A Russian Ballet
Tchaikovsky rehearsal, Music Center, DTLA
It's simple– the purpose of life is to heal our wayward world. Generation by generation, in a steady climb from the pit of despair mankind has tumbled into, we must always strive to atone for and not repeat the sins of our fathers. We've been reflecting on this issue because the convenient nexus of Government and American Media, seems to be guiding our nation into repeating a dark chapter of Western history– Cold War.
In complete contrast, on a warm weekend in June, the Music Center hosted the Eifman Ballet of Saint Petersburg whose company gave a command performance of, Tchaikovsky. Pro et Contra. The Ballet, as you can imagine, illustrated the life of legendary Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky with an emphasis on his complex human nature.
"I see every ballet that comes to the Music Center and Tchaikovsky was the best I've seen in Los Angeles," said one theatergoer. "What struck me the most was their strong masculine presence. The man that played Tchaikovsky was incredible."
Soloist Oleg Gabyshev, is the artist of whom she speaks.
On Thursday night, during a final rehearsal before Friday's opening, we had the opportunity to sit down with Oleg. We were shocked. He wasn't the brooding Russian dancer our American stereotypes had us shamefully expecting. Instead, he was boyish, approachable and the expression of his eyes was kind and genuine.
"My family is from a military background. That's why my mom made sure I was doing something completely different, like art," Oleg says via the interpretation of tour manager, German Gureev. "When I was a child, she was told I had a gift for expressing myself through body language. I was also in a school choir at that time but gradually it became clear that singing wasn't my first talent," he says with an infectious laugh.
Oleg's deep voice quietly fills the empty Music Center rehearsal hall and, suddenly, we understand why he's playing Tchaikovsky. He has a quality that historically all great artists have– deep sensitivity that calls for leading the world to a better place, a brighter future, or as Oleg will later put it, a "raising of the soul."
"It wasn't love at first sight," Gabyshev acknowledges. "It took five years of education before I recognized a deep devotion for the art of ballet within myself."
He began his career training at the Novosibirsk State Choreographic College and upon graduating in 2003, was accepted into the Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. We're told that the Novosibirsk Ballet is the largest company in Siberia. With an emphasis on classical ballet, Oleg became very well versed with their extensive repertoire; even so, he was ultimately left feeling unfulfilled.
"I came to the understanding that I wanted to perform something more emotional, more expressive, without the strong boundaries that are imposed on classical dancers," says Oleg.
Close to the end of his first year, The Eifman Ballet performed at the Novosibirski Theatre. Oleg was taken with their contemporary approach to ballet and upon seeing several of their performances realized matter of factly, "This is the type of dance I'm looking for." He auditioned soon after and has been dancing with them ever since.
During the 12 years that Oleg has been with the company, Maestro Borris Eifman made Oleg one of his go-to leading men. In this production he plays Tchaikovsky, which speaks for itself; furthermore, Oleg played lead Dick Diver, for Up & Down (Eifman's jazz era ballet); Count Vronsky, in Anna Karenina; Treplev, in The Seagull; Onegin, in Eugene Onegin; Rodin, in Rodin; and Don Juan, in Don Juan.
When asked what he loves about dance he simply explains, "The feeling of freedom and distance from the other problems of the world."
TECH Rehearsal, Dorothy Chandler, DTLA
A YOUTHFUL ART
Ethereal sounds of music fills the hall, signaling all present to finish their conversations. Rehearsal starts so casually and effortlessly, we find ourselves wondering if we're still dreaming. One moment, Oleg is introducing us to his fellow soloist, Oleg Markov, "Oleg is playing Tchaikovsky on Sunday," he proudly exclaims; and in the next, Oleg dons a white gown as he lay dying on a bed in the center of a white room.
Tchaikovsky opens with its namesake wrestling with the decisions he's made during his life, whilst angels and demons fight for his soul. From downstage center, their teacher Olga Kalmykova, who has a surprisingly deep voice, holds a microphone and directs the ensemble. On occasion, she completely stops the run-through to make an adjustment. A clear intensity is present in the room but humor is not far away. Amid one scene, the entire gathering giggles at a large nutcracker that Oleg and a few others twirl about.
