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Category: Photography

The Great Galina Ulanova

A while ago, scrolling through Netflix, I stumbled across Reign, the CW television series centered around the life and times of Mary, Queen of Scots. I was entranced by the storylines, all full of true love, betrayal, scandal, power, threatsand, of course, death. What drama would be complete without it? The show exudes a gripping wealth, elegance, and aristocracy that immediately reminded me of the Romanovs, an infamous, long-influential Russian imperial family. Anyway, the visual elements in Reign are also captivating; the set and costumes are authentic, and absolutely stunning. The show is not without its flaws, of course: consider the abrupt, rushed ending. But considering all of the above, I wasn’t surprised when, at the completion of the fourth and final season, I found myself with a newfound love for historical dramas.

It was around this time when I first heard of Claire Foy, the breakout star of the hit Netflix drama The Crown. The show chronicles the life of another monarch, this time Queen Elizabeth II, from the 1940s on. A friend of mine, having just watched The Crown, raved about Foy’s acting; apparently, this cool, collected queen and her infamous politesse was not something to miss. It seemed that the very best critics also agreed—I remember the 2017 Emmys, and the immense buzz around Foy and her show after she won Outstanding Lead Actress and John Lithgow (who plays Winston Churchill) won Outstanding Supporting Actor. Given my recent experience with Reign, I was intrigued by this next historical drama. And, of course, there’s a certain fascinating quality of the British royal family that almost all of us are drawn to, that which feeds the clamor and crowds over the royal weddings. Not to mention my grandfather is a huge fan, and I was excited to share the show with him.

So, I started watching. And it’s every bit as good as they say. The costume and set design immediately stood out (transcends Reign‘s, I’d say!). The show itself, equipped with a stellar cast, brilliantly reveals the burden on the queen’s shoulders. More broadly, The Crown brings to light the struggles of these obscenely rich, who wield a purely ceremonial power—figureheads, in a sense, masking what truly dominates (hint, hint, Churchill’s government). It was a refreshing change from Reign; much less soap opera-y, and more grounded, like Foy’s character herself. In The Crown, the royals are brought down to earth; clearly, they experience some of the same existential dread that we (“mortals”) do. 

This isn’t to say, of course, that The Crown is devoid of drama; love, along with its accompanying challenges (especially in the royal context), are well documented. We see a prime example of this in “Misadventure,” the first episode of the second season. Prince Phillip (Matt Smith) is about to embark on a lengthy overseas tour, so Queen Elizabeth (Foy) playfully hides some sort of camera in his baggage, as a parting gift. Sadly, in the process, she discovers a portrait of our infamous ballerina, Galina Ulanova. 

Prince Philip appears to be 'cheating' on the Queen with acclaimed ...
From The Crown: The beautiful Ulanova, framed, cradled in Foy’s hands.
Prince Philip appears to be 'cheating' on the Queen with acclaimed ...
From The Crown: Queen Elizabeth II examines Ulanova’s photograph in the trinket.

With Foy’s brilliant acting—her gaze hardens as she stares at the photograph and makes the realization, her face trembles ever so slightly—the implication is crystal clear: Prince Phillip and Ulanova are having an affair. However, according to this Vanity Fair article by Julie Miller, it never actually occurred in real life. Miller cites the two’s busy, almost certainly conflicting schedules as evidence: Ulanova with her “rehearsals, performances, and traveling,” and the prince with his royal duties. However, Miller writes, The Crown‘s directors may have been building upon the slew of affairs in which the Prince was known to participateand perhaps in particular upon rumors of one with another dancer, Pat Kirkwood.

