It is the 1950's; I am looking at a dance magazine and a simple drawing catches my eye. It looks like a huge box with a smaller box inside it. It depicts the stage of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden as the small box; the larger box is the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, and it is drawn to scale. I had been to the Opera House many times and had always thought the stage spacious, but this theatre in St. Petersburg wsa clearly in a different league. (On seeing the Opera House stage for the first time, Nureyef is reputed to have said "but it's so small" – after the Mariinsky I expect it was. Still in the 1980's I buy a book entitled "Ballet". It is a pictorial history of ballet dating from the 1890's. Part way through the book, the dancers seem to come alive, the seem to leave the page, they show joy, pathos, beautfiul alignment, beautiful extensions. One in particular seems to be inflight; it is Galina Ulanova in "Le Lac des Cygnes". There is a picture of a theatre – the Mariinsky.
Some 40 years later I have the opportunity to go to St. Petersburg with a group organised by a former Artiste of the Republic. There was a meeting for interested travellers and a chance to discuss what we would like to see. Others in the group opted for the Hermitage Museum, Peterhof, Queen Catherine Palace; I asked to see the Kirov Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, stressing that I would be glad to follow the choices of the group throughout, emphasizing my one evening at the Mariinsky as my only condition. This was accepted; we paid our deposits and subsequently the full amount. Visas were applied for and arrived and eventually we all met at Heathrow as the starting point of our Russian adventure. Within 2 hours of our arrival we were descending rapidly downwards on one long escalator and into the Hermitage – a wonderful museum with no barriers between pictures and public, – not even a cord. Next morning our guide took us to a ticket agency. Why would that be? Didn’t we have tickets? No, we didn’t. The Kirov were dancing “Don Quixote” on the Tuesday and “Le Lac des Cygnes” on the Thursday; tickets were available for Tuesday only, but our guide said such was her influence she could obtain tickets for Thursday and I opted for “Lac”. It seemed Thursday was a special evening, even a last minute phone call to the distinguished conductor failed to get us seats (Princess Margaret was given seats at the Opera House on the night of the performance. Members of the public were asked to move for her and her entourage. Maybe the Czar and Czarina could have been found a box at the Mariinsky – but not our guide – nothing). At the end of the week, we left. I had seen the Hermitage, Peterhof, St. Isaacs Cathedral, the Mussorgsky Theeatre, Queen Catherine’s Palace, travelled by metro and train. We visited the former house of a ballerina who was the Czar’s mistress and which is now a ballet museum. I could have stayed there all day, but were my companions interested in Preobajenska’s pointe shoes with part cut away to give space for her tormented feet? Understandably they were not. The day before our flight home we board a train and arrive at the Maryinsky. We have permission to go into the theatre. There are 4 or 5 people inside, we see the interior, the Czar’s box and the stage. The curtains are drawn back, the stage is completely empty, it is VAST; room for 32 swans in full flight. My mind goes back to that drawing in Dance magazine – at last I have seen what sent me on my journey. Next day our visas are rendered unusable, – we fly home.
And so we come 15 years later. We have tickets for the Mariinsky; we are going to see La Sylphide; the taxi is at the airport, we go straight to the theatre to check our tickets; they are there. So are posters of ballets and reading material they have put together for me. Knowing passion when they see it, they even opened the shop. And the ballet was lovely – delicate, innocent – an incredibly young and gifted cast and conductor. So my quest ended, from those drawings in a magazine, to sit in that sumptuous theatre, see the Czar’s box, and to be surrounded by an audience who knew what they were seeing. Not all were expensively dressed, some wore clothes which were definitely for special occasions, but we had one thing which united us, – we knew. “You Rusky?” said the man next to us. “English”, – we said.