When not rehearsing, members of the cast sit on the sides of the room scrolling through phones or working on movements with partners. There's also a table in the corner for trainers to address any injuries or sore muscles. Perhaps our favorite detail we can plainly observe are sunburns on the backs of several dancers. We've been told that the company has been soaking up California sun during their off days at the beach!
"I love the city, the mountains and the landscape," says Oleg of Los Angeles. "However, the Ocean is what gives vibrancy to everything else." We inquire if there's something about the ocean that inspires him specifically, "Its power and how one feels among its particles."
"What about food?" we naively question. "Is there a food in LA that you like to eat?"
He smiles at the query then says, "Food is difficult for me. I like yogurt." Looking at his chiseled features we suddenly feel the need to examine our own eating habits. Oleg confides in us that he tries to be a vegetarian but others frequently give him a hard time.
"How can you not eat meat?" they interrogate. "You're a premier Russian dancer. You need protein!" Oleg shakes his head with a look of, 'What can you do?'. We cheekily respond, "Where does a horse get his protein from?" Everyone twitters.
As an art form, ballet has taken beloved roots in nearly every corner of our world. Yet it's no secret that ballet, or at least how ballet is portrayed, seems archaic to much of humanity's youth who'd quicker spend their cash on a Kendrick Lamar concert than Swan Lake.
"I'm optimistic about ballet," says Oleg when asked about young people. "I want to believe that the modern audience is not that disconnected from dance."
Ballet's continued legacy is a subject that Oleg has been recognized as an authority on. In 2014, he received the Russian Federation Presidential Prize for Young Cultural Professionals. President Vladimir Putin himself awarded Oleg for, "Developing Russia's choreographic traditions and popularizing Russia's classical ballet heritage."
His belief is that the world is in love with dance and all the evidence you need is made quite obvious within popular culture itself. "Once they discover how joyful movement is, then they can understand some of the finer forms of dance art," Oleg states emphatically. "I also think that other types of dancers, such as street dancers, will find something important for themselves when they watch our production," he comments. "Because movement is life."
"It's a special feeling being on tour– it's inspiring for me," Gabyshev says of what it means to represent his country abroad. "The most exciting element is meeting new people and seeing different sides of human nature."
Certainly this is an interesting time for any Russian to visit the United States. Congress recently approved greater economic sanctions, the Trump Administration ordered the closure of a Kremlin consulate in San Fransisco and the New York Times is publishing Op-Ed pieces entitled, A Much Bigger Problem Than Putin. We can only imagine how vulnerable it must feel to bear your heart on an American stage amidst such anti-Russian hostility.
"It can be difficult for one culture to understand what another culture is trying to communicate," admits Oleg. "The most important thing is to be honest and sincere with yourself, then one can communicate clearly because it comes from a place of honesty."
We rally, "What would you like our people to know about your people? Beyond what the propaganda tells us..." The word 'propaganda' completely changes his tone.
"Propaganda tries to manipulate people. The average Russian on the street is very different than what is being portrayed. We're a generous and open people," he declares with conviction. "It's not about making distinctions between people based on their nation– good and bad people exist everywhere. It's about being open and embracing humanity's wide range of diversity." We couldn't agree with him more.
Nevertheless, we're grateful that American cultural epicenters, such as the famed Music Center, continue to invite peace and understanding through the universality of Art. And according to Oleg, the people of Los Angeles also agree with us.
"LA was the warmest and most supportive audience we experienced while on tour," Gabyshev divulged during our photoshoot at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. "The audience applauded every little thing we did and there was a standing ovation each night. We're really surprised. It's a great feeling!" No surprise here. The City of Angels knows real talent.
Oleg Gabyshev, Soloist
Oleg revealed something profound before rehearsal began that we want to share with our readers. "There's a ballet we do called Up & Down. It tells the story of the ascension and dissension of the human soul. How quickly humans can plummet to their doom but how slow and strong is the rising of the soul."
"Is the raising of the soul important to you?"
"Yes," he replies with a childlike grin. "We have to try, every day."