnoyarsk is a major international attraction and doesn’t pretend to be authentic, in our sense. Its director is the grandson of the celebrated Igor Moiseyev of the world-famous Moiseyev Folkdance Company of the USSR, and his assistant admits that the long blonde plaits down the back of dancers supposedly from the east are an aesthetic choice of the ensemble’s original founder reflecting Moscow’s taste for blondes. But though the dances may not be authentic, the jollity is.

A week is a short time for conclusions, but I wonder if ballet in Siberia isn’t on a losing wicket. I now understand why Bobrov and his assistants are building it on Bolshoi lines, and with great Bolshoi exemplars for the rather laid-back and unhurried Krasnoyars to learn from. But with so little regular money, with the inevitable brain-drain effect west to European Russia, with a less urgent attitude to realities, the pressures that all Russian ballet is feeling, even in Moscow, seem much sharper here. The threat by the Moscow government to withdraw ballet school funding under 16, except for Moscow and St Petersburg, will decimate regional cities' hopes.

On the positive side, Bobrov is surely among the most active choreographers in the entire country, with 14 creations to his name (the UK will see his economical versions of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet). My impression of the contemporary Russian art I’ve seen here is of churning the awful past, over and over, except for Mr Pozdeyev’s delightful flowers. Tonight Bobrov unveils his Rite of Spring. We’ll see whether it is about birth or death.

Siberia's opera star Dmitri Hvorostovsky sings Rachmaninov's 'In the Silence of the Secret Night' (hymnforlorca on YouTube):


Below, images from the Andrei Pozdeyev exhibition - click to open the full view:


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