and Juliet” / “La Bayadère” / Forsythe ballets
/ Balanchine ballets
There are critics who write as if the Kirov Ballet is at a peak. It makes me wonder how much they saw of the company in its really great days. Anyway, having admired the Kirov since 1961—when they had just lost Rudolf Nureyev but were still led by an amazing group of principals—and as often as possible in London, Paris and Petersburg over the years, I have to say that to me the company seems comparatively weak at present. It wasn’t until the fourth of their five London programmes that Igor Zelensky walked on stage to partner Diana Vishneva in “Ballet Imperial” and I thought: At last, a real grown-up star.
What’s the problem? Partly, I believe, maybe even principally, the influence of Valery Gergiev, artistic and general director of the Maryinsky Theatre. Reportedly it is “the maestro” who compels the ballet to tour constantly and excessively. During thirteen days in London they played eighteen performances (plus five stage rehearsals!)—and this engagement was only one of a series which had the dancers plodding from one country to another with hardly a break. Who could expect sustained enthusiasm and standards in such circumstances?
And then there’s the repertoire. When Makhar Vaziev became artistic director he spoke of reviving Soviet heritage ballets; where are they? Gergiev for his part has written about new works by young choreographers which, he claims, could determine the future of Russian ballet if given the attention they deserve by public and critics. Likewise, where are they? Well, this season began with (surprise, surprise) yet another run of Konstantin Sergeyev’s adaptation of “Swan Lake”. It ended with yet another run of “La Bayadère”. This did give us the wonderful sight of 32 beautifully trained women in the always dazzling Shades scene. But last time here, that was shown in the context of Sergei Vikharev’s reconstruction of Petipa’s 2000 revival; much, much better than what they have now reverted to, namely Sergeyev’s adaptation of the 1941 revision by Vladimir Ponomarev and Vakhtang Chabukiani. The extra dancing that provided for the hero is welcome, but I’m not so sure about the bronze idol solo, and the added duet for Nikiya and a slave is daft (whereas we don’t get the lovely old trio for a woman with a water jug and two pestering children). Also, thanks to its disproportionate early scenes and excision of the ending, the ballet comes nowhere near actually telling its story (not to mention how absurd the elephant, the dead tiger and the snake-charmer’s serpent have been allowed to become). As for performance, the leading women I saw (Daria Pavlenko as Nikiya, Ekaterina Osmolkina as her rival Gamzatti) weren’t bad, but I’ve seen a lot better from this company, and as Solor young Leonid Sarafanov’s virtuosity in his solos didn’t make up for a lack of any heroic command. In the vital mimed role of the High Brahmin, Vladimir Ponomarev gives even less theatricality than he used but far more pointless hand-waving.
Compare what has happened likewise to “Romeo and Juliet”—allegedly with its original 1940 choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky and production by Sergei Radlov. Odd: I thought I was seeing a lot of extra or exaggerated steps, and I distinctly remember in past days much dramatic effect which isn’t there any more. Vishneva’s Juliet was remarkable mostly for her high jumps, Mercutio and Benvolio (Sarafanov and Islom Baimuradov) became characterless high-kickers, Andrian Fadeyev made a very mild Romeo, and Ilya Kuznetsov is too good a character dancer to be shown as a Tybalt so over the top in gesture and facial expression as to be positively comic. In short, this was a travesty of Lavrovsky’s ballet.
But I’m neglecting the company’s attempts to bring itself up to date: a Forsythe programme and a Balanchine programme. From Forsythe we were shown “Steptext”, created 1985 for Aterballetto, Italy, “Approximate Sonata” and “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude”, both made 1996 for the Frankfurt Ballet, and “In the middle, somewhat elevated”, created for the Paris Opera Ballet 1987. All have since been danced by various companies; three of them reached the Kirov in March 2004, joined by “Sonata” a year later. Sensibly, they are all from among what he has called his ballet-ballets, not in the complex dramatic form which I think he has confined to his own company. We are told that the dancers find them difficult but relish the challenge. Great; that’s a good reason for doing them at home. But is it such a good reason for touring them? Some folk here claimed to be bowled over. I must say I’ve seen them all better done elsewhere. Only small casts are involved, and a few dancers among them stood out, notably Irina Golub, Tatiana Tkachenko, Igor Kolb and a better suited Sarafanov. As a rule, I’m glad to see dancers in unusual roles, but I can’t pretend to have found these two performances a great thrill. The ballets don’t seem to suit the Kirov really well. And I’m left wondering whether Forsythe is really going to take up the position he once seemed destined for, succeeding Balanchine as the developer of classical ballet.
Balanchine: ah yes. They’ve been doing some of his ballets for years now (was “Theme and Variations” the first, in 1987?) and bring an interesting twist to his classic style. This time they showed two that were mounted last year, including “La Valse” (created 1951) which hasn’t been seen in Britain for years. Its subtle structure of initially pure dance, to Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, that progresses to the emotional drama of "La Valse" itself, was somewhat sabotaged at the first performance by rowdy playing of the music by the Maryinsky Orchestra under Mikhail Sinkevich and by gloomy illumination (besides the old problem of noisy pointe shoes). Also Uliana Lopatkina in the lead, trying for once to act as well as dance, was not strongly sustained by Vladimir Shishov, stodgy as her admirer, and a passive Soslan Kulaev as the Death figure. Music and lighting were both improved the next night, when Pavlenko in the lead was ably supported by Andrei Merkuriev and Islom Baimuradov. I was not so impressed by Merkuriev and Pavlenko as the first cast for the more familiar “Prodigal Son”, where tough, fair-haired Mikhail Lobukhin danced the prodigal much more strongly and persuasively the next night, with long-legged, red-haired Ekaterina Kondaurova as his tempting siren. Closing the Balanchine bill was “Ballet Imperial” —given, unfortunately, not in its original imperial designs and elaborate short tutus but with the plain backcloth and floppy frocks which (mistakenly, to my mind) the choreographer adopted when he revived it for NYCB in 1973 as “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 2”. Vishneva, the first-night ballerina (crisp, speedy, but none too grand), may have felt there was something lacking in her costume, since she found herself an enormous tiara to help out; and as already mentioned she did have Zelensky as her cavalier—terrific personality, noble and handsome, a most elegant soloist and partner. Viktoria Tereshkina and Igor Kolb the next night were not bad but a notch down. Ekaterina Osmolkina and Olesya Novikova both danced the second ballerina nimbly (but I can’t be alone in remembering this as potentially a more majestic role); it was good to see the supporting ensemble, female and male, dancing with enthusiasm and apparent pleasure.
One more thought. A full page in the season brochure, reproducing a 1961 poster, reminds us that impresario Victor Hochhauser has brought the Kirov (“formerly Maryinsky”) Ballet to London for more than four decades now. The list of principal dancers then turned out to be wrong: besides Nureyev, it listed three others who did not appear. But it does remind us that the season included a full evening ballet never seen here before, “The Stone Flower” with its then unknown Prokofiev score and some amazing dancers led by Yuri Soloviev, Alla Osipenko, Alla Sizova, Inna Zubkovskaya, Irina Kolpakova and Anatoli Gridin; also “The Sleeping Beauty” to introduce the company’s beautiful classical style, and (besides “Giselle” and “Swan Lake”) a gala programme including our breath-taking first sight of the Shades scene from “Bayadère” and cheer-inducing male dancers in the Cossack camp scene from “Taras Bulba”. Beat that today if you can.
Photo: The Kirov Ballet in Balanchine's "La Valse."