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‘So amazing to me’: Ballet superstar invites Canadian dance students to perform in Russia

Taking the stage at Russia’s illustrious Mariinsky Theatre is a lofty ambition for any dancer, but for a group of students from Canada’s National Ballet School, the dream has become a reality.

“I never thought I was actually going to perform in the Mariinsky, but here we are,” said Philip Sergeychuk, a 17-year-old with Russian roots who’s now getting the chance to see where his family came from and to perform on the same stage graced by Russian legends like Rudolf Nureyev, Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

“To see the culture and how they live and just experience all of it — I’m really excited.”

The student dancers are the first ever invited to St. Petersburg’s Context Contemporary Choreography Festival, an event highlighting modern dance that typically features professional dancers.

Aszure Barton’s Come In performed by students of Canada’s National Ballet School1:37

Teens make an impression

Diana Vishneva, the Russian ballet superstar who founded Context, extended the rare invitation after the talented teens caught her attention at a performance in Holland earlier this year.

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Diana Vishneva founded the Context Festival to increase awareness of modern dance in classical ballet-obsessed Russia. (Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

“I was so impressed with their depth of feeling, their movements, their interpretation, their understanding, the quality of their performance and presentation,” said Vishneva, principal dancer with both the Mariinsky Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre.

“Also, they are all boys and that — to me — was so interesting. So many of them — moving all together like that — was so amazing to me,” she said, adding that she now plans to incorporate student dancers into every edition of the festival.

Vishneva started Context, now in its fourth year, as a way to increase awareness of modern dance in classical ballet-obsessed Russia.

She aims to connect choreographers, artists and directors from some of the world’s most prestigious dance companies with peers in Russia and to challenge Russian audiences.

In Baryshnikov’s footsteps

The students are slated to perform Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton‘s Come In, which the alumnus of Canada’s National Ballet School was commissioned to create specifically by her mentor, Baryshnikov, in 2006.

Though Barton and Baryshnikov toured the work in Europe, Brazil and the U.S., the ballet school students are bringing the work to Russia’s Mariinsky — the last Russian stage the famed dancer performed on before his defection from the Soviet Union to Canada in 1974.

National Ballet School students

Siphe November, Philip Sergeychuk and Ryan Tomash (left to right) are among the 17 students from Canada’s National Ballet School who are in St. Petersburg to perform at the Context Festival. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Siphe November is dancing the central role created for Baryshnikov and there’s no hiding the significance of the group’s performance in Russia given the history behind the work.

Come In is “very special for me, as a young dancer coming into the dance world at the end of this year,” said November, who hails from a South African farming town and whose natural talent first earned him a place at the Toronto-based ballet school in 2010.

The 18-year-old said he feels the pressure of performing Come In for Baryshnikov’s compatriots and in his homeland.

“Not be him, but to be in his spot. I think he would’ve loved to do this piece at home,” November said. “I feel like I’m doing it for him, in his home.”

Building bridges through culture

At a time when Russia and the West don’t see eye to eye on many things, the opportunity for Canadians to dance in Russia gives hope that — through culture — we can still communicate.

Mavis Staines

Performing modern ballet in Russia is ‘the most beautiful blend of tradition and innovation,’ says Mavis Staines, artistic director of Canada’s National Ballet School. (Johan Persson/National Ballet School)

“To have the chance to go into a culture and a country where ballet and dance are deeply loved and embraced, within this new innovative platform — I think it’s the most beautiful blend of tradition and innovation,” said Mavis Staines, artistic director of Canada’s National Ballet School.

“It’s certainly profoundly reassuring that this can continue, to be the means by which bridges are built.”

Though nervous and excited, student dancer Ryan Tomash, 17, said he and his classmates want the Russian audience to connect with the movement and the music.

“This festival is a really big deal because of the stage and the audience and how much the Russian community admires ballet,” he said.

“I hope they can all see that we put our hearts out on the stage and that we left it on the stage for them.”

Students of Canada’s National Ballet School perform Aszure Barton’s’Come In on Saturday, the final day of the Context Contemporary Choreography Festival, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia.