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Back in the good ol' days of the Cold War, occasional visits by then-Soviet and Eastern Bloc artists and ensembles were very big deals. Ed Sullivan actually devoted an entire program to Igor Moiseyev's celebrated dance company (which finally performed in the Triangle several seasons ago), and tours by the then-Leningrad Philharmonic (which appeared on the old Friends of the College series in company with David Oistrakh) and other outstanding groups were, at the time, revelatory, never mind their importance as cultural (and peace) ambassadors.
Now, much has changed. The Russian Federation is probably in worse shape than we Amerikanskis are, so state subsidy of cultural exchange programs is a thing of the past. There are still lots of former Soviet artists and groups plying American waters, but one gets the impression--rightly or wrongly--that it's dollars that they're seeking, more than goodwill. (The visitors under discussion have indeed been making the rounds of late--they were in Supply, in Brunswick County, in early March!) No matter. The best of the "new" Russian ensembles have at least been molded to the same high standards that their predecessors exemplified, and they still put on quite a show.
This was evident in Durham, at the Carolina Theatre, on the evening of March 27, when the Red Star Red Army Chorus and Dance Ensemble, said to have been "created from the USSR Strategic Missile Forces in January 1977," took the stage under the leadership of its long-term Artistic Director, Colonel Anatoly Bazhalkin. The group bears some superficial resemblance to the great Red Army Chorus of old. The men still wear those high-top combination covers, although the women sport garrison caps. Aside from the Colonel, none of the artists' uniforms bore rank or rating badges, and no one wore ribbons or medals of any kind.
The chorus--of around 30 singers--is, vocally, strong. The dancers-younger, for the most part, and leaner, too, than the singers-still do those amazing leaps and twists and turns and other contortions that astonished audiences here in the '50s and '60s. There were, indeed, some steps that were new to us: for example, at one point some of the ladies resembled children's spinning tops, only gradually rising from their rotating, crouching positions to resume standard two-legged dancing. The small instrumental ensemble of 17 or 18 souls included half a dozen fiddlers, two accordion players, some winds and brasses, and a drummer, augmented from time to time by folk instrumentalists.
The repertoire was mostly familiar. After the national anthems (the "Internationale" is out, a casualty of the fall of Communism; it has been replaced by a tune by Glinka--uncredited in the program), a fine parade of composed works and folksongs, ranging from "Meadowland" to "Moscow Night" to the "Gypsy" romance, " Ochi Chornye," delighted the large crowd. Staples of various ethnic groups, some with military overtones-"The Evening Bell," "Kalinka," "My Living Love," "Stable The Horses," "Behind An Island," and "Korobeiniki"-provided further pleasures. The obligatory nod to the host country came with a lovely rendition of " Shenandoah" that, despite some unidiomatic pronunciation, was distinguished by the choir's superior diction--it was better, by far, than many domestic ensembles'!
The word "Chorus" precedes "Dance" in the company's name, but most of our area calendars listed this program in their dance sections, and it was the dancers that seemed to attract the most attention. The first part of the program included various Cossack routines and other dances that were, till just before intermission, presented in somewhat drab and dreary attire. With a brilliantly-costumed Russian Dance (the men wore pink tunics and the women, predominantly orange dresses), however, things picked up considerably. There was more color in the second part of the program with a Hopak, a version of the Russian Sailors' Dance (in which this Army crowd appeared in the wrong uniforms!), and an extended, danced and sung version of "Holiday on the Don," which served as the grand finale. The encores, both given by the chorus alone, were "Memories," from Cats, and a profoundly moving, heartfelt rendition of "God Bless America" that opened the tear floodgates of more than a few attendees.
The crowd seemed to relish the entire show, which was (mercifully) given without any amplification (although with the choir at the back of the stage-to leave room for the dancers-there were times when a bit of an electronic boost might have helped). Except for an extensive display in the lobby (where paintings and drawings by school children from Kostroma, Durham's sister city, decorated the walls), "Art" in its purest sense was in comparatively short supply--the musical heritage of the many peoples we tend (mistakenly) to call Russians is rich, and only small slivers of it were revealed on this occasion. The vocal soloists were excellent, and a couple of them could easily make careers in opera, were they so inclined. The domra soloist did some wonderful things in her "Russian Melodies" offering; a balalaika was mentioned in the program notes but went unseen, making us wonder what other unannounced changes were made along the way. The dancers left many in attendance amazed and astounded. I must confess that when I was kid, I wanted to be able to do some of those things when I grew up, but when I did, I couldn't. Like some of the choristers, I'd find it next to impossible to manage any of those athletic steps--but I'm grateful for the chance to have seen some real pros do them and much, much more during this enjoyable evening.