Looking back at 2012

Looking back at 2012

This year has seen the city’s arts institutions experiment and innovate — with varying results.

Published: December 12, 2012 (Issue # 1739)


The new staging of ‘Boris Godunov’ stunned audiences with its audacious references to modern Russia.

Experiment and controversy dominated the local artistic scene this year. The St. Petersburg arts environment, which — despite the city’s moniker of “cultural capital” — has frequently been likened to the serenity and academism of “The Sleeping Beauty,” is now booming and blooming. The creative element of these endeavors has been an obvious hit-and-miss enterprise and has not escaped serious criticism, but it is becoming harder and harder for skeptics to refer to St. Petersburg cultural life as somnambulist, homogenous and conservative.

The St. Petersburg Kinoforum showcased existential films in impressive quantities, but was it necessary to squeeze four film festivals into a single, packed week? Did British theater director Graham Vick go too far in his sobering examination of Russia’s ages-long corrupt relationship between the rulers and their governed? The decade-long Mariinsky II construction saga is finally reaching its finale — and as strong as the relief that the procrastination is finally over is regret that the city has failed to acquire the new architectural marvel that the project had promised to become when the planet’s most creative architects submitted their visions of the new theater at an international competition back in 2003. Is the reconstructed version of the Summer Gardens a triumph of kitsch or a sign of respect for historical legacy? These were some of the complex and challenging issues that St. Petersburg faced this year.


At long last, almost a decade after the government decided to construct a second stage for St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater in 2003, the theater has announced the opening date of its new building. Mariinsky II, designed by the Canadian architectural bureau Diamond and Schmitt architects, will have its acoustics checked at a forthcoming test concert on Dec. 22. The official inauguration is scheduled for May 1, 2 and 3, when the new venue will receive its first audiences.

In March, the Audit Chamber found massive violations in the construction process, which is being carried out by the North-West Construction, Reconstruction and Restoration Directorate. The auditors said at the time that budget money had been spent ineffectively on construction during the last three years. The inspection also revealed that at least 290 million rubles ($9.4 million) had been misspent.


Russia’s self-proclaimed cultural capital is showing signs of ambition. The St. Petersburg Kinoforum, which took place for the third time in September, has evolved into an umbrella brand for four different film events, namely the International Film Festival and three already established local events: The Message to Man festival of short and documentary films, the Beginning festival of student films and the Vivat, Russian Cinema! festival of Russian films.

Reflecting on the experiment, its participants said that the unification has been a success. Internationally acclaimed Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica, who presided over the jury of the International Film Festival, said the St. Petersburg event has great potential.

“With such an astounding background in the filmmaking industry and a wealth of up-and-coming talent, St. Petersburg is a natural cinematic capital,” the director said.

However, the project’s ideologists have agreed that for the sake of the audiences, the festival needs to run over a longer time period. This year, spectators were tormented by the high concentration of tempting screenings happening simultaneously at different locations. Having to choose was difficult, and squeezing the four distinctive events into a one-week festival was perhaps unwise, critics said.

“In the future, I think the film forum needs to be transformed into a kind of film marathon,” said Lyudmila Tomskaya, director of the Vivat, Russian Cinema! festival. Although the exact format of the next Kinoforum is yet to be determined, it has been suggested that St. Petersburg should follow in the footsteps of the established international film festivals in Cannes, Berlin and Helsinki that traditionally run for two weeks.


‘Alegria’ will visit the city in 2013.


Intensity and concentration was apparently in the air this year. In June, six premier St. Petersburg fashion designers indulged in a game called “Playing at Antiquity,” which saw six dramatic outdoor fashion shows within just one evening.

Lilia Kisselenko’s collection had an Olympic twist, with models sporting longbows, balls and ribbons as props on the catwalk in the Cameron Gallery of the Tsarskoye Selo former imperial estate, while designer Tatyana Kotegova’s models rode in open carriages in the alleys of the adjacent Catherine Park. Ianis Chamalidy built a bridge between the worlds of pagan antiquity and monotheistic Christianity with his collection, entitled “Bird in a Cage,” and Stas Lopatkin sent his models, dressed as forest and water nymphs, to dance gracefully — with languid sensual movements that looked as if they had been borrowed from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes — across the grass and around a fountain.

The event was part of the annual Association project, which was held for the fourth time this year. Every year, the show celebrates an epoch or style in art — as seen through fashion — and is put together by the finest fashion talent from Russia’s cultural capital.

