We were thirsty. Dancing for so long is thirsty work, and there was nothing at all to be had at the dance hall. I was chatting with some Austrians, who suggested we go to the bar. What bar? I responded. Over by the dining hall, apparently, and several of us went off in search of replenishing fluids (read: vodka and beer). We arrived to find our two musicians, our dance teacher and her husband (also a musician: he pipes) and our lone male dancer, Chris, who does not dance, despite the fact that he is, you know, a dancer (we joke: he’s too emo to dance!) enjoying much beer and wine at one of the tiny tables in the bar. “How did you find us?!” exclaimed our teacher. An accordion player – a musician for Austria, I think, though he could just as easily have been with the Germans – was playing polka after polka in the corner near the largest, though admittedly very small, section of open floor. Austrians and Germans were spinning around, doing what they all do so well (is polka taught at length to school children?) I grabbed one of our dancers, a Franco-Ontarian named Sophie, and proceeded to two-step around the bar with her. An Austrian dancer named Christian came over and we danced several polkas together. We talked about how long it had taken our respective groups to arrive in Moscow, and about from where we both haled. Several of his teammates arrived, and Canadian girls and Austrian boys were redistributed to ensure as many people as wanted to dance could. I danced with another Austrian, named Stefan, and then called it a night, as I was utterly exhausted.
At our dorm, several of our dancers were making friends with the dancers from Italy, a company which featured some young dancers of similar ages to our girls, in their mid-teens. There appeared to be much vodka, much laughter, much noise, and general glee. I was intensely aware of just how jet-lagged I still was, and exactly how early I needed to be up the next day in order to braid my hair, do my make up, and prepare everything necessary before going off to our first big show in the Moscow centre, so I went to bed.
Our first performance! Up at 6 – how thankful was I for being accustomed to rising so early to go to work, thus allowing me to hop right into the shower without having to wait for anyone to get out – then hair and make-up and dressed, with costumes ready to go immediately after breakfast. Breakfast was….probably hot-dog-like sausages with cold canned peas. I believe this was the beginning of our long sojourn with various forms of pork for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Thanks heavens yogurt, bread and cheese were present for every meal, as well as tomato and cucumber pieces, and instant coffee or tea and bottled water. I have never so regularly craved water and roughage. To say I have no idea how the Russian dancers stay so thin and healthy looking on such a diet would be an understatement of massive proportions. Still, I avoided complaining, as that certainly wasn’t going to help anything and would only encourage the rest of the girls to be negative about things. And the yogurt was full-fat, so my calorie count certainly didn’t drop, much to my dismay (I came home weighing precisely as much as I did when I left. Boo).
We were on the bus by 8:30 and off to see a few sights of Moscow before our show. This was the day I forgot my camera, which is a shame. We drove to the highest point of the city, where the National University is located, and which Yuri, one of the organizers of the festival and our constant companion on our bus-outings, informed us was a traditional location for wedding portraits. True enough, we saw at least five wedding parties, complete with brides in various styles of dress, assembled or assembling in the misty Moscovite weather for their pictures. This hilltop is also the site of two ski-jump practice ramps. The jumpers wear standard-looking skis and gear, and a series of rollers carry them down and off the jump, where they land in a large patch of soft, inclined sand. One of the two jumpers we saw seemed quite irritated by the presence of so many international dancers, and also seemed to think quite highly of himself, walking with quite the swagger. Historically, elite athletes enjoyed certain advantages in Russia, and I imagine that may not have altered so entirely since the days of the CCCP.
Into the inner circles of the city. Moscow is built in a series of concentric circles, each more secure and exclusive than the last. We were allowed – and I am told we should feel honoured – to enter the very innermost circle, right next to Red Square, where our stage was located. As we drove into the city, Yuri mentioned that the weather was unpleasant, but that the government had promised, for this special holiday celebrating Mockba’s 860th birthday, to take away the clouds. We chuckled. Remember that; it’ll come up again.
We passed the headquarters for the Moscovite police force, on Petrovka Street, made famous – or infamous – by many cold-war era action films. Within moments, we had reached a spot further down Petrovka within easy sight of the large stage, which was set on the street, as the city centre was largely closed to traffic that day for the various performances happening on the many stages within blocks of one another. As we pulled up, Yuri mentions over the bus PA, “…and on your right you will see Bolshoi Theatre under construction”. I flipped. What?!! What?!! The Bolshoi??! It was within metres, just two lanes of street, away from my window. It was covered in scaffolding and swathed in the netting that surrounds all Moscow buildings undergoing construction, but it was the Bolshoi, and I was RIGHT THERE. And I was DANCING. I was excited, can you tell?
Off the bus, and into the fenced, military-guard-controlled backstage area. We deposited our bags and costumes, and then decided to make an attempt to visit Red Square for a photo op. Our tour guide and interpreter led us to the nearest entrance, where we waited, attempting to stay warm, to get through the heavily-guarded gate. After 15 minutes of standing around, we were finally informed that this entrance was only for military personnel (why our two Russian guides thought they could enter at this point, I do not know) and that we would only be able to gain entry by walking around the large building across the street, around the block, and in through the next entrance. So we walked, swiftly, as being late for our first performance would be very very bad. I was convinced, utterly convinced, that we would not have time for lunch, which we were all very desperately wanting by this point. We eventually got through the first security checkpoint, somehow circumnavigating the enormous crowd of waiting tourists and Russians, and made our way to the second checkpoint. At this point, we were informed that the Square was currently closed, something we later learned happens at several points daily, seemingly – from the state of the thronging internationals pressed against the fence – with little warning or schedule. We could, on no uncertain terms, not enter.
So we did the next best thing: we changed into our dance shoes, stripped off our sweaters and scarves, and assembled directly in front of the fence for a photo as close to Red Square as possible under the circumstances. We attracted quite a crowd, which wasn’t difficult considering the hoards of people who were already there, as we were obviously in costume and obviously not Russian (not only were we English-speaking, we don’t look Russian; our cheekbones are too round, and our eyes are too big, generally speaking). We took our pictures as best we could, and then bundled back up and hustled back to the staging area for our boxed lunches. They were hot, which was nice given the briskness of the day. They also featured a pork cutlet with mustard sauce, sliced tomato and cheese over pilaf. While I’m willing to bend the constraints of vegetarianism to include chicken – largely in an attempt to keep from starving while in Russia! – pork and beef are right out of the question. I believe one of the other Canadian dancers ate my pork, and I had the tomato, rice, bread and some yogurt I had stashed in my pocket earlier that day at breakfast.
Our show went well. We danced two sets, the first of which included a 180 second change on the part of five dancers, including myself, from white dress and overskirt, step shoes and tights to kilt, jacket, hose and highland ghillies. One of my sweetheart girls, Liz, was a fantastic help in getting me changed (we all had a spare dancer helping us) and we were all dressed and ready to go on with mere seconds to spare. As we performed our second dance in full kilt rig, I looked out past the crowd and shared a moment with the Bolshoi. As close as I am ever likely to get to the great theatre, and certainly while performing. It was bliss.
The Russian crowd was enthusiastic, though far less interactive than our Canadian and other international audiences generally are. Though not particularly responsive during our dancing, they were smiling and seemed to genuinely enjoy our performance, and applauded vigorously at the conclusion of every number. This was also the day that I discovered Russians’ love of wigs and various novelty headdresses. It was quite the sight from on stage.
