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Timeless Tchaikovsky

Raising the curtain on ‘the man behind the music’

Jonnathan Ramirez (left) and Rodrigo Hermesmeyer take center stage in “Tchaikovsky: The Man Behind the Music.”

Jeremy Charles

Tchaikovsky means tumult, tenderness, transcendence. You know his music even if you can’t tell a Sugarplum Fairy from a Swan Queen. Now he’s the subject of a new creation by choreographer Ma Cong, which begs the question: a ballet about the most recognizable composer in ballet—a gay man in 19th-century Russia, and one of the mightiest musical geniuses of all time? Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?

As it turns out, someone has. When “Tchaikovsky: The Man Behind the Music” premieres at the PAC later this month, it will be the culmination of more than 25 years of dreaming, trying, failing, and persevering on the part of Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini.

“I have been fascinated by Tchaikovsky’s music for longer than I can remember,” Angelini said. “Of course, as a ballet dancer, most of one’s professional life will be spent listening to Tchaikovsky’s tunes, as at least half of a professional dancer’s shows are Nutcrackers.” And that’s not counting the many symphonic performances that surprised him with their depth and range.

But it wasn’t just the music that got under Angelini’s skin.

“When I came to Tulsa, I started researching Tchaikovsky’s life and realized the forces at play that shaped his music. He was one of the favorite composers of the Tsar on one hand, and having to hide his personal life on the other. Add in the fact that his dad wanted him to pursue a ‘normal’ job, that his mother was the only one that believed in his talent as a musician from a young age, that she was his teacher and then died young. And suddenly ‘the man behind the music’ comes into full focus.”

The details of Tchaikovsky’s personal life remain debated to this day. Did he die, at 53, by suicide? Or was it cholera from a tainted glass of water taken after the premiere of his final symphony, the “Pathetique”? Did he have homosexual relationships throughout his life, or did he not (as Russian culture officials continue to assert)?

For Tulsa Ballet, the story that dared not speak its name was the one that wanted telling. It’s a lush two-act production, scored with his own music, tracking Tchaikovsky’s entire biography: his lovers; his attempts to pass in heterosexual relationships; his double life under the judgment of Russian society; his immense creative output.

Angelini assembled an international team for the job: a production designer from New Zealand, a lighting designer from Australia, and experts on Russian music and history, along with sets and costumes commissioned from the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Gathering the right crew is crucial for pulling off a show of this magnitude. However, Angelini said one man has been at the epicenter of this creation.

“I would say that the timing of this work depends on one team member reaching what I feel is the age of artistic maturity,” Angelini said. “That team member is, of course, Ma Cong. Young choreographers of current generations seem to be great at creating works that express their feelings, but it takes maturity to inhabit the mind and the soul of someone else and tell their story. Ma is ready, so I needed to present him with the opportunity.”  

For Cong, longtime Tulsa Ballet resident choreographer and father of twins with his husband Thomas Landrum, the music’s richness points to the complexity of the life in which it was created. “As a gay man living in that world of high society, of course Tchaikovsky would feel some sort of damage,” Cong said. “That kind of tremendous pressure could also push someone into a deeper level of creativity.

“It’s intense. It is tragedy. But there are so many loving moments to balance that.”

After trying since the mid-‘90s to produce a ballet about Tchaikovsky the man, and never feeling that the time was right, Angelini said he finally felt that this time—when more conversations about marginalized communities are taking place in Tulsa and around the world—it could work.

“We want this piece to instigate an exchange of ideas,” he explained. “At the end of the day, who fits in? Definitely not people like me, a guy growing up in a middle class neighborhood in Naples, with a dad who was making a living as a ballet dancer, and myself being a ballet student. Could it be that most people don’t really fit in the very narrow mold of society? Could it be that everybody tries very hard to fit the mold? And at what personal and emotional and societal price?

“Is it possible that society needs people that don’t fit in, because those are the people who think outside the box and create new molds?” Angelini continued. “Could it be that a country whose life depends on innovation needs them? Those, and many more, are the questions I hope to generate in our community by raising the curtain on the life of Tchaikovsky.”  

Tulsa Ballet consistently programs work that brings classical tradition into conversation with contemporary issues. By putting its resources and talents forward in the service of real human questions, the company insists that this art, like any other, is an essential player in a healthy community. Beauty and elegance, yes. But heart and vision, too.

Tchaikovsky: The Man Behind the Music
Tulsa Performing Arts Center
March 29–31
Tickets at 918.749.6006 or tulsaballet.org

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