While most people conversant with the arts have heard of the great Hermitage, Kirov and Bolshoi ballet companies of Russia, there’s another major Russian company that in some estimations is the best of all.
The Perm Ballet — often called the Tchaikovsky Ballet because their base is the Tchaikovsky Theatre in Perm, Russia — performs Sleeping Beauty in Savannah Feb. 19 at the Johnny Mercer Theatre.
“The Tchaikovsky Ballet is spectacular. It was formed nearly 100 years ago,” says Michael Donnelly, the Hinesville tour operator and arts promoter who’s bringing the group to the South for a multi–city tour. “Of the top 100 ballet personalities of the last 50 years, at least half have come from Perm.”
Of even more importance to local audiences, a whopping 65 dancers are coming from Russia for this local performance, a very high number by normal touring ballet standards.
The Perm Ballet’s unique personality — characterized by extraordinary continuity of cast members and gorgeous sets and costumes — comes from the siege of Leningrad in World War II. That city — now returned to its original name, St. Petersburg — was under attack by the Nazis for 900 days from 1941–43, one of the longest sieges in modern military history.
“In 1941, when Leningrad was under siege, they evacuated the factories and schools,” says Donnelly. “They evacuated the ballet to the city of Perm for three years. At the end of the war, half of the school returned to Leningrad and the other half stayed behind.”
The group that stayed in Perm developed its own teaching regimen, which its dancers continue to rely on today.
“You’ll never see a better choreographed ballet and never see a more spectacularly dressed ballet with more elaborate sets,” says Donnelly.
Donnelly — who’s been to Russia more than 300 times and is the only American to his knowledge ever to have graduated from the Russian Academy of Arts — is also responsible for the first–ever U.S. appearance by the legendary Hermitage Ballet of Russia, which performed at the Johnny Mercer Theatre in 2008.
“I have to tell you I think we brought the best Russian ballet in the world to Savannah in 2008. It was the best ballet that’s ever come,” says Donnelly, who is now on the board of directors of the Hermitage, the only American.
“We had 10 of the top 50 ranked principal dancers in the world at that one performance. That’s never been done before.”
In a town not known for a large population of ballet connoisseurs, that performance by the Hermitage nearly sold out the Johnny Mercer Theatre. As a businessman as well as an arts maven, Donnelly of course hopes to do as well this time.
“It should be great fun. I’m just interested in upgrading the level of ballet in the South, really.”
In addition to the performance, Perm dancers are giving free one–day master classes to hundreds of local ballet students in the days preceding the Friday show.
“I am asking dancers who come to the master classes to have bought a discounted ticket to the performance,” says Donnelly. “I think that’s fair, because if they had an Honored Artist of Russia teaching a master class in Russia it would be $200 an hour.”
When: At 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19
Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
Info: www.savannahcivic.com; for info on dance classes call KK’s Dancewear at 691–0150