Nevertheless, it makes sense that the directors would select Ulanova as their “other woman.” Later in the Vanity Fair article, Miller mentions the biography Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in our Times, where author Sarah Bradford claims that Phillip’s affairs were almost always with very private women, “usually beautiful, and highly aristocratic.” Ulanova almost certainly fits this description; in fact, she had “a personal reputation for being aloof and private,” Miller writes. But she was a stunning figure regardless (or perhaps because of this, at least in part!), one who commanded the interests of Russians and Westerners alike. Widely known as the greatest ballerina of the 20th century (Boris Yeltsin himself said as such—read the Times obituary below!), Ulanova “riveted the Western world in 1956 when she traveled with the Bolshoi Ballet to London’s Royal Opera House,” reported The New York Times (and Miller included this quote in her article as well). According to Ulanova’s Wikipedia page, British papers were also struck by the ballerina, writing that “in London [she] knew the greatest triumph of any individual dancer since Anna Pavlova.”

Ulanova, a rare beauty. (SOURCE: Getty Images Bettmann Archive)
ULANOVA
(SOURCE: Google Images)

Ulanova is certainly not without a rich backstory. According to this Elegancepedia article, she was born on January 8th, 1919, in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and she learned her craft from both Agrippina Vaganova (of the Vaganova method, a ballet technique still commonly used today) and her own mother, who was a ballerina of the Imperial Russian Ballet company (now the Mariinsky Ballet, of the famous Mariinsky Theatre which, according to Wikipedia, Galina herself later joined!). With Mariinsky, she rose rapidly; the press was taken with the “sort of captivating modesty in her gestures” (Wikipedia). Her fame eventually reached Stalin himself; he went so far as to personally transfer her to the even more renowned Bolshoi Theatre (Wikipedia). At the Bolshoi, she really thrived, remaining prima ballerina assoluta (an honor typically reserved for the best of a generation) for a number of years—one of the only two Soviet women to ever hold the title (Wikipedia). She danced the lead role in the world premiere of Prokofiev’s Cinderella, where she had a profound impact on both her diverse audiences and also on Prokofiev himself (Wikipedia). “She is the genius of Russian ballet, its elusive soul, its inspired poetry,” he said of her. “Ulanova imparts to her interpretation of classical roles a depth of expression unheard of in twentieth century ballet.”

Ulanova appears once more at the end of the aforementioned episode of The Crown. In an almost “masochistic act by the monarch,” as Miller of Vanity Fair described it, Elizabeth views a performance of the classic romantic ballet Giselle, in which Ulanova holds the title role. Keep in mind, of course, this comes after Elizabeth’s discovery of the portrait, that “ominous clue that her marriage is not as it seems” (Miller for Vanity Fair). The scene brilliantly “juxtaposes Ulanova’s stunning beauty and talent with Elizabeth’s insecurity.” Again, Foy’s acting is incredible there; her stoic face manages to simultaneously hide and reveal great emotion.

The Crown spins Elizabeth’s viewing of Giselle in a way that furthers the affair plotline (for the drama, I guess!), but it may have taken on an entirely different meaning in reality. In the Vanity Fair article, Miller cites a book by Ekaterina Domnina, The State Visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Russia and its Coverage in Russian and British Press, which acknowledges that the real Elizabeth’s reaction to another 1994 performance of Giselle in London was one of sadness, yes—but not because of an affair. Rather, Domnina speculates that it may have been more so that Elizabeth was “recalling the days of her youth, when she saw [an earlier showing, specifically of] the famous Galina Ulanova performing the party of Giselle during the tour of the Bolshoi in Britain,” at the Royal Opera House (Miller, too, includes this quote of Domnina’s in her article). See below for two clips from the very 1956 Bolshoi tour which the real Elizabeth originally saw; rare pieces of footage featuring Ulanova herself.

