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The Arts: Russian ballet at its most classic comes to Washington

Sunday, March 23, 2003

By Dave Zuchowski

Ah, the wonders of the modern world. To write an article about a Russian ballet company from St. Petersburg, I scoured the Internet and accessed Web sites as far away as England and Russia. I talked to the producer traveling by van through the mountains of North Carolina (on his cell phone), then e-mailed and phoned his wife in Texas for more information. Thousands of miles of research, all done from an easy chair in my office.

This Tuesday, patrons of the arts likewise can sit back in comfortable seats in the Olin Fine Arts Center and help celebrate the 300th birthday of St. Petersburg, Russia, by catching a performance of one of that city's most-renowned art forms -- classic Russian ballet.

Although Czar Peter the Great founded his civic namesake on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea in 1703, the company that bears its name dates only to 1996. Even so, the St. Petersburg Classic Ballet was able to dip into the talent pool and attract a select group of some of the finest ballet artists from established companies such as the Kirov and the Maly.

The company's artistic director, Marina Medvertskaya, held the position of prima ballerina of the Tbilisi State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, where she danced all the leading roles in classic and contemporary works. As leader of the SPCB, she's seen to it that the company's repertoire includes a mix of the best of the Russian tradition and newer, contemporary works from her country and the rest of the world.

Ballets by such classic masters as Petipa, Ivanov, Bournonville, Vaganova and others are supplemented by new works created by non-Russians such as American Peggy Willis-Aarnio, whose "Beethoven -- A Classic Inspiration" is getting its world premiere performances on the company's current tour of the U.S.

"Soon after earning a BFA and an MFA from Texas Christian University in 1972, Peggy began a 'voyage of discovery' when she realized that the Russian dancers she saw on film were far and away better than their American counterparts," said her husband, Paul Aarnio, from his cell phone in the Carolinas.

"These Russian-trained dancers, who excelled in technical precision and strength, in the number of turns they could make and in the height of their jumps, inspired Peggy to study in New York with John Barker, a dancer who spent four or five years immersed in Russian ballet and went on to translate into English the Russian text 'School of Classical Dance.' "

Eventually Willis-Aarnio's voyage of discovery landed her in Russia, where she studied at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg and became the first American to be certified as a teacher of the teachers of classical Russian ballet.

A former soloist with the Fort Worth Ballet and now professor and head of the dance program at Texas Tech, Willis-Aarnio has choreographed more then 60 original works, including "Dracula -- the Ballet," which was broadcast to more than 70 percent of the PBS affiliates nationwide in 1982.

For the past seven years, she's also researched and written the first English biography of the life and achievements of Agrippina Vaganova, the great Russian pedagogue and choreographer. The book, titled "Agrippina Vaganova (1879-1951), Her Place in the History of Ballet and Her Impact on the Future of Classical Dance," has been well-received by the critics and dance community.

Willis-Aarnio's knowledge of classical Russian ballet is so highly thought of that she's also been asked to choreograph for several established Russian companies four new major works including "Beethoven -- A Classical Inspiration," which will be included on the Olin program.

The ballet's W & J appearance will also feature "Pas de Trois" from "Pakhita," "Ocean and Two Pearls" from "The Little Humpbacked Horse," "Russian Dance" from "Swan Lake," "Pas d'Esclave" from "Le Corsair," "Grand Pas Classique," "The Dying Swan" from Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals," and "Gopak" from "Taras Bulba."

As to her newest work, based on the music of the great German composer, Willis-Aarnio said she's been listening to Beethoven's music all her life and has been waiting to meet the right group of dancers who have a love for their art and the discipline to do the music justice.

"Choreography is my gift, and when SPCB asked me to choreograph something for them, I suggested 'The Emperor's Concerto'," she said. "They seemed thrilled with the idea."

After she finished the piece, the ballet was so excited with the end result that they plan to enter it into an international choreographic competition in the near future.

"It took the company three months of rehearsal to be able to perform it without stopping," she said. "It's a 41-minute tour de force work, and I guarantee that very few companies in the world would be able to perform it. I'm thrilled with not only their execution of the choreography but with their love and devotion to the art of classical ballet."

The St. Petersburg Classical Ballet will perform in the Olin Fine Arts Center at Washington and Jefferson College at 8 p.m. Tuesday. The performance is sold out, but there is a waiting list. Call 724-223-6546.

Dave Zuchowski is a freelance writer who covers arts and entertainment for Washington Sunday. He can be reached by e-mail at: owlscribe@yahoo.com.

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