When the Kirov Ballet brought its sumptuous, lovingly camped up production of “Le Corsaire” to the Kennedy Center about 15 years ago it was a marvel. The company had turned a 19th century tale of pirates and slave traders and harem girls that audiences had then found “beautiful and moving” into an over-the-top melodrama, and before you had a chance to be nonplussed by this, the dancers charmed you into submission. If anything could be called an All Star Extravaganza, this was it; a performance from that era starring Altynai Asylmuratova, Evgeny Neff, Konstantin Zaklinsky, Faruk Ruzimatov, and Elena Pankova is now out on DVD and it’s well worth watching. Sadly, it’s also a reminder that the Kirov is a very different company now.
What it presented in DC last week more resembled An Evening of Championship Skating than a ballet. Young man after young man came out and did his best trick—steps that, as yet, have no name; Steps That Were Done More Times Than Any Human Has Ever Done Them Before—and then, when his moment of glory had come and gone, sank into inertia letting the story fend for itself. Virtuosity is thrilling and glorious and one of the reasons we love Russian dancers, but these solos were delivered in competition mode: a cold-blooded out of context delivery of steps with reference neither to the other dancers nor the ballet.
“Le Corsaire” has two meaty roles for ballerinas. Medora, the Greek girl who just happens to be jetéing along the beach when a pirate ship capsizes AND mercenaries are trolling for new girls to be sold at the slave market, has a range of solos—demi-caractére, lyrical, and purely classical—that test her technique and her dramatic range. Gulnare, Medora’s friend (who doesn’t seem to mind being sold into a harem as long as she has pretty clothes and lots of jewels) dances the great Pas d’Esclave in the first act, and, with Medora, in the third act's Jardin Animée. Unfortunately for us, the Kirov didn’t bring its ballerinas. We saw two very raw young women (the pallid Viktoria Tereshkina on Tuesday and the aggressively cheerful Alina Somova on Wednesday) whose sole claim on the role seems to be their facility for turns and very high extensions. Very floppy high extensions, to be more specific. The legs shot skyward constantly, with no attention to placement or musicality or dynamic; each use of the extension resembled every other. Watching them was like watching a stage of people constantly waving at you with their feet. The extensions have now moved beyond 180 degrees to the 190-200 range, and one has the horrible feeling they’re grimly aiming for 360s before they’re through.
This emphasis on flexibility above all else is the most disturbing characteristic of the current company, tied with the lack of visible coaching. Neither Tereshkina nor Somova seemed to have been coached in how to carry a ballet, to create a character, to vary the tone of her dancing, to build either technical or dramatic tension. This was roadshow casting, it seemed, more about giving stage experience to up and coming favorites than showing the company or the ballet at its best because, as one Russian friend put it, “a Russian audience wouldn’t stand for it.”
Dramatically, the ballet did improve as the run progressed. If opening night was somnolent, by Saturday afternoon, the ballet had recovered some of its spirit. Tatyana Tkachenko does know how to create a character. Her Medora was angry at having been kidnapped and showed it, not only in the glare she shot Lankedem, the slave trader, at her unveiling, but through her dancing. She’s also very musical, once actually correcting herself as she danced when she lost the musical line. In the same cast, Olesya Novikova was a lovely Gulnare. Like her sisters, she has a very high extension, but her leg floats up effortlessly and she makes this integral to her dancing, not decorative.
If the first two acts were often a disappointment, the third act, crowned by the Jardin Animée, one of Petipa’s masterpieces of writing for a corps de ballet and female soloists, showed a completely different world. The Kirov corps is still splendid, unmatched in unity of style and purity of execution. The three odalisques were excellent each night—some may have been more secure turners than others, but they were dancing, not executing steps—and even the wayward young Medoras and Gulnares seemed tamed.
Of the men, I liked Anton Korsakov’s Lankedem on Saturday afternoon (with Tkachenko), the only one in the casts I saw to wring every ounce of goofiness out of his part, creeping around the stage in true melodrama villain fashion, and sinking into the deep plies in his first act solo as though sinking into a chair— then springing up, like a big cat pouncing. I liked one of the Birbantos very much, but I can’t tell you which one, since the same name appeared in the program each night, even though the dashing and dastardly pirate on Wednesday didn’t look at all, to me, like the reticent youngster who’d tried to foment rebellion opening night and Saturday afternoon. Of the Conrads, I liked Vladimir Shishkov, who looked and danced like a pirate, Wednesday, and the noble Evgeny Ivanchenko Saturday afternoon, though his technique seemed more muted than I remember him from his performances with the Bolshoi. Leonid Sarafanov, who danced Ali opening night, is still a boy wonder—his tricks were the best! Especially on the off nights, Vladimir Ponomarev as the Sheik, with his greedily twitching fingers and "Gimmee more girls!" mime, held the story together.