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Fur flies in ballet mixup

Local dancers left out of Russian troupe's Victoria debut of Swan Lake

Twelve Victoria dance students who trained for a month to perform in Swan Lake with the Moscow Ballet waited in the wings three times on Thursday night, but never appeared on stage.

The show's producer, Akiva Talvi, first accused them of missing their cues, then yelled at their teacher and blamed her for the mixup, but Victoria ballet mistress Gina Sinclair-Davis said they were given the wrong music to rehearse.

"In 45 years of dancing I have never, never, ever experienced anything quite so outrageous and infuriating," said Sinclair-Davis after the show, noting she has yet to be paid for her time.

"I was livid. There was such a commotion going on backstage. The kids were upset, the producer was screaming at me, waving his finger in my face. Parents were furious and that's putting it mildly."

At one point, while they were hoping for an explanation or apology from Talvi, one of the English-speaking dancers was told to tell the parents the history of Swan Lake. "It was one of those surreal moments, so outrageous that it was hysterically funny."

Sinclair-Davis started to have misgivings when she arrived at the theatre for a 2 p.m. rehearsal on Thursday. She and her girls went over their routine alone, as the Moscow dancers did not arrive until after 4 p.m.. They missed their ferry and were held up at the border.

The young dancers returned at 6:25 for fittings and a rehearsal, only to be told there were only eight costumes and four of the students had to be cut. Sinclair-Davis said that was unacceptable and managed to find a pile of white tutus no one was using. All of the costumes were altered on the spot.

Next came problems with the music that Sinclair-Davis had been given. The counts were different, but during rehearsal they were assured all would be well.

"Come the performance, they used another set of music," said the teacher. "The kids were standing in their tutus in the wings ready to go, waiting for the cue that never came. Some of the dancers were yelling at them in Russian . . . the whole thing was a shemozzle."

It happened again as they waited for a second cue. And then again at the end of the show, when the students were told they would at least go on stage to take a bow but were left waiting in the wings. "It was all very upsetting. The producer was very rude, and some parents and families are asking for their money back."

Yesterday morning, Talvi said: "The children will perform tonight. I saw them rehearse yesterday and from the bottom of my heart they looked beautiful, in good form. Compliments to the lady who trained them. But everybody got upset last night and I'm trying to get to the bottom, to make sure the children are honoured tonight. We are having a full rehearsal just for them, the Russians are going out of their way . . . but as they say, stuff happens.

"I've been doing this for 35 years and we've never failed with this before. We have an authentic wish for outreach to children. This is a goodwill gesture. No Russian company has ever been so generous."

Moments later, when he was asked about the change in music and apparent lack of costumes, his tone became hostile: "This conversation is over."

When this reporter said goodbye, he countered "Don't hang up on me," and went on to say 14 brand new costumes were made for young dancers who will take part in the eight-city western Canada tour. He couldn't explain the mixup, but stressed "the children will look spectacular tonight, believe me."

Asked if parents will receive refunds he said he didn't know: "I am the talent, not the money man."

Valerie Rice, mother of young dancer Cam Rice-Gural, criticized the company's tact.

"I understand these things happen, but all the kids have been working really hard and Gina is a fabulous teacher. I think sometimes these professional companies forget to give kids the respect they deserve. The children handled it so well, there were no tears. This isn't the kind of thing a first-rate dance company does."

Paige Sealey, 16, felt let down by the experience.

"We did our makeup, were all set to go, doing the counts in our heads, and the cue never came. It was really disappointing. These are dancers and a company I looked up to, and was so excited to dance with. I also feel cheated because they tried to blame it on us."

The whole thing was "a stupid, ridiculous screw-up," said Sinclair-Davis who noted yesterday she was given a CD of the music many weeks ago, and also videotaped the Russian dancer who came to demonstrate the steps.

"It's not like I'm making this up, we had it on tape. The wonderful thing is the kids were amazing and brave of heart. I told them, if you have a desire to be a professional dancer don't judge it by this experience."

The show is a fundraiser for a drug and alcohol treatment centre in Calgary called Recovery Acres Society and the group's spokesman, Joe Hoggan, said he was mortified by the news.

"Mistakes were made and we are deeply saddened. We are doing everything in our power to make up for it.

"We are offering refunds or free tickets tonight to all the parents, and [today] parents and dancers are all invited to the Fairmont Empress for tea with the dancers and they'll be given autographed posters and T-shirts.

"We are mobilizing to do everything we can."