Frustration to ‘The Firebird’ — the sublimity of St. Petersburg

In St. Petersburg, Russia, catching an Uber the hell out of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery was nigh impossible and immaculately exasperating — client and drivers just could not connect and a flurry of cancelled rides ensued — so I found myself trekking down bustling Nevsky Prospect, the main thoroughfare in this wonderfully massive city, pocked with shops and banks and restaurants, groceries and souvenir kiosks. I strolled contentedly (ignore the steam poofing from my ears) till I could stroll no more, and located a spot at a landmark from which to finally hail an Uber ride. (Did I mention the average Uber fare ran me about $1.50 US? A dollar-fifty. Yes, at this point I’m grinning.)

What I was doing at the famed, winsome Alexander Nevsky Monastery, at the tippity-top of Nevsky Prospect, was looking at graves, mostly those in the famous Tikhvin Cemetery, where Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and other brand-name bodies lie.


For about $7 US, one is invited to amble the leafy paths of the 19th-century burial grounds and, with map in hand, á la those furnished at the unsurpassed cemeteries of Paris, seek out the eternal mattresses of the famous and infamous. The weather was cool, distinctly autumnal, the leaves turned and fallen. It was bliss.

Dostoyevsky lurched at me:


As did this distressed woman, who perhaps witnessed my Uber travails:


For this visitor, St. Petersburg was glorious that way, in its vibrant, tumultuous history, which is epic and bracingly complex, riddled with shake-ups, triumphs, reversals, oustings, wars, creeps (that’s you, Rasputin), revolutionaries (that’s you, Lenin), and cataracts of blood. Where else would there be this, the knockout, perversely titled Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, the spot where Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist bomb:



Endless canals stream through St. Petersburg, requiring scores and scores of small bridges, reminiscent of Amsterdam and its canals, or Paris and the regal Seine.



And, as I boasted in an earlier entry, I located unfettered beauty at the ballet in the legendary Mariinsky Theatre. I watched, and reveled in, Stravinsky’s landmark fairytale “The Firebird,” perched in a fine dress circle seat. It was lush and extravagant. My view:


Bonus shots: The Winter Palace, once the official home of the czars in the 1700s, in the sprawling Palace Square. This is the main building of the boggling Hermitage Museum.


Below, a Hermitage guide describes Leonardo da Vinci’s exquisite “Madonna and Child” from 1478:


And that’s all from Russia. I’ll spare you the food porn.

Ballet in Russia, a quintessential splurge

Even though my Russian visa still hasn’t been officially issued — it’s in the tortured, Kafkaesque pipeline, though they have said (brusquely) that it should ship in two days — I went ahead and bought a ticket for the ballet at the famous, chandelier-encrusted Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.

Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

I’ve been to the ballet once in my life — Nijinsky and Stravinsky’s clashing “Rite of Spring” in San Francisco, eons ago. Granularly, I know next to nothing about the art form, though my appreciation for it is lavish. I think Misty Copeland is recklessly awesome. (I think the Natalie Portman movie “Black Swan” is curdlingly rotten.)

Misty Copeland in the title role, American Ballet Theatre
Misty Copeland in the title role of “The Firebird,” American Ballet Theatre

The mid-October matinee is for Stravinsky’s 1910 “The Firebird,” a Technicolor Russian fairytale told in two “scenes,” which runs a zippy 50 minutes. The ballet, with choreography by Michel Fokine, was Stravinsky’s breakthrough as a composer, followed famously by “Petrushka” and the “Rite of Spring.” My ticket in the Dress Circle was a doable $48.

I’ve been reading up on the performance, and came across choreographer Fokine’s fascinating notes:

“When staging the dances I used three principles that are utterly different in terms of character and technique in this ballet.

“I created the evil kingdom using grotesque, angular and sometimes freakish and sometimes amusing movements. The monsters moved on all fours, jumped like frogs, did different ‘tricks’ with their legs, sitting and lying on the stage, their hands like fish fins, at times under the elbows, at times under the ears, the arms were entwined, they moved from one side to the other, squatting and so on, in a word they did everything that twenty years later began to be known as modern dance and what at the time seemed to me to be the most suitable means of expressing a nightmare, horror and ugliness. Virtuoso leaps and frivolity were also used.”

This sounds splendidly transporting. Which is precisely why I travel. Expect a vivid report next month. And if anyone has opinions or comments about this ballet or St. Petersburg or what have you, please share. Thanks.