12.06.2012 — Poor Liza mixes Russian ballet and theatre in modern, multidisciplinary show Toronto’s two-dozen largest ethnic communities enjoy vibrant cultural scenes that don’t often spill over to reach a broader audience. Show One Productions, anchored on the GTA’s roughly 100,000-strong population of ethnic Russians, is different.

Russian culture is entirely Western, so little distances it conceptually from its neighbours to the west. But a different alphabet and 70 years of isolation within the Soviet Union and its former satellite nations has left a lingering whiff of cultural separateness.

Svetlana Dvoretskaya, founder of Show One, has been doing her best to bridge the gap by bringing some of her birth country’s finest performers to venues such as Roy Thomson and Koerner halls.

Her latest presentation, the last for this season, is an multidisciplinary re-telling of Poor Liza, a late-18th century novel by Nikolai Karamzin that tells the tale of doomed love between a peasant girl and an aristocrat.

The 70-minute show, which gets a single performance on Wednesday (June 13) at the John Bassett Theatre, mixes music, dance and video, representing the cutting edge of 21st century Russian performance art. The role of the aristocrat is portrayed by Bolshoi ballet star Andrei Merkuriev. Theatre actor Chulpan Khamatova is Liza.

The score, which mixes classical with contemporary, was created by Leonid Desyatnikov and recorded with full orchestra under music director Alexey Goribol. The show itself is directed and choreographed by Alla Sigalova and produced under the auspices of Russia’s State Theatre of Nations.

The experimental side of this two-hander would have made it a natural for Luminato, which continues to the end of the week — but Dvoretskaya says the show slipped through the cracks during the handover of Luminato artistic-director duties from Chris Lorway to Jorn Weisbrodt over the past year.

Although the Luminato banner may be missing from this presentation, anyone interested in exploring the intersections of different performing artforms should give it a try.

I has certainly involved some risk taking on the part of its two stars. For example, Dvoretskaya says Merkuriev was apprehensive about exchanging principal ballet dancer duties for an acting role.

“He is trained to work on a big stage, where they grimace a lot,” she explains. “This is a chamber atmosphere, where he has had to move from big effects to actual acting.”

That’s something Khamatova, one of Russia’s big stars of the stage, doesn’t have to worry about. Her big concern was being able to contribute to the dance aspect of the performance without looking clumsy or awkward.

Dvoretskaya, who makes a point of not taking on a show or artists she does not personally love, says both dancer and actor have excellent chemistry. “What they do onstage is pretty erotic,” she smiles.

Rather than follow the original setting, where the farmgirl meets the aristocrat in a marketplace in the city, this production of Poor Liza updates the couple’s first connection to a movie theatre. “These are modern settings,” Dvoretskaya assures.

Dvoretskaya, who founded Show One Productions in 2004, has been responsible for repeat engagements in Toronto of the best contemporary Russian classical musicians — like conductors Vladimir Spivakov and Constantine Orbelian and violinist Gidon Kremer with their associated ensembles. She was the force behind the memorable pairing of Dmitri Hvoroskovsky and Sondra Radvanovsky at Roy Thomson Hall two years ago. She has also done everything possible to raise the profiles of Russian pianists Denis Matsuev and Olga Kern in Canada.

In this way, she is being true to growing up in the midst of musical life in St Petersburg. Her mother was a professional pianist and teacher at the Conservatory there.

Although Dvoretskaya loves the piano and took lessons as a child, “my mother did everything she could to prevent me from becoming a musician,” she confesses. As a grownup, she turned this love into presenting others — with a twist. Under the Show One banner, she has also programmed tango, Flamenco, the cross-dressing Ballet Trockadero, ballet on ice (from St Petersburg) and the musical comedy team of Igudesman & Joo in Toronto.

“I wouldn’t know how to present something mainstream,” she smiles when confronted with this idiosyncratic mix. “It is always a niche — one that I feel and I understand.”
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