From Michael Specter’s Times obituary on Ulanova comes this striking quote: “Miss Ulanova performed most of the greatest roles in classical ballet, including the leads in “Giselle,” “Swan Lake,” “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty.” Such was her power that when Mr. Martin,” the Times dance critic at the time, “criticizedmildlyher performance in “Swan Lake” during the 1959 New York tour, Pravda,” a staple Russian paper, “responded the next day by accusing him and The Times of being ‘bent on continuing the cold war.'” Clearly, Ulanova was revered (both as dancer and also as teacher, which, according to the New World Encyclopedia, she went on to become after retiring). Maya Plisetskaya, a longtime friend and another renowned ballerina (who eventually replaced Ulanova as prima at Bolshoi), stated simply: “She was an angel and she danced like one” (see Times obituary). Ulanova was a true princess of the Russian people, especially the aristocracy—and government, I might add. The obituary goes on to note how Ulanova “received nearly every medal the Soviets bestowed on their most accomplished citizens, including the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Award. Although she tried to remain politely uninvolved in party politics—always an impossibility at the time—she was twice named a Hero of Socialist Labor.” 

A snapshot of Galina Ulanova’s obituary in the Times, in its original context.

At the time of her death, Boris Yeltsin, the first President of Russia, said of her: ”Her life and the art of dance to which she has give her soul has become part of Russian and world culture. Ulanova has always been for us the symbol of conscience, honor and dignity. She was a true artist” (see Times obituary).

Galina Ulanova’s influence on Russian ballet, and even ballet worldwide, is incomparable. While her inclusion in The Crown may not have been entirely historically accurate, I am glad to have discovered her (along with the world of Russian ballet, and, as a result of my research, Russian opera as wellstay tuned!). To see her once again in the public mind is just as it should be. Great art, and artists, must forever be appreciated.

File:Russia-2000-stamp-Galina Ulanova.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
A Russian 3-ruble postage stamp, issued in the year 2000, depicting Ulanova.
A rare photo of Galina Ulanova as Princess Florine...
A rare 1928 photograph of Ulanova as Princess Florine, from Mariinsky’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty.

I leave you with a last, stunning performance of hers from the Bolshoi production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Every movement tells a story.

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k-Means Segmentation on Russia-Related Images

In my Advanced Topics in Computer Science class at school, we recently implemented k-Means Image Segmentation. The algorithm works by partitioning the dataset into non-overlapping subgroups, or clusters. In this case, the dataset would be the set of pixels of an image (as we are performing image segmentation, or the process of breaking an image up into different sections). We are doing image segmentation based on color (on the R, G, B values), so our clusters would essentially be pixels that have the most similar colors.

Here’s a brief overview. See this link for more details.

  1. Set a number of clusters.
  2. Initialize the k centroids (or cluster centers) by randomly selecting points from the shuffled set of pixels.
  3. At each iteration of the algorithm,
    1. Compute the sum of the squared distance between all data points and all centroids.
    2. Determine, for each pixel, which centroid is closest.
    3. Assign that pixel to the corresponding (closest) cluster.
    4. Re-assign each cluster’s center (i.e. re-compute the centriod) by averaging all of the data points in a cluster. With pixels, this means, for all pixels in a cluster, average the X-position and the Y-position. The centroid location will then be (Xavg, Yavg).
  4. Stop iterations after a specified number has passed, or a certain error threshold has been reached, etc. You can set any end condition, just know that k-Means is an iterative algorithm, and it is in the programmer’s hands to terminate it.

You can find the code here, on my GitHub. In the meantime, enjoy the segmentations and the analysis at the end!

собор Василия Блаженного матрешкафото Чалабова из тумана в Москвешифровальная машина ФИАЛКА шифровальная машина ФИАЛКА (cont.)

Some key insights:

The k-Means algorithm favors classifying different levels of shading (the colors that represent them) rather than classifying distinctly different colors. I had originally thought this may be to incorporate detail, but going back to the steps of the algorithm and analyzing them revealed that it is really just that the parts of the spectrum of shaded colors are more common than spots of different, vibrant, eye-catching colors. For instance, the shaded parts cover a greater area than do the blue pixels in the small blue eyes in the matryoshka dolls, and therefore, they are more likely to be initially picked as a color. However, if you manually set the starting pixel to be that small blue region, though, that color would be captured (albeit covering a very small portion of the segmented image). 

