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Moiseyev without the man himself

Email|Print| Text size + By Valerie Gladstone
Globe Correspondent / January 18, 2008

Ten men come whirling across the stage to a rousing folk tune, their shiny black boots catching the light as they rush into the open arms of partners in embroidered white dresses. Grasping the smiling women by their waists, they spin in spiraling circles, and then as the music reaches a crescendo the men crouch down on their haunches and rapidly kick out one leg, then the other, their arms folded across their chests. The women move into a line behind them, sliding side to side in unison, a glorious frame for the exultant dance.

All this happens in the first five minutes of the electrifying "Summer," which the famous 70-year-old Moiseyev Dance Company will perform, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, at Symphony Hall on Sunday in a program that includes Russian, Egyptian, and Gypsy dances, plus a comic trick-wrestling solo and the great American hoedown "Turkey in the Straw." Though it's ostensibly a folk company, The New York Times critic John Martin aptly wrote after seeing the troupe's acclaimed 1958 New York debut, "No folk ever danced like this."

"There is only one Pushkin, there is only one Tchaikovsky, there is only one Dostoyevsky, and there is only one Igor Moiseyev," declares company director Elena Shcherbakova during a recent phone interview, unwavering in her belief in Moiseyev's artistic immortality.

Since the legendary choreographer died last fall at the age of 101, however, the company is continuing without him. "We will never change what he did," Shcherbakova says. "He choreographed 300 ballets, enough for another 100 years. He made art for the entire world, creating his own unique theatrical interpretation of Russia's folk dances and those of other countries like China, Argentina, and Spain. He wanted to enlarge the dance vocabulary as a means of emotional expression. He believed that with ballet technique as a base, you could do anything. We might invite a choreographer to do something for us, but it would have to be in our style."

When Shcherbakova, who danced with the company for 16 years, talks of the Moiseyev style, she refers to the very particular way of presenting dance that he developed over many years, a modernist in spite of artistic suppression during much of his career, when Socialist Realism was the prevailing style.

Starting out as a dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, Moiseyev left in 1924 to direct and produce his own more avant-garde work and was later appointed director of the Moscow Theater of Folk Art. Hoping to learn about his country's traditions, he took excursions into the Caucasus and Ural Mountains, and soon he was so enraptured by the local folk dances that he established the Moiseyev company in 1937.

"He invented a revolutionary synthesis of classical ballet and ethnic dance," Shcherbakova says. "But he didn't just copy folk dances; he studied the region or nation's music, history, traditions, and customs and then selected the details that most vividly reflected their character. Very often, people from other countries are astounded at how sensitively he captures their culture. In Egypt, the Egyptians couldn't believe how well we conveyed the essence of their style, nothing like the usual show-business interpretations. They were so flattered that the national company gave us costumes like their own."

To train dancers to be that versatile, Moiseyev established a school in Moscow in 1943, quite an accomplishment in the middle of World War II.

Nowadays 25 boys and 25 girls take rigorous five-year courses there, attending classes four hours a day after their regular school day. They study not only classical ballet and folk dance but also acrobatics, musical instruments, and stage acting. They apprentice with the company the last year, and the winnowing process begins.

"Igor wants them to have unusual stamina," Shcherbakova says, "the daring of an acrobat, the skill of a juggler, and the speed of a fencer." The troupe now boasts 200 members.

Many Russian youngsters dream of joining the Moiseyev. "My parents took me to performances from the time I was a little girl," says the soloist Natalia Matus-Marcuk. "I grew up with images from their dances. I learned about the world through them. It's challenging to be a member, to maintain the discipline, to be able to repeat everything 100, sometimes 200 times, until it's perfect. You have to keep in mind it brings satisfaction and a pleasant tiredness, especially when you and the audiences are happy with your performance."

On breaks from the company's intense touring schedule, Matus-Marcuk stays at home with her husband, a former company soloist, and her daughter, who aspires to be a Moiseyev dancer, too.

"I do love to watch classical ballet, like the Maryinsky, and modern companies such as Alvin Ailey whenever they perform [in Russia]," she says. "For me, they are the best. As a professional, it's hard not to be very critical. We have an academic company and training, and I see every mistake in lighting, costume, make-up. Moiseyev teaches you to see the harmony, or lack of it, in everything."

While many people may consider folk dance old-fashioned, Russians embrace the Moiseyev company.

"Young and old fill our theater in Moscow," Shcherbakova says. "We see generations together. You must understand, we are integral to Russian culture. All over Russia, the people love to dance and to see it performed. They keep us in their hearts."

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