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Charleston Ballet Academy revives the forgotten Russian tale of The Fairy Doll

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The Fairy Doll is like the phoenix of Russian ballet. It's faded in and out of the cultural repertoire repeatedly throughout its history. Even today, it remains largely unknown. But on April 26, this persistent production will take the stage once more at the Charleston Ballet Academy.

The academy teaches classical ballet to kids, ages three to 17, and every spring, the students present a ballet that they've been working on throughout the year. Though the dancers are young, the performances are significant and often include complicated choreography. "It's rigorous training year round," says Corina Fimian who owns and directs the academy. "We have pre-professional performers who can do some really nice things. This show is for anyone interested in ballet. It's also for anyone who wants to watch an old story come back to life."

So what's the deal with the story's vanishing act over the years? According to Fimian, it's because The Fairy Doll is shorter than what most ballet companies want to present. Longer, more complex performances have overshadowed it. There are various accounts of The Fairy Doll's history, but here's the background as we know it:

Channeling Sophia Petrillo of The Golden Girls... Picture it. Austria, 1888. The crème de la crème of the Austrian aristocracy settle into the gilded Liechtenstein Palace for a benefit hosted by the princess herself, Pauline Clémentine von Metternich. Princess Pauline was charmed by a ballet she'd seen in Paris, and she's hoping to recreate it tonight for her guests. The audience is enchanted, word of the performance spreads, and soon the ballet is brought to life on a grand scale by the Vienna Court Opera ... and later on stages across Europe. At the time, the ballet was known as Im Puppenladen, or The Doll Store, and didn't include the central character of the Fairy Doll. It's likely that the performance's early simplicity is what caused interest in it to wane.



Fast forward a couple of decades to the 1920s when the performance returns with a revised plot, and renowned Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova tip toes across the stage as the Fairy Doll. Because of her fame and her unique additions to the story, the ballet sprang to life once more. Pavlova and her troupe toured across the world, and The Fairy Doll was given the chance to be preserved.

Fast forward to the Charleston Ballet Academy, 2019. Corina Fimian owns and directs the academy and is looking for something different, something other than Swan Lake or The Nutcracker — both excellent productions but predictable and familiar. The Fairy Doll has only one videographed version available according to Fimian. With the performance's obscurity comes the freedom to get creative. "When you try to recreate a famous ballet like Swan Lake, you have to precisely use the choreography that is in place," she says. "You don't have the same freedom of expression with well-known ballets because people have expectations. They've seen it before. Choosing a ballet that almost no one knows gives us the freedom to make it our own."

The narrative of the ballet is relatively simple: Set in a toy shop, the shop owner spends his day showing eager customers the various dolls available from across the world. Each doll (or dancer) is dressed in distinctive cultural garb. One in particular stands out to the customers: the fairy doll. After the owner has left for the night, the dolls come to life and twirl around the shop with the fairy doll as the nucleus.

"We always do some sort of a story ballet because we don't do recitals at our studio. Last year we did Alice in Wonderland. We've done The Wizard of Oz. We always try to tell a story," says Fimian. "I did a lot of research to see if there was anything more that we could bring back and then I came across The Fairy Doll. It took a lot of digging and researching ballet history to get it as accurate as possible."

Is it exciting to watch students get excited about ballet? "Absolutely," says Fimian. "So many of these kids come here, and you're not really sure what they want to do. For some, it's what their parents want them to do. But then you have those students whose eyes light up, and they're really excited to be here. We had one student for six years who didn't know anything about ballet, and now she's studying dance in New York. To see them go through that journey is very beautiful and rewarding."

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