Having at some point apparently left my drunken, student days behind (I knew I’d forgotten to pack something), I spent this All Hallow’s Eve not with excessively alcoholic punch and a needlessly expensive home-made costume, but at the Syktyvkar philharmonic with tickets to see a traditional Russian concert, featuring the Asya Kya dance troupe.
The performance was to mark National Unity Day, an occasion celebrated in Russia on or around November 4th and commemorating the unification of all classes in Russian society before there was even a Tsar to guide them. It’s a period of Russian history I know absolutely nothing about (my current cultural studies having only taken me up as far as 945 AD); and, thanks to the language barrier, that’s still largely the case.
Leaving our jackets, hats and the more frozen of our extremities with the women running a pair of cloakrooms from the building’s basement, we made our way past a couple of ornately armoured guards — staff or Halloween trick-or-treaters, it was difficult to say — and took our seats towards the front of the auditorium, between the orchestra and a what looked to be the most proudly religious man in all of Russia — sacramental staff and all.
Having successfully operated my flat’s Russian-speaking washing machine and just previously that same day told an unfortunate, direction-seeking native woman “я не говорю на русском” all on my own, I was feeling pretty good about my burgeoning bilingualism. However, to say that I didn’t understand a single word uttered that night would still be something of an understatement. Please, thank you and one or two numbers, notwithstanding.
We were nevertheless subjected to speeches by Pitirym, the bishop of Syktyvkar and Vorkyta (and staff-wielding audience-member I alluded to earlier), Olga Sosnovskaya, an apparently world-famous opera singer (not exactly my area of expertise to comment), and a third speaker who not even my Russian companion — and, mercifully, occasional translator — was able to identify.
Luckily, these impenetrable presentations were broken up by the universal language of fancy dress. And there was some singing and dancing, too. A choreography of costumed, knee-slapping, handkerchief-waving performances, the production had a wonderful energy that was maintained on stage throughout thanks to an ever-swirling array of long coats, longer skirts and, for one number at least, twirling tree branches.
Lasting only an hour and a half, I can honestly say that I was never bored or too lost to keep track of what was going on. The singers, dancers and background swayers were duly giving it their all, while an excellent costume department ensured that everyone looked their best while they kicked, flicked and flipped across the stage. The orchestra didn’t even have to play the Star Wars theme once.
On my way out of the hall, a thought struck me: If I could enjoy Russian history (albeit through interpretive dance) without understanding precisely what was going on, then maybe the cinema wasn’t a complete write-off after all. Either way, I’ll be sure to let you know.