Ballet of the Maryinsky Theater
           Four Temperaments / La Valse / Aria Suspended:  evening July 7, 2007
           Romeo and Juliet: July 9, 2007
           Cinderella: July 10, 2007
St. Petersburg State Academic Ballet Theatre “Leonid Jacobson”
            Romeo and Juliet: July 8, 2007

by George Jackson
copyright © 2007 by George Jackson

Choreographing for the Maryinsky ought not to be done casually, off the cuff. Due consideration is called for because of the company’s grand traditions, its gigantic size (about 200 dancers and countless support staff with their attendant entropy (i.e., resistance to change), and its current circumstances (a sort of dual directorship that observers have called an unending duel). Also taken into account must be the particular charge that comes with a commission and, if the piece is to outlast one season, the company’s long range repertory needs.

Peter Quanz, from Canada, was charged with making something new for a tripe bill of ballets to Igor Stravinsky’s music. The established pieces on the program would likely have been Mikhail Fokine’s “The Firebird” and George Balanchine’s “Rubies”. Quanz chose as his score the “Symphony in C”, composed when Stravinsky was living in Paris in 1940 — a grim year historically and one of illness for the Russian émigré and his family. Nevertheless, the symphony is vigorous in both its urgent and contemplative passages. There’s a bold cubist edge to its dissonant chord progressions and a tenacious lyricism in its adagios.

The choice of this music meant that Quanz had still one more factor to think about: that there already exists a highly successful ballet by Balanchine to the “Symphony in 3 Movements” which Stravinsky composed two years later in a related style. Amazingly, Quanz addressed this and all the other considerations without letting them dampen his impulses. To boot, ”Aria Suspended” as the new work is named, premiered at the Maryinsky’s July 7 matinee not on an all-Stravinsky bill but preceding Balanchine’s Paul Hindemith “The 4 Temperaments” and another Balanchine, the Maurice Ravel ”LaValse”.  I saw the second performance in the evening. On this occasion, the program began with “4 Ts”, continued with “La Valse” and concluded with “Aria Suspended”.

“Aria” tips its hat to “Symphony in 3 Movements” by using variants of the “line motif” (the diagonal file of females Balanchine deploys so strikingly) but the ballet has its own personality and pulse. The dancing is step-based and in the neoclassical tradition for a cast of 32. There are four principals, eight soloists and a corps of twenty. Its male: female ratio is 1:1 for all but the principals — Quanz reversing a favorite Balanchine casting combination of 1 man to 3 women (“Apollo”, “Who Cares?”) so that his ballerina dances with three men. A few ensemble moments at the beginning seem busy, but that impression doesn’t reappear.    

As the work evolves, Quanz becomes quite the craftsman in configuring lines. There’s one particularly ingenious construct: as a horizontal file of male dancers passes through a female back-to-front lineup, the males move forward one female notch at a time and at a rather rapid rate. Although there are just two perpendicular lines of dancers, the effect is of a grid coming into being.  

Very different from School of Balanchine is Quanz’s presentation of character. Balanchine adheres more to the idea of “role”. The god and his muses in “Apollo”, the rulers and their courts in ”Ballet Imperial” or “Theme and Variations,” and even the figures in ”Agon” that engage in conjugal arrangements (“polygamy”, “polyandry”, “miscegenation”) enact parts. Their challenge is to live up to the Platonic idea of muse, of princess, of second wife or whatever. Particular dancers show their individuality in the way they strive to attain the ideal character. In contrast, Quanz’s ballerina and her three partners are people who express themselves, their inner beings, or seek to do so. Fulfilling a role is beside the point. There is no story, yet we see different facets of one woman as the ballerina encounters three different men. She seems to be testing herself, asking herself the “Who am I?” In this sense, Quanz is closer to the subjectivist tradition of an Antony Tudor than to the classical objectivity of a Balanchine.

Strong illumination is not the rule at the Maryinsky, but for “Aria Suspended”, the lighting (by Vladimir Lukasevich) was bright enough to see detail in Mikhail Barkhin’s partly cubist (painted), partly textured (projected) designs. The visual duality went well with the aural one of Stravinsky’s music. Also clear were the colors of Holly Hines’ costumes that matched or complemented the decor. The ballerina’s tunic, daringly, was an effective black with a small metallic silver grid plate at the cleft.

Ekaterina Osmolkina was the ballerina at this performance. One of the Maryinsky’s streamlined and strikingly articulated women, she took Quanz’s step rich vocabulary in her stride and didn’t indulge in overexpression. Her hair, though, changes color too much under different lights. Filipp Styopin, Andrei Ermakov and Alexei Nedviga were legible as her men of different ages and characters.

