By Carrie Stern
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Step off the subway in Brighton Beach or Sheepshead Bay and, without the 10-and-a-half hour flight to Moscow or Odessa, it’s all there — food, clothing and culture — transported from the other side of the ocean and remade on the Brooklyn beach.
My first experience with Russian dance, à la Brooklyn, was in a restaurant on the Brighton Beach Boardwalk, where I was eating, drinking and, as it turned out, taking in a floorshow. The show was replete with floating gowns and shiny trousers, feathered headdresses and barely there costumes, disco pyro-techniques and smooth waltzes.
The dancers, many of who were also professional ballet or ballroom performers, were members of the flourishing Brighton Beach dance community. Ballet, hip hop, ballroom and folk dance can be found throughout this expansive Brooklyn neighborhood in specialized dance schools, community centers and public schools for people of all ages. Recently, Brighton has seen a remarkable number of its students become youth and junior ballroom champions.
Russia has a long dance history, and these homegrown companies and schools are outgrowths of a vast dance and music heritage developed under the former Soviet Union. The Bolshoi Theater dates from 1776, when Catherine the Great granted Prince Pyotr Urusov the “‘privilege’ of organizing theatre performances, masquerades, balls and other forms of entertainment,” according to the Bolshoi’s website [www.bolshoi.ru]. A ballet school founded in a Moscow orphanage three years earlier became the Bolshoi Ballet. In St. Petersburg, the Imperial Theatre School, founded in 1738 in the Winter Palace, became the Kirov (today Mariinsky) Ballet in the 1740s. Agrippina Vaganova (1879-1951) contributed a distinct style of Russian ballet training now taught worldwide.
But nothing is closer to the hearts of Eastern European émigrés than the large national folk ensemble, the Soviet Union’s unique contribution to dance performance. Found in all the countries of the former Soviet Union and its satellites, these companies were created as visible representations of nation-building. Government-employed folklorists would tour local social dance events — Saturday night town dances, weddings, the like — to learn from local dance leaders. Then, using the rhythms and basic footwork of traditional dances and ballet technique, classically trained choreographers would rework the dances into highly structured performance pieces, which would be performed by ballet-trained dancers.
Despite the creation of new national entities after World War II, the folk companies continue to tour. Among immigrant communities in the U.S. they occupy a beloved place, representing a bit of a former life. During the Moiseyev Dance Company’s 2008 tour at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College, men and women in the audience had tears in their eyes as they watched the company perform.
This year, the newer but equally well-known Red Star/Red Army Chorus and Dance Ensemble arrives at the Brooklyn Center. Founded in 1977 in Moscow, the ensemble originally performed exclusively for the armed services. In 1989 the ensemble began to participate in arts festivals throughout Russia, and then in concert halls in Moscow, eventually touring to Europe, North America and Southeast Asiaa. This is the ensemble’s fifth trip to the United States. This tour commemorates the 20th anniversary of their first tour here in 1992. They have performed at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and in more than three dozen U.S. cities.
The ensemble’s musical repertoire combines classic works by composers such as Bach and Mussorgsky; Russian patriotic, traditional and spirtual music; music that honors the places the company tours; and even pop music and jazz, all shaped by Colonel Nikolai N. Rabovsky, artistic director and conductor. An Azerbaijani native, Rabovsky was accepted at 8 into the Choral School in Moscow followed by conductors’ training at the Gnesin Conservatory. Rabovsky spent his military service as choral conductor of the Local Army Division Ensemble of Song & Dance. After 10 years, in 1981, he left the army to become an assistant conductor of the Red Star/Red Army Chorus and Dance Ensemble; in 2009 he was promoted chief conductor with the rank of colonel. The company is a family, Rabovsky has said, a delight to work with.
The dance group is led by the Honored Artist of Russia, choreographer Marina B. Yashchenko, who, along with other known Russian choreographers, creates all the dances. Dancers are drawn from dance schools, the company’s youth academy and from within the armed forces active service. Featured dances include favorites such as the Cossacks’ Dance and the Ukrainian Hopak Dance, as well as other traditional folk and military pieces. Colorful, detailed costumes, changed for every number, are a huge part of the charm of all national companies.
In an interview with the blog Odintsovo, Colonel Rabovsky was asked about the company’s popularity. He said, our songs have “sprit and emotion. The show is rollicking, dashing, our repertoire huge, and music does not need translation. And our former compatriots, some want to say, thank you, some just cry. At such moments, you realize that you give people pleasure.”
Red Star/Red Army Chorus and Dance Ensemble performs at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College on Saturday, March 31, at 8 p.m. in the Walt Whitman Theatre. For tickets visit BrooklynCenterOnline.org.