Following our performance, the sun began to show itself, and the air warmed a little. Many of us sat or stood outside the small marquee tents erected as our change rooms, much to the dismay of our tour guide. She spoke no English, but was very sweet, and seemed genuinely concerned that we would be absolutely frozen in the Moscow chill. She repeatedly gestured to us to put on coats and hoods, as she herself was well bundled. It was impossible to explain to her that, despite the difference in current temperature in Ottawa and Moscow, the weather was truly quite similar to our own, and that we would be “enjoying” similar meteorological circumstances within a few short weeks back at home. Some time later, we changed into street clothes and returned to our bus, where we realised we had the best view of the stage. While the audience at street level was closer to the stage, we were far more elevated and could easily see the performers’ feet, which, as dancers, is what we most wanted to see. We were just across the street from the small park with a fountain outside the entrance to the Bolshoi, so several of us hopped off the bus and across to the park for a quick pic. We approached a young man, about late 20’s, and carefully asked, complete with emphatic arm gestures, for him to take our picture. “Sure, I can take your picture for you” he responded with perfect, fluent English with only a very slight European accent. “You speak English!” we four exclaimed delightedly, to which he responded, grinning, “Of course I speak English: I’m not Russian!” He told us that he was from Gdansk, Poland, and was staying in Moscow on an internship, though he had previously studied in Hamburg, Germany, as well. The topic of the weather in Moscow came up, somehow, when he said, ” Well, yeah, the government takes care of it.” Excuse me? “Yeah, they fly up into the atmosphere and drop chemicals to get rid of the clouds. If they didn’t, it would be grey and rainy year-round.” We stood there, jaws agape, and then practically shouted “That’s insane! We were told the government was promising to take the clouds away but we didn’t believe it!!” “Oh, yeah,” our Polish friend said, “the government is insane, but they are able to do it!” He took our picture by the fountain, and we thanked him. I would have enjoyed talking to him for a while longer, as he had a decidedly realistic view of the country in which we were staying and was quite well-spoken and very very nice, but we had promised to return to the bus directly, and so we scampered back, excited to relay our new knowledge of Russian weather control to the rest of the dancers. They were suitably shocked and entirely entertained.
Then back to the compound for a dinner of – you guessed it – pork and mashed potatoes, and some discotheque action. The bar wasn’t nearly as swinging on this night, and some of us ended up hanging around for a while in the room of our two musicians, Dave and Darryl, and our lone male dancer, Chris, before returning to the dorm for some sleep. By this point, I was rapidly becoming very very ill, with a fever, deep chest and sinus congestion, headache, and a terribly sore throat which was threatening to become laryngitis, so I went to bed much earlier than most other girls.
I awoke to sound of very loud drums and much shouting coming from the lobby of our dormitory. I attempted to go back to sleep, but the volume was truly incredible. When my dance teacher walked into my room and told me I should get out of bed and join the party I was, not unreasonably, I think, not entirely impressed. I’m sick, I told her, and I would really like to dance well tomorrow, and I just don’t think that will be possible if I don’t get enough sleep. But this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the sort of spontaneous celebration that can only happen at a large gathering of dancers, and she said as much. After five minutes of steaming in bed, I agreed, and threw on some comfy pants, shoes and a sweater.
The scene in the lobby was entirely chaotic, and highly celebratory. Dancers from various countries danced around and around the not-particularly-large open common area, where two Indian musicians with drums sat in the centre of the room, drumming with their sticks and hands rhythmically. Indian dancers were guiding other nations through the movements of their dances, and other nationalities were joining in the dancing with elements of their own traditional dances. Our dance teacher was filming the party on her small camera, and said to me, “The Glengarry girls are all dancing, but none of my girls are! Get out there!!” So I grabbed my friend Heather, threw ourselves into the fray, and threw down a little Highland. It wasn’t long before the celebrating began to seem a little more extreme and gregarious than most of us were really interested in joining, and we retreated to our rooms for some necessary rest, while our dance teacher attempted to calm the noise. She must have been fairly successful, because I believe I went rather directly to sleep, with the knowledge that rising the next day was going to be even more unpleasant and exhaustive than I had already anticipated, but glad to have joined in the fun.
**::Sigh:: I’ve been blogging and photoshopping all day. Tomorrow, our second big performance, some Russian grocery shopping, and we visit the Kremlin.**