ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA -- Like vodka and Faberge eggs, there's something essentially Russian about the ballet -- especially in St. Petersburg, where if the art wasn't exactly invented, it was certainly perfected.
So when I learned that my Seabourn Ovation cruise would stop for two evenings in the former Russian capital, I hoped I could devote one of them to seeing a ballet at the theater where tsars once watched the Imperial Russian Ballet.
Known during Soviet times as the Kirov, the theater was renamed in 1992 as the Mariinsky, after the wife of Tsar Alexander II.
The ballet on the schedule the night we could attend was "Giselle," being performed by a troupe from Vladivostok that has institutional connections to the Mariinsky Theatre.
The exterior of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, where operas, concerts and ballets were once staged for Russia’s nobility and royal family. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst
Seabourn passengers can buy the tickets directly through the cruise line or through an independent shore excursion operator.
I had to buy the tickets well in advance. They were quite expensive ($215) and I had no way of picking the seats, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the seats obtained for my wife and I by our tour company, Alla Tours, were in the first row.
It was a real treat, something we would not have done back in Miami where we've seen "Giselle" staged by the Miami City Ballet.
The performance started at 7 p.m., but our daylong tour of St. Petersburg on an Alla bus ended at 4:30. Our guide said there was no sense in fighting traffic back to the ship, so we spent a relaxing 90 minutes at a cafe across the street from the Mariinsky, catching up on e-mails and our day. (Without an independent visa for Russia, we were not allowed to just walk the streets on our own.)
Soon enough, our escort, a 23-year-old with an abundance of bubbly friendliness, took us across the street and gave us our tickets.
The theater, which dates from 1860, is painted in mint green and white. Once inside, there's a gallery of vaulted arches on the first floor and a more imperial reception room upstairs with impressive chandeliers and a sculpted Russian double eagle keeping an eye on things.
The Imperial box at the Mariinsky Theater, built in 1860. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst
Inside, the theater is all gilt and green velvet. There's another killer chandelier hanging from a robin's-egg blue ceiling. Four tiers of boxes in a horseshoe overlook the orchestra seating.
Reminding me I was in Russia was the Imperial box, second tier center, which is where Russian royalty watched ballets like "The Nutcracker" (1892) and "Swan Lake" (1895) for the first time.
I was not the only fan. As far as I could tell, the 1,625-seat theater was sold out on a Tuesday night, with the audience a 50-50 mixture of Russian speakers and tourists like ourselves. To our left, we enjoyed talking to an English lawyer and his Russian wife. Most people were casually dressed, but a few were more formal.
Act 2 of "Giselle" takes place in a graveyard. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst
All too soon it was over. The dancing was terrific, the orchestra soulful, the atmosphere inspiring. The second act, which takes place in a graveyard, was especially well staged and well danced.
We left thinking it will be a memory that will sustain us long after we've departed St. Petersburg.