“Art and fashion have so much in common, and our event is great proof of that,” said Olga Taratynova, director of the Tsarskoye Selo Museum Estate. “We cannot wait for the next edition of our fashion feast.”


In one of the most captivating and visually spectacular events of the year, Cirque du Soleil celebrated the talent of the late king of pop, Michael Jackson, in its new production “Michael Jackson The Immortal” that enjoyed its Russian premiere in St. Petersburg in November.

With “Michael Jackson The Immortal,” the world-renowned Canadian circus company has for the first time produced a rock-tour-style performance juxtaposing music, dance and acrobatics.

The globe-trotting company will return to the city in 2013 with its classic show “Alegria.” This veteran production, which first hit the stage in 1994 in Montreal, has been a huge international success, with 10 million spectators attending the shows.

“Alegria is a Spanish word that means joy and jubilation,” said Katja Byushgens, a spokeswoman for Cirque du Soleil Russia. “This production has baroque and operatic style, flamboyant costumes, original music performed live and an elaborate set that serves to enhance the astonishing spectacle of athleticism and artistry.”


The Summer Gardens divided public opinion when they reopened in May.


Creative spirit abounded in the city’s restaurants this year during a new gastronomic project launched with the goal of showcasing the cream of the crop of international cuisine to St. Petersburg. Titled Chef’s Discovery, the project saw six of the world’s most dynamic chefs visit St. Petersburg from locations ranging from South Africa to the Seychelles during the course of this year.

The project began in March with 28-year-old Moscow chef Dmitry Zotov, who delights in incorporating elements of gastronomic theater into the presentation of his sets, serving up a seven-course meal at the panoramic restaurant Luce, located at the top of the Grand Palace shopping center. During the course of the year, the city’s dining establishments welcomed international star chefs, such as the award-winning South-African chef David Higgs, who introduced a highly creative signature five-course meal at the More.Yachts Seafood restaurant. The driving force behind the Chef’s Discovery project is Alyona Melnikova, an advertising and marketing specialist whose roles include brand ambassador for Acqua Panna and San Pellegrino mineral water brands in the city. The two brands are at the heart of the San Pellegrino Cooking Cup, an annual gastronomic regatta that is held in Venice.

“It is an open secret that St. Petersburg boasts only a couple of restaurants that can safely be counted as gastronomic — miX in W hotel and Grand Cru, and that is about it,” Melnikova said. “Ultimately, the aim is to inspire more gastronomic venues to pop up. In 2013, the project will not only continue in St. Petersburg, but also expand to Moscow.”


The premiere of the British director Graham Vick’s rendition of Mussorgsky’s opera “Boris Godunov” at the Mariinsky Theater in May became one of the most discussed premieres of the season. In a production that saw the action transposed from the late 16th century to the modern day, the director acted like a surgeon, carefully exposing the many absurdities and peculiarities that are key to the reality to which the country is so accustomed. From the boyars’ wives draped in furs and oversized sunglasses to the police officers surreptitiously accepting backhanders from illegal immigrants, the action on the stage of the Mariinsky represented a microcosm of modern Russian life.

Some reviewers welcomed the director’s attitude, comparing Vick to the French aristocrat Marquis de Custine. The historical de Custine is the author of scandalously critical memoirs about his life in Russia — in particular, in St. Petersburg — which were written in the early 19th century.

Others accused Vick of being a Russophobe, offering questionable subjective judgments and creating a distorted image of Russia.

“The director has no right to be patronizing” and “Trying to offer a modern twist on this historical Mussorgsky opera was doomed from the start: It is as silly as trying to add a few extra paragraphs to Pushkin’s prose” were a couple of the shots fired at Vick.


More controversy arrived in May with the reopening of the Summer Gardens. Founded by Peter the Great in 1704, the gardens welcomed visitors after having been restored to their historical splendor. The reconstruction work, which took almost two years to complete, has dramatically changed the face of the magnificent gardens. Peter meant for them to be regular gardens, and the restoration was intended to emphasize this concept. Landscape designers and historians meticulously examined historical documents, prints and sketches in order to plant trees and bushes as conceived in the tsar’s original plan. Four fountains are now located on the gardens’ main alley, while three more are situated inside boskets. The park’s ornate railings — one of the most popular postcard views of St. Petersburg — have also been fully restored. This Herculean effort stirred a wave of criticism, however.

“The gardens are suffocating under all the inner fences and enclosures” and “a feast of kitsch” were some of the bold accusations that the grand restoration project endured.

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