National Ballet of Canada dazzles audiences on first-ever tour of Russia

It may be a country that gave rise to Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty, but Canada's top ballet dancers wowed a Moscow audience as it opened its first-ever tour of Russia with a program of contemporary dance.

"I loved it," said Elena Odours, who says she comes to the ballet often, after watching the opening performance.

"It was classic but the movements were very modern," added fellow audience member Pyotr Chernov. "The fact that we don't travel a lot is a good opportunity that a performance from Canada has come to Moscow."

Karolina Kuras/National Ballet of Canada

An almost-100-strong contingent of dancers and staff with the National Ballet of Canada arrived in Russia's capital over the weekend ahead of their first performance at the Stanislavsky Theatre on Monday night.

The trip comes at the invitation — and the sponsorship — of pre-eminent Russian ballerina Diana Vishneva, who hosts a festival called Context.

Russia is most famous for its classical ballet performances, but through her five-year-old festival, Vishneva is trying to expose Russian audiences to more contemporary themes, says the National Ballet's artistic director Karen Kain.

The Canadian company was a perfect fit.

Karolina Kuras/National Ballet of Canada

"The stars aligned. Diana is someone I trust a lot. And she has a very open mind about the value of contemporary dance and she's trying to share it," said Kain, who first visited the country as a young dancer in 1973. (She's been back many times since.)

"They are tremendous fans of the art form. It's great Diana has this vision of sharing where ballet is going, which is different from the Sleeping Beauties and Swan Lakes, which we all love. But she has a very special mission."

The National Ballet of Canada is performing three contemporary dances during its Russian tour: Being and Nothingness by Guillaume Côté, Emergence by Crystal Pite and Paz de la Jolla by Justin Peck.

Frosty politics

The tour comes at an unquestionable low point for political relations between Russia and Canada.

Diplomacy has been especially frosty since Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, when Western countries accused Vladimir Putin's government of waging a proxy war in eastern Ukraine.

Canada has slapped economic sanctions on many Russian officials and state-run industries, and earlier this year, expelled four Russian diplomats from the country. In hosting the G7 leaders' summit this past summer, the Trudeau government flatly rejected Donald Trump's calls to have Russia reinstated to the group of industrialized nations.

Russia has retaliated with its own measures; Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is among the Canadians that Russia says are unwelcome here.

Chris Brown/CBC

But Kain says politics aren't relevant to the National Ballet of Canada's visit here.

"I think arts transcend politics — and they have to be separate," she said. "We share this art form that we all love."

Discovering Canada

For Quebec-born principal dancer Guillaume Côté, who choreographed Being and Nothingness, having the entire Canadian company in Russia for the time speaks to the interest in Canadian dance internationally.

"I think this is really telling to how advanced the culture is in Canada," he said.

"Russia has been a really wonderful centre of classical dance for a long time. But now they are discovering contemporary dance and developing it in a new way. To be here with the entire National Ballet and representing contemporary dance in Canada is very special."

Karolina Kuras/National Ballet of Canada

Côté's Being in Nothingness is an exploration of the work of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and features dancers in domestic settings: a couple on a bed, a single dancer near a sink, and another couple having an animated discussion in a living room.

Côté specially created the lead role for Greta Hodgkinson, an American-born dancer who has been with the National Ballet for 28 years, 22 of them as principal dancer.

"I feel like I am bringing something deeply personal to the stage," she said. "We are here as Canadian ambassadors representing our country, but we come displaying our art form."

Chris Brown/CBC

Russian audiences appreciate ballet like few other countries, and on the stage, political differences aren't important, says Côté, who has danced in Russia on several occasions at the invitation of Russian dance companies.

"Every time I come, I see a new hunger for something new and dynamic, contemporary and change," he said.

'Fascinating' culture

For first soloist Tanya Howard, dancing before a sold-out Russian audience in the heart of Moscow is akin to playing for the NHL's Stanley Cup.

"Wrapping your head around something like this is incredible," she said. "It's indescribable. They have such as reverence and such a respect for the art form and its purity.… This is what you dream of doing."

Aleksandar Antonijevic/National Ballet of Canada

First soloist Chelsy Meiss, who joined four others to pose in front of Moscow's famed Red Square in their stage dress, said she "never dreamed" she would one day be performing in the influential Russian city.

"Oh my gosh, [it is] absolutely fascinating," she said. "You are literally a part of a different culture and a different history."

The National Ballet will hold another performance in Moscow on Tuesday evening, before moving to St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre for a final performance on Friday.

Chris Brown/CBC