The algorithm runs faster when images cover a smaller area of pixels, as would be expected. And, some image-specific observations: note the good results on the FIALKA image with k = 4 (i.e., four clusters) – the texture and 3D aspect of the photo is really captured well. For the image of the person in Moscow fog, with St. Basil’s Cathedral in the background, the sky is separated into lighter and darker parts. You can see this gradation in the original image as well, but it is definitely not as distinct as the classification would suggest (it’s actually much more gradual). 

Hope you enjoyed reading! As always, let me know if you have any questions/thoughts in the comments. До скорого, Рая!

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NYC’s KGB Espionage Museum, In Photos

This past November, a couple friends and I visited the KGB Espionage Museum in NYC! A week or two earlier, I had seen online that the New York Adventure Club was holding an “exclusive tour and artifact showcase” at the museum. I recalled reading Masha Gessen’s review of the place in The New Yorker just after it opened in January 2019. They noted what a “peculiar thing [the museum is] to observe, particularly at a moment when Russia—and Russian espionage in particular—looms so large in the American imagination.” Intrigued, I had added the museum to my list of Russian-related places to visit. I was so excited when I saw that notice for the tour, months later.

Below is a slideshow of photos I took at the museum! My favorites include the ones of the Fialka, a Russian-made M-125 cipher machine, and the April 13, 1961 edition of Pravda, an iconic Russian newspaper. My two friends and I also dined at Chama Mama, an authentic Georgian restaurant in Chelsea, where we enjoyed some amazing Georgian cuisine—see the end of the slideshow for photos! The highlight for me was their khachapuri, a puff pastry-type bread filled with a blend of cheeses. It’s an iconic dish, and one I actually made at Лесное Озеро, the Russian immersion camp I attended this past summer (read about my experiences there here and here)! Was so cool to it see on the menu.

Anyway, enjoy the collection!

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Overall, it was an absolutely amazing trip. The tour was one of the only two times each year when some of the artifacts, like the elegant lipstick gun, are brought out of their protective glass cases, which was so cool to see. I had some videos, but they were lost when my camera’s hard drive broke down (long story). Our tour guide, Alexei, was wonderful—I loved his dry humor, and he was so knowledgeable about all of the artifacts.

I’d encourage anyone to go visit the museum (and Chama Mama). Here’s the link to the Times review as well, which I found interesting—it sheds light into the story behind the museum’s founding and includes some wonderful photos.

Lastly, here is some more detailed info about the locations, in case that would be helpful!

KGB Espionage Museum; 245 W 14th St, New York, NY 10011; open 10AM-8PM daily; kgbespionagemuseum.org

Chama Mama; 149 W 14th St, New York, NY 10011; open 11AM-10PM sun, mon, tues, wed, open 11AM-11PM thurs, fri, sat; chamamama.com

Ask me any questions you might have down in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them. До скорого!

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What Can Матрешки (Matryoshka Dolls) Tell Us About “Grey” vs. “Gray”? A Poem…

matreshka color

matreshka medium color

matreshka black and white poem on color

Interpret this poem how you will! But I hope it sparks some thought on the role of technology in our world today and its consequences – not just for the humanities, obviously, but also photography and the arts. It has caused immense change, and we must acknowledge that.

Check out more of my writing in this poetry-based photo essay I did on matryoshka dolls, and read more about the story behind the photographs here. Until next time!

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Chicago’s Russian Ballerinas

“Inside, I am met with an explosion of velvet, tulle and satin. The dozens of dresses, tutus and elaborate headpieces stored here comprise a rare collection of Soviet-era dance costumes, still in use more than 40 years after they were made,” writes Bianca Ladipo in a stunning photo essay for the New York Times.

