Popular Dance Ensemble Dazzles Muscat

Popular Dances leave Muscat audience breathless with their technical brilliance and exuberant virtuosity. The Igor Moiseyev State Academy Ensemble of Popular Dance is reputed to be the ‘greatest traditional dance company of our time’, and audiences at the Royal Opera House Muscat last weekend were left in little doubt about that claim. It is incredible to see how superb choreographers can create and innovate new forms of dance out of established styles, even when it is believed there can be no further permutations of those familiar steps.
But Igor Moiseyev was no ordinary visionary; he was hailed as the most outstanding ballet-master and greatest choreographer of the 20th century who changed the course of folk dance by transforming it. He created the first professional ensemble of folk dance in 1937 — the only one in the world. Born in 1906, Moiseyev lived to an impressive 101 years old and the Ensemble he founded has just celebrated its 80th anniversary! On his recommendation, Elena Shcherbakova became the director of the company in 1994, is the current Artistic Director and was present at both performances. Muscat audiences were in for a special treat then, and could marvel at his merging of populist folk dances with the rigorous technical demands of ‘academic dancing’ in a show which incorporated the traditional with the modern in a wide emotional range, from pastiche to melodrama.
The opening piece of this weekend’s anniversary Gala was a Russian wedding dance, “Summer” portrayed in front of a huge photographic projection of a lush green orchard. Based on a traditional folk dance, what captivated and entranced was the sheer precision of the corps de ballet. It was truly mesmerising and featured Alexander Tikhonov as the groom opposite Evgenia Pankova’s rustic bride. It set the bar high for the consummate professionalism and effortless synchronisation yet to come — and the promise did not fail.
The influence of fast Cossack and other athletic dance styles of the region were rarely far from the surface, such as in the energetic virtuoso “Kalmyk Dance”, involving a male trio dressed in black, leaping high as seen on the programme cover, and shimmering their arms to a solo accordion.
In contrast, the “Tatarochka” was light and amusing, danced by Olga Volina in peasant dress between two male dancers. The “Suite of Moldovan Dances” opened with ‘Hora’, a slow ladies’ dance in sparkling Moldovan costumes accompanied by Alexey Upryamov on solo fiddle on stage. It was followed by the trio of ‘Chiokyrlia’ which gradually expanded as the men joined in, until the fiddle player found himself surrounded. Then suddenly the male chorus took over in ‘Zhok’, a fast Khachaturian-like Sabre Dance, spinning breathlessly out of control.
A change in mood saw the delightful parody of 19th century life in “Old City Quadrille” in which four couples flirt, swap partners and reject suitors in a caricatured burlesque of, presumably Parisian — or St. Petersburg — Society. The dresses were engaging and the gestures more so. Seven musicians — 4 accordions, 2 balalaikas and Evgeny Chernyshkov on tambourine — played on stage behind the dancers, and later joined them, dancing simultaneously.
The first part reached an hilarious climax in the spoof military choreographic picture, “Partizans” to a superb, lush score. Featuring the men of the company behind Evgeny Masalkov as a dubious Scout, they drifted smoothly as if on wheels across the stage, draped in thick black cloaks, only to return on foot with various unlikely weapons as less convincing conscripts or cavalry. There were dramatic knee-spins and unbelievable tip-toes from a male soloist, bringing cheers of amazement. But how DO they do it? The secret was not disclosed, and simply led to animated debates during the interval.
Part 2 moved away from Russia and opened with Igor Moiseyev’s 1930s choreographic drama of a football match. It was brilliantly performed as a stylised ballet, complete with Oleg Chernasov as the long-suffering Goalie, Konstantin Kostylev as a much-maligned Main Referee and Akhra Tania as a parody of a Policeman among other comic characters. What came over throughout the show was the sheer joy and exuberance of the performers, and here especially, what fun they were having.
“The Dance of the Bessarabian Gypsies” was sensuous and captivating, accompanied by solo accordion it presented Alsu Gayfullina as an impossibly flexible Carmen-character who could beguile any man at a blink. The three ladies’ costumes were colourful and flowing, capturing the mood of a romanticised image of the gypsy campfire in 19th century Moldova. It built up in a stirring crescendo with stamping, clapping and thigh-slapping to a furioso climax.
Most sensual of all was the “Pavel Cherkasov Suite of Mexican Dances, Sapateo and Avalulko”. The 8 couples were dressed in pure white, with some stunning tap-dancing from male soloists, Ayrat Karimov and Kirill Kochubey. The piece was set to a rhythmic score, with trumpet solos reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s ‘El Salon Mexico’, in front of an Aztec image.
Accompanying all the pieces was the 30-strong Symphony Orchestra, including folk instruments, under the capable hands of the 73-year old Ukrainian, Anatoly Gus, who has been chief conductor since 1974 and composed or arranged all of the works heard.
The high point of the programme for most was “The Dance of the Argentine Cowboys,” ‘Gaucho’, a tour-de-force of foxy foot work and high flings danced by soloist, Alexander Tikhonov with Andrey Artamonov and Evgeny Chernyshkov.
A solo Uzbek “Platter Dance” was executed skilfully in almost acrobatic vein by Ramil Mekhdiev, wriggling the platter up and down his back after a comic eating mime, much to everyone’s amusement. The lone performer was in stark contrast to the final 24 male dancers, dressed as sailors, who moved on with military precision.
In front of a seascape projection, they mimicked the waves, flung their legs high and wide and created the illusion of a single movement of effortless synchronisation by their communal focus and discipline. It was so good they did it twice, and, joined by 7 ladies in a faux-Arabic belly-dance, or ‘Raqs Shaqi’ especially for Oman, the Finale brought the house to its feet as the red curtain veiled our ingenious visitors. These spectacular dances presented a picturesque encyclopaedia of history, as a living chronicle preserving the past. They have become Classics, relevant and accessible to audiences around the world — and Oman is blessed to be included among them.

Georgina Benison