Beauty of the Odessa Ballet

I wouldn’t have felt that I’d been to Russia or the Ukraine unless I had attended a ballet.  There is truth behind the remark,  “Those Russians can dance ballet!”

Holland’s Black Sea cruise offered an afternoon at the ballet in Odessa, Ukraine, the best priced excursion on the entire cruise.  For less than $70 a person, we were provided with not only a great tour of the opera house, but two stellar performances, a champagne intermission, and a brief bus tour of the old city parts of Odessa on our return to the ship.  I would not have missed this treat for all the caviar in Russia.

Odessa Ballet Company. Photograph: John McCutcheon

On board the ship that morning my appetite was further whetted.  We joined a lady and her taciturn husband for breakfast.  I plowed ahead with my usual onslaught of questions: “Where are you from?”

” Oh, your native language isn’t English.”

“Where are you from originally?”

“How long have you lived in the US?”

(If it didn’t require poison, torture, sleep deprivation, and eye ball pulling, I could put the KGB to shame.  But the first second I had to poke out an eyeball, I’d be sniveling in the corner making myself the next KGB target.)

Since the husband could hardly open his lips to sip his coffee, I wormed every tidbit I could from the wife, who provided that her husband was from South Africa and that they now lived in southern California.  Oh, and get this: his name was “Buddy.”  I thought- yep, probably a Boer.  This was her first time she had returned, 31 years ago, to her birthplace.  Natasha had been provided an escape from communism when the USSR was trying to negotiate favorable trade agreements with the Carter administration.

President Carter threw some human rights issues into the deal making.  The former USSR was able to dump some of its “undesirables.”   Natasha labeled herself a ” persona non grata.”  She landed in New York at the age of 19, penniless, jobless, unable to speak English, and without a friend or relative in the United States.

“I was very young and foolish.  Now I could not do it.  But I did not look far into the future: I wanted only to leave.”  I applaud her bravery.  I would not have had that kind of courage at that tender age.   She has become my “heroine.”

Her parting remark was, “Be certain to climb the Potemkin Steps to visit my beautiful city.  It is spread before you as you reach the top of the steps.”

Forewarned that brutal weather had hit the coast, we raced to our stateroom and donned practically every item we had packed.  I’d have worn heavier makeup if I had thought it would have provided better insulation.

It wasn’t enough.

John’s cold had just begun to attack his throat, head, and joints.  The wind from the Black Sea literally forced us toward the Potemkin Steps.  Swept ahead, we got close enough to get a panoramic picture of the steps, but the weather was so raw, so bitter, it was unbearable.

Unable to stand erect and weeping as if I just been dumped by a lover, we turned toward the ship.  I got a quick look at myself once on board.  There isn’t a female raccoon alive that could have been my rival.  I was bunched up in all those clothes, still humped over; mascara caked half way down my face – what a charmer I was.

After poking a couple of Dayquils down John’s throat, we decided to wait for the bus to the ballet.

Odessa Opera House. Photograph: John McCutcheon

The Odessa Opera House rivals any I’ve visited in western Europe.  Recently re-gilded, Louis XIV style replicates much of the Vienna Opera House.  Curlycues standing in gold relief on medallions grace every surface.  The value of the chandeliers alone must represent a nice portion of Odessa’s coffers.  The grand staircases were enough to reduce our tour group to “ohs” and “ahhs.”  It simply has to be seen to be believed.

Allowed to sit wherever, I practically jumped over the gilded railing to sit in a box seat.  There are back doors to these boxes but I forgot to note the number.  Oh well, I wasn’t born in Durant, Oklahoma, for nothing.  Most of my other experiences at ballets and operas have been in the oxygen deprived third or fourth balconies while standing up in 100 degree heat. I felt I had hit the mother lode just being able to sit in a red velvet cushioned and gilded arm chair.

I can’t imagine the cost of the stage curtain.  Again another incredible sight.  I’ve always been impressed with Radio City Music Hall’s curtain and still am; this one, too, is simply breath-taking in its own right.  It’s an enormous sheet of blood red velvet heavily embroidered with thick gold braid again in the Louis XVI style.

We were treated to two one act performances.  The first Chopiniana is a traditional ballet and the brainchild of Mikhail Fokin, a renowned Russian ballet-master.  At the time Fokin created this ballet, Anna Pavlova’s fame and ballet company were sweeping across Europe.  Fokin wrote, “Unless she had so admirably performed Chopin’s waltz – I would never come to the idea of this ballet.”  The delicate flutterings of the ballerinas accompanied by their thumping of wood toe shoes did distract a bit at first from the orchestra; but after a few moments, one can completely block it out.  This ballet is a perfect balance of dancing images paired with Chopin’s musical images. Our ears absorbed the joyful bursts of music completely as we felt the music waver downward through our entire bodies.  The ballerinas’ movements were as blithe and delicate as the wisps of a breeze.

After a champagne intermission, I finally opened the correct door to our box and settled in for the second performance.

I’m a bit reluctant to confess my ignorance that Carmen Suite is comparable to a bullfight: her struggle for freedom brings her to her death.  I thought she was just a flirtatious girl with many lovers.  One of whom becomes so jealous that when she rejects him, he kills her.  In spite of my inability to see the parallel to bull fighting, we both appreciated the perfect balance of traditional ballet blended with modern dance.

The backstage and sides were spaced with huge very, very high-backed black chairs.  All but one of the dancers were costumed in reds and blacks.  Carmen was played by a petite black haired prima ballerina who was eye candy; watching her lithe light moves and her expansive strong ones made us wonder at the years of training and love she pours into her dance.  This performance wrapped up the afternoon with vitality and drama.

Drama easily matched the bitter cold as we left the opera house.  I expected it to snow immediately.  Gray and windy weather cut right through every layer of inappropriate clothing.

A brief tour of the old city led us back to the ship, but blocks of old Odessa are in a sad state even though the architecture is rich.  One building after another reflects the opulence of Italianate, art nouveau, baroque, and Mediterranean architecture.  I hope that Odessa’s populace has the hryvnia to fund the refurbishing of these fading beauties.

Tip: Ukrainians wear their wedding bands on their right hands.





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