A tutu in Tatyana Masur’s collection. Most of the pieces are more than 40 years old.
NYT caption: “A tutu in Tatyana Masur’s collection. Most of the pieces are more than 40 years old. Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

Ladipo writes about Mazur Dance, a dance school in Chicago where “trove[s] of Soviet-era tutus” come to life on a new generation of American dancers. As I transcribe my second week of long journal entries from Лесное Озеро (check out the first here!), I thought I’d share her piece. It is a part of Surfacing, “a visual [NYT] series on the intersection of art and life.” Ladipo herself was years ago a student at the studio, which is run by by couple Tatyana and Roman Mazur. The photographs I’ve included in this post are my favorites from the article – all shot by Whitten Sabbatini, by the way – and they bear their original captions. I’ve accompanied them with quotes from the article and/or my own reflections. Enjoy!

Julianne Pankau, a ballet student in Tatyana’s Mazur’s class. The gown she wears was brought from the Ukraine, originally made for a role in “La Esmeralda.”
NYT caption: “Julianne Pankau, a ballet student in Tatyana’s Mazur’s class. The gown she wears was brought from the Ukraine, originally made for a role in “La Esmeralda.” Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times“

“I looked at myself in the mirror, an otherwise average girl from downtown Chicago, now transformed into a countess. It was in that moment that I found the resolve to dance through my final ballet performance,” Ladipo writes.

From my intrinsic photographer’s perspective – wow. What a picture. The beauty, the clear sense of reflection, the thoughtfulness, the youth. Mirrors are so powerful. And the juxtaposition between the young ballet hopeful (fresh as a raindrop, as Katniss Everdeen would say!) and the delicate, hand-crafted, historic dress – brilliant and so very well-captured on Sabbatini’s part.

Tatyana, right, instructs Ms. Zhang on point. The dress was originally made for the ballet “Le Corsaire.”
NYT caption: “Tatyana, right, instructs Ms. Zhang on point. The dress was originally made for the ballet “Le Corsaire.” Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

“The bodices, bejeweled with hundreds of handsewn sequins stood in stark contrast to the minimalist costumes of modern ballet productions. The faux gemstones may have seemed large and gaudy up close, but onstage they subtly caught the stage lights, illuminating dancers as they moved. Every decorative element was exaggerated to be visible from the last row of any theater,” says Ladipo.

Ms. Pankau in a costume made for the National Ballet of Ukraine.
NYT caption: “Ms. Pankau in a costume made for the National Ballet of Ukraine. Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times”

Imagine all those who have worn these priceless pieces! Imagine the feelings one has when wearing one! Imagine the sensation of entering a different era, a different world entirely, while encased in the fabric!

NYT caption: “Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times”

The blur effectively conveys the famous “spinning” motion. I’ve experimented with this style myself. The focus, the poise. Clever again on Sabbatini’s part – and what a beautifully captured photo.

Ms. Zhang as Kitri from the ballet “Don Quixote.” The ornate beading was intended to be visible from any seat in the theater.
NYT caption: “Ms. Zhang as Kitri from the ballet “Don Quixote.” The ornate beading was intended to be visible from any seat in the theater. Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times”

According to Ladipo, Tatyana and Roman both fled from Kyiv, Ukraine after the Chernobyl catastrophe (which took place in the fairly nearby town of Pripyat) and later met in Latvia. After returning to Kyiv when things died down to teach at a government-funded dance school, they immigrated to the United States and began their studio. Tatyana, upon failing to find first-rate Russian ballet costumes in the United States, “traveled back to Ukraine and Russia… where she bought old costumes from professional companies, including the National Ballet of Ukraine,” Ladipo writes. “The costumes were already 20 to 30 years old at the time [Tatyana] bought them,” she continues, “meaning they were made and worn in the U.S.S.R. during the 1970s and ’80s, when companies would commission local designers and seamstresses to craft elaborate costumes for each production.”

I find it so interesting how the way the costumes themselves bear “the record of differently shaped Russian, Ukrainian and now American dancers” mirrors the immigrant journey of Tatyana and Roman as well as the story of how Mazur Dance began. Both the costumes and their owners have Russian and Ukrainian roots and, by virtue of each other, have begun new lives in the U.S., ready for future legions of dancers.

