I was jolted out of my daydream by a sudden wall of people crushing against me and my friends. We were suffocating in a mass of bad fur coats and a noxious cloud of body odor, packed like so many little eggs of Russian caviar into a subway car in Moscow's metro.
"I think you will like the ballet," my Russian friend Marina yelled in my ear as the subway car hurtled down the line. "Have you ever been?"
I shook my head and imagined people laughing at the girly-man who went to the ballet for Spring Break instead of seeing people dance in their underwear legitimately at some bar in the 'Cun.
"I've been to the Bolshoi a few times; to the ballet. But I like the opera, too," Marina said.
"You're so cultured," I jabbed.
"Of course," she said sarcastically. "I'm Russian."
Although Marina was joking about it, she wasn't exaggerating that much.
Over Spring Break I visited Moscow with a group organized by UNC's School of Journalism. When not sipping Smirnoff or hitchhiking around the city (it's legal and encouraged), we learned a little about Russian media and culture. And let me tell you, comrades, Russians (at least Muscovites) are serious about culture.
Everywhere in Moscow there are squares and monuments named for the classic Russian authors. One girl in a bar even told me "You look very much like our poet Pushkin."
Wow. Can you imagine meeting some girl at He's Not telling you with a straight face "You know, you look just like e. e. cummings?" In a word, nyet.
So our Russian hosts decided we Americans needed a little cultural schooling and had gotten us tickets for the ballet "Spartacus" -- at the world-famous Bolshoi Theater.
As we emerged from the metro and trudged through the muddy snow to the beautiful theater, the cloud of dread that was hanging over me began to lift a little. "This looks like a nice place, full of really comfortable seats," I thought. "I'm sure I'll be able to get a good, long nap."
We arrived 10 minutes late and were herded through the theater, down red carpets and under chandeliers to our seats -- at the very back of the very top balcony.
Somewhere in the distance down below, the dancers were prancing around the stage like wounded gazelles. Their outfits were embarrassingly tight. The whole thing just seemed too froofy. And the heat at the top of the theater was stifling. I could feel myself sinking into dreams of Anna Kournikova.
But then, a wave of completely alien thoughts popped into my mind. "Wow, that pirouette was great. Did you see how high she jumped? That guy is totally spinning her like a hula hoop!"
Oh God. I liked the ballet.
In the intermission after the first act, we discovered that our seats in the nosebleed section were only temporary. Our real seats were right on the main level, with a great view of the stage. If I turned around I could see the whole magnificent theater behind me, with its elegant gold-painted balconies, and a huge gilded representation of the Soviet hammer and sickle above the main entrance.
As the lights went down for the second act I didn't even try to deny it anymore -- this was cool. The dancers' form and grace was amazing. Their physical strength was impressive to say the least. The huge leaps, bounds and spins were just awe-inspiring. It was like an action movie in women's underwear -- a very weird, but really good action movie.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the ballet was that it had a plot. These dancers were telling a complicated story, but without words.
Duh, Brian, that's what ballet is.
I know, but it really was something to see it and understand the storyline just from the dancers' movements. The uncultured American that I am, I had no idea that dance could be so expressive and convey so much. But there the dancers were, expressing and conveying away, and it was great -- and very Russian.
While I didn't wake up on some beach in Daytona the next morning naked in a pool of my own vomit, I'd have to say the Bolshoi was one of my all-time greatest Spring Break experiences. I managed to hold on to a few brain cells, learn a lot, get some culture and see some of the best ballet in the world.
Just don't tell my friends, OK?
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