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A New Age of Art in Russia's Far East

Sep. 29, 2016

The Russian government has built a new theater in the port city of Vladivostok to help raise its cultural profile, and a more cosmopolitan culture is taking hold there as the city becomes an economic and cultural hub.

Vladivostok has a population of 630,000, making it the largest city in the Russian Far East. The Russian Pacific Fleet is headquartered here and during the Soviet era, entry was severely restricted.

But President Vladimir Putin sees it as a gateway to the Asia-Pacific, and he chose it as the site for a meeting with Prime Minister Abe this month.

In recent years, many new buildings and bridges have cropped up, changing the landscape. A 1.9-kilometer bridge spans Golden Horn Bay. Along the shore rises a new landmark -- the Mariinsky Theatre Primorsky Stage.

It was completed in October 2013, has a capacity of 1,354 and incorporates cutting-edge acoustic technology. It's an outpost of Moscow's Mariinsky Theatre, one of Russia's most prestigious performance spaces.

Valery Gergiev, the general manager of the Mariinsky Theatre and a famous Russian composer, has joined the team there. The residents are enthusiastic because the theater will bring a new sophistication to the cultural scene in the region.

"It's hard to believe that Vladivostok now has a place for the arts like the Mariinsky Theatre. It's the start of a revolution," says one staff member.

The theater has a troupe of 24 opera singers and 36 ballet dancers. They hail not just from Russia, but from all over the world -- places such as the United States, Japan and Brazil.

Among the performers is Arina Nagase, a Japanese ballerina. She spent 2 years at the Vaganova Academy of Ballet in St. Petersburg. Three years ago, she became a member of the ballet company in Vladivostok.

Arina lives with her fiance in an apartment paid for by the theater. Dancers receive a monthly salary of about 1,100 dollars, plus bonuses for each show. Everything is arranged to allow Arina to concentrate on ballet.

"There's so much to learn at this theater. How should I put it... I don't feel tied down. Not everything is established here yet, so I can exert my individuality," Arina says.

For young artists like Arina, Vladivostok is a place where they can achieve their dreams. And it was the dream of many residents to have a ballet theater in their city.

Lyubov Salmanova is a Vladivostok native who was born in 1950, and began taking ballet lessons when she was five. At the time, Vladivostok was a closed city with limited recreational facilities and there was nowhere for her to perform.

"There were theaters for plays, but none for ballet. But the people loved the ballet," Lyubov says.

She enrolled at a ballet academy in central Siberia. After graduating, she performed for 20 years as prima ballerina at a theater in Tomsk, a city in western Siberia.

In recognition of her achievements, she received a commendation from the Soviet government. She still keeps her dancing slippers as a cherished memento.

She returned to Vladivostok after retiring and 2 years later, the Soviet Union collapsed. Her pension benefits were cut and she had to take janitorial jobs to eke out a living.

"When I heard an opera and ballet theater had opened in Vladivostok I was happy, but at the same time I was sad. Happy because the theater I'd dreamed about since I was five years old had become a reality, and sad because it came too late," Lyubov says.

She decided to see "Giselle," one of her favorite ballets, performed at the theater. There, Arina and the other dancers rehearse on one of the stages. Arina's final rehearsal is only 2 hours before the theater's doors open, but she wasn't in top form.

Lyubov arrives an hour before the show starts. Arina appears in the second act of the ballet and she's splendid -- a total departure from her feeble performance during rehearsal.

"I was really nervous. I made a lot of mistakes during rehearsal," Arina says. "But I did okay, so I'm happy."

"Watching the performance made me feel like dancing," Salmanova says. "My head and hands started moving to the music by themselves. It was quite surreal. The building is wonderful and they have a great audience, so I hope they put on as many shows as they can."

In the new theater in Vladivostok, the dreams of people from all walks of life in the Russian Far East are being realized.