If you haven’t already, check out Ladipo’s article here. It’s an incredible piece of photojournalism. I leave you with a final quote: In Russia, “Ballet is very popular, it’s like treasure.” What a contrast to the U.S. attitude, as the article points out! Let’s all appreciate the beauty of the craft a little bit more.

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A Piece of Russia in My New York Christmas (Photos!)

Happy New Year! I hope the holidays have been enjoyable and relaxing for you and your family.

This past Christmas time, my family and I took a day trip to New York City. And, as usual, my camera was by my side! I’m a pretty avid photographer, so I absolutely love visiting NYC – the city offers a wide range of unique, fresh photo opportunities.

We had a great time. We stopped by Bryant Park’s Winter Village (dubbed “Manhattan’s winter wonderland!”), which included an eclectic array of charming holiday shops, an ice skating rink, and of course, a fully adorned Christmas tree! I also tried a flavorful avocado sandwich and a very strong ginger smoothie, called the “Energizer,” at Joe & The Juice, a popular place to grab coffee or a bite and relax. Afterwards, my family and I took part in a free walking tour of SOHO, a trendy, historic New York neighborhood. And we closed out the evening with pizza at Lombardi’s – “America’s First Pizzeria” – and walked around Rockefeller Center and watched the holiday light displays.

My favorite part of the evening was definitely exploring Bryant Park’s holiday shops. I visited a “farm-to-fresh” stall that offered eccentric, yet cool hot sauces like as “Ghost Pepper & Blueberry” or “Chocolate Habanero.” At another place, I tried a garlic and parsley pretzel!

My favorite shop, though, offered a look into Russian culture and art. I hadn’t seen anything like it before! Called “St. Petersburg Collections,” the shop featured various beautifully painted, carved wooden sculptures, ornaments, and the traditional Russian dolls, all made by Russian artists from St. Petersburg, the old Russian imperial capital city. Fun fact: St. Petersburg is commonly referred to by native Russians as Питер (Piter) – St. Petersburg is just the English adaptation!

A man gazes into the colorful, brightly lit St. Petersburg Collections holiday shop at the Bryant Park Holiday Village.

The hand-painted sculptures were artfully displayed on shelves or hung up inside the shop. The intricate and elegant designs were simply amazing.

Side view of a shelf featuring stunning wooden sculptures, hand-painted by Russian artists.

Such sculptures are made out of linden wood, “a very soft natural wood that has been used for centuries by the master carvers of Europe,” according to this Etsy item description.

Festive holiday figures made out of linden wood, such as these, are featured throughout the shop.
Colorful ornaments were also hung on the shops walls and were very popular among shoppers. I especially loved this one!

The Russian nesting dolls, however, were my favorite part of the shop. Called матрёшка (matryoshka or matreshka) in the Russian language, they are a timeless centerpiece of Russian art and culture, and often a popular souvenir for tourists to take home from Russia! According to the Firebird Workshop, the first set of Russian nesting dolls was created at the Abramtsevo estate, “an intellectual and artistic center” located north of Moscow. The Firebird posting goes on to describe how, inspired by a set of Japanese nesting dolls, Sergei Malyutin, a resident artist at the estate, planned and sketched the first set of Russian matryoshki. He enlisted Vasily Zvyozdochkin, a fellow resident and woodworker, to carve his design (fun fact – Zvyozdochkin made them from linden wood!), the Firebird posting notes, and then painted the bare dolls himself.

This particular NYC shop featured many colorful, animated matryoshki.

What intricate detail!

I also conversed with the Russian shop owner, who told me more about the creation of the dolls and the other sculptures. He told me that St. Petersburg Collections has been in business for more than 17 years, and artists from both St. Petersburg and New York work together to create the pieces, all of which are quite common in Russia and in Russian art in culture. He seemed especially proud everything in his shop is hand-carved and hand-painted!

The shop owner reassembles a Russian nesting doll.

“For me, it’s art,” he said. “Pure, simple, beautiful, Russian art. And I love it.”

For me, too, I believe that sums up the experience quite nicely.

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