writers on dancing


Little Russia

Russian Seasons
St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre
Center for the Arts, George Mason University.
Fairfax, Virginia
April 16, 2005

by George Jackson
copyright ©2005 by George Jackson

Whites, pale pinks and purplish reds along Braddock Road where the apples, cherries and redbuds stood in full blossom promising further pleasure. Fool! Do you still hope for true choreography and consummate dancing from a barnstorming post-Soviet Russian ballet troupe? Well, perhaps at least the program's opening piece, Mikhail Fokine's "Chopiniana", more familiar as "Les Sylphides", would cast its spell once more. It had looked remarkably fresh just last February during American Ballet Theatre's visit.This Petersburg staging, though, proved to be full of annoyances. Before the curtain went up, a Chopin march orchestrated in a militaristic manner by Alexander Glazunov and Maurice Keller, contradicted the music of reverie that followed. However, those who know this ballet's stage history should, by now, have become used to this traditional Soviet discrepancy. Not, though, to Orest Allegri's set. When the lights came on, there on stage were the sylphs in apple blossom white, like plantings. The arbor they formed had, perhaps, too uncurved a line but it framed the familiar central group of a youth and three sylphs, two resting against his arms and one at his feet, touching the ground but about to rise. Behind the dancers though, instead of woodlands, was a neon blue fantasy of plant life that looked submarine. "Chopiniana" in an aquarium.

What the dancers delivered was basically Fokine's choreography as revised by Agrippina Vaganova. Yet here and there, between the dances, a gesture was added and a leg was bent—little things but noticeable because they were extraneous. The dancers did sustain movement continuity through the predominantly slow pacing of the accompanying recording, but seemed hampered by the small size of the stage. As the Youth, Yuri Andreev gave the impression of anemia. He had high leaps but spaghetti legs. His partner in the big duo, Anna Borodulina, looked awkward when lifted into the air. Julia Prosyannikova imbued the Prelude with a haughty tone but hadn't a particularly feathery bound. The third leading sylph, the one who touches the ground, showed delicacy and conveyed freshness. I think this was N. Toreashvily (casting still seems to be a state secret in Russia). Overall, the effect of "Chopiniana" was one of constraints rather than musings.

St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre dates to 1966. Its first director was Piotr Gusev, respected for his staging of the 19th Century classics. The choreographer Leonid Jacobson took over in 1969 and the company became the major vehicle for his expressive "miniatures"—short ballets staged in ways more experimental than the Soviet norm. Jacobson's leading dancer, Askold Makarov, led the company between 1976 and 2000. The current director, Yuri Petukhov, a Perm graduate, was appointed in 2001. Petukhov also became the company's house choreographer and the program's two other ballets were his.

"Capriccio Italien", to Tchaikovsky's music of that name, is a suite of dances. Part chamber-symphonic, part divertissement, this Petukhov ballet has a rather small cast: a few corps couples, two solo couples plus a lead pair. They are classically dressed and initially seem to be at a masked ball. The movement, built of academic combinations with sometimes a bit of character inflection, is vigorous to the point of being brusque. Steps, particularly those for the women, tend to be awkwardly linked. The men's enchainments are more grateful. There is one male trio, the most interesting number in "Italien", that starts out as a tipsy dance but, thankfully, Petukhov doesn't insist on insobriety to the end. With a shift in the music, the men make a fresh start and their simulated stagger straightens out. This ballet introduced the best thing about the evening, Nicolai Semenov, a 2001 graduate of the Vaganova Ballet Academy. He is worth watching, whether soaring, partnering or standing poised. Petukhov didn't put him through a nuanced lexicon of steps, preferring the heroic type, but I'd like to see Semenov so challenged. His ballerina, Maria Yakshanova, tackled Petukhov's dense, terre-a-terre combinations with determination.

Yakshanova was luckier in showing her skills in Petukhov's "Scheherezade". Again paired with Semenov, she had more airy steps and displayed a light, fast leap and agile point work. Much of the ballet's choreography, though, is bombastic. Using the same Rimsky-Korsakov tone poem as Fokine did for his famous version, Petukhov departs from the usual scenario. He tries to tell two stories simultaneously—that of Scheherezade spinning her stories for her concubine-killing Sultan and that of the ideal love in one of those Arabian tales—the romance of Princess Mariam with her father's handsome young prisoner, Nur. If only Petukhov had shown more invention, the long double duo for the two pairs could have been highly effective. Scheherezade, like Fokine's Zobeide, dances with sensual arms and torso plastique in soft slippers. Mariam's role is conceived more classically. For neither is there a sufficient vocabulary. Petukhov has them doing the same steps and taking the same poses over and over again and the attempted polyphony between the two pairs turns monotonous. Anastasia Lyubomudrova was an appealing Scheherezade and Alexander Abaturov a forceful villain as Mariam's official betrothed. The men of the company showed off in warrior dancing. Again, Semenov added excitement. None of that, though, helped more than momentarily to make the time pass. Nuanced choreography was needed.

April 18, 2005
copyright ©2005 George Jackson


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last updated on April 18, 2005