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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 The gown she wears was brought from the Ukraine, originally made for a role in “La Esmeralda.”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 The gown she wears was brought from the Ukraine, originally made for a role in “La Esmeralda.”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 The dress was originally made for the ballet “Le Corsaire.”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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