The program’s three ballets were conducted competently by Mikhail Tatarnikov, yet orchestral sonorities and plaintive melodies sounded more vivid for Prokofiev’s music a few days later. In “La Valse”, Anastasia Kolegova’s Debutante seemed to have come out already a few seasons ago. She was experienced rather than fresh and fearless. The lighting did not display the full spectrum of Karinska’s layered costumes. Despite good soloists in other “La Valse” roles and in “4Ts”, the company isn’t as much at home in these two New York ballets as in its own repertory. Osmolkina did double duty on the evening of July 7, also dancing Sanguinic in “4 Ts” (with Alexander Sergeyev); Maxim Zyuzin was in Melancholic, Anton Pimonov in Phlegmatic and Ekaterina Kondaurova in Choleric — a fierce first performance.

Leonid Lavrovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” suits Maryinsky dancers like their own skin and Sergei Prokofiev’score arouses the theater’s musicians — Pavel Bubelnikov conducting with authority. Diana Vishneva, as Juliet, was making a home visit on July 9 and her reception was rapturous. Vishneva’s dancing flowed like rich cream although she’s outgrown the girlish Juliet of the first scene. Igor Kolb has polished his solo passages as Romeo since last winter in Washington; the partnering he did was exemplary. Elena Bazhenova (Lady Capulet), Natalia Sveshnikova (Nurse), Ilya Kuznetsov (Tybalt), Vasily Scherbakov (Mercutio) and above all Vladimir Ponomarev (Lord Capulet) were essential. The classical cameos (before and during the Capulet ball, and in Juliet’s chamber) looked like Botticelli groupings set into motion. Alexei Ratmansky’s misbegotten “Cinderella” on July 10 got better than it deserved from a cast  headed by Daria Pavlenko (in the title role), Alexander Sergeyev (Prince) and Alexandra Iosifidi (Stepmother), with Mikhail Agrest conducting the Prokofiev.

A curiosity was another Prokofiev “Romeo and Juliet” by Yuri Petukhov’s St. Petersburg State Academic Ballet Theatre. Danced at the handsomely restored Alexandrinsky, a drama house without an orchestra pit so that the musicians are positioned in the front of  the main floor’s audience seating area, it revised the familiar scenario by adding Queen Mab as a fate figure, eliminating Friar Lawrence, demoting Lord Capulet and interweaving into the action a corps of Xerox lovers in leotards. The printed program gave no cast list or much other credit. Presumably, the choreography was Petukhov’s.

I kept wishing the nameless Juliet, a good and personable dancer, a better ballet. Romeo was gangly but partnered well. Juliet’s nurse, named Gertrude, was a travesty role; Mercutio dons drag during the Capulet ball to seduce Tybalt. Productions like this or better, especially of “Swan Lake”, are numerous during the St. Petersburg summer and snag the tourist trade. Some of the tourists misbehave, engaging in cell phone conversations during the performance and, even at the Maryinsky, taking flash photos. Perhaps, though, the visitors are just getting even for how hard it is to find ones seat in St. Petersburg’s theaters where the ushers are in the outer foyers selling programs and seldom inside the auditorium.

The Maryinsky’s printed programs, with a cover in a shade of light green like the Hermitage’s outside walls, give clues to the theater’s traditions. After the title of a ballet, the composer’s name is listed first (like at NYC Ballet), then those of the choreographer, stage designers and coaches. With each prominent dancer having one coach or more, usually several coaches are named for each ballet. Thereafter follow the names of the conductor and dancers. Sponsors are listed too, sometimes at the bottom of the page (like the Cooper Family Foundation which supported “Aria”), sometimes near the top (like Serge Diaghilev who commissioned Ravel’s “La Valse” music). Kirov, the alternate name for the Maryinsky, appears nowhere on the St. Petersburg programs. Coaches take prominent curtain calls, as did Patricia Neary (spelled Niri in the English text) for”4 Ts” and “La Valse”. Quanz and Hynes also had curtain calls along with the new cast following this second performance of “Aria Suspended”. The ballet seemed to click with the audience (indigenous and tourist). It did with me. Also the Maryinsky company appeared to take to it, dancing it as its own. I’ve not seen any reviews so far but was told that Maryinsky management is scheduling additional performances and has already asked Quanz for a program filling work for next season.  

The magic of St. Petersburg is multiple: the pastel spread of building facades along the waterways; the magnificence of interiors in palaces, churches and theaters; the beauty of bodies — marble ones like the Taglioni statue’s at the lobby entrance to the Hermitage Theater and Michelangelo’s crouching boy in the Hermitage Museum, or live ones  at the Maryinsky like Osmolkina’s taking a Quanz attitude proudly, her torso etched in Hynes’ deep black, and Vishneva’s, in flowing white, skimming the stage floor. If the theater lighting leaves something to be desired, take a canal ride after the final curtain and look  at the luminous midnight sky – rose clouds behind the golden dome of St. Isaac’s and everywhere else a surreal blue that reflects on the surface of the waters. Jean Rosenthal didn’t do better lighting, even in “La Valse”.  Broad daylight, though, can show walls crumbling, columns cracked and things that need fixing in Putin’s Russia.    

Photo on front page is of the Bolshoi Ballet in "Romeo and Juliet."

Volume 5, No. 28
July 16, 2007

copyright ©2007 by George Jackson

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