n West Berlin, June 1987 came the immortal words “If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union; if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
While I always felt The Beatles and their anthem of “All You Need is Love” had more to do with turning stones to dust in the wind than President Ronald Reagan's pontifications, his speech was considered a turning point in the Cold War.
The era of perestroika was upon us, and Russian cultural groups began tours of the United States.
Leaving Moscow in 1991, one such group was a ballet company with an amalgam of performers from the St. Petersburg Ballet and The Bolshoi. Arriving in Philadelphia, they performed their first night, to wake up the next morning with news that their visas had been revoked and they were stranded. Some were accompanied by wives and children.
A Wilmington-based doyenne of the arts brought them here and reached out to her corporate friends to create what was to become The Russian Ballet Theatre of Delaware. Through the '90s, the group performed at The Grand such staples as Romeo & Juliet with Prokofiev's music and an annual Nutcracker. It was mainly through the largess of MBNA that this occurred.
The money dried up in the late 1990s, and the acclimated former Russian citizens became Delaware citizens. They were through with the tortuous assaults on the body and the low pay of the struggling artist.
That is, all but one.
Lead dancer Pasha Kambalov, 38, of New Castle County, was not finished. He and dancer Kristina Dippel, who was soon to be his wife, established First State Ballet in Newport in September 1999. Pasha explained the mission. “As in our name, our aim was to be Delaware's ballet company. We would train aspiring pre-professionals and professionals and stage major ballets and mixed-repertory productions in Delaware and beyond.”
Robert Grenfell, 61, of Brandywine Hundred, a retired Verizon executive and student of dance since childhood under the tutelage of the iconic Jamie Jamieson, had performed in all the productions since 1991. He agreed to become president of the non-profit board. Grenfell made a connection with Del Tech Community College in Georgetown. This led to other collaborations and FSBT has been performing statewide now for six years.
“It's been an amazing nine years of both growth and balletic excellence,” says Grenfell. “These kids - many of whom will go on to professional careers - perform to the delight of our audience. We have sent many of our students overseas in international competition.”
FSBT's biggest break came in 2003 with the invitation to base their teaching studio at The Grand. This affiliation, along with partners Opera Delaware and Delaware Symphony, solidified FSBT as an arts institution.
There are two major reasons for even more excitement. They have recently created a professional dance troupe.
“The idea,” says Grenfell, “is to select young (affordable) dancers and cast them in major roles. In a major market, they would be six years in training before they would be given a major role. Think the Blue Rocks at Frawley Stadium.”
The second reason is a certified first scoop for Aisle Say: choreographer Viktor Pilotnikov, a colleague of Pasha, is creating an original work for FSBT based on the sculptures of Charles Parks.
“Years ago,” says Grenfell, “Charles Parks did sculptures of some of our dancers. With this piece, his art takes life.”
In 1990, when Reagan returned to Berlin, former West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl commented, “He was a stroke of luck for the world, especially Europe.” A stroke of luck for us as well in the First State.