DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition
When Ballet Was Revolutionary
The Kirov Ballet—or at least that segment which started an American tour this past week at Zellerbach Hall as part of Cal Performances dance season—has been dancing gloriously, and that should have been enough. But to see these dancers, so beautifully and totally engaged in three classic Mikhail Fokine works was extraordinary. The pieces, choreographed within two years, 1908-1910, could not be more different from each other. Yet these dancers went from the pristinely self-contained Chopiniana to the lascivious writhings of Scheherazade and then on to the Duncan-inspired princesses and stomping whirl wind circles in Firebird with the greatest of ease. Without denigrating the achievements of Kirov’s superb soloists, these performances also proved that a company is only as good as its corps.
But there was more to these performances. History tells us about Fokine’s innovations—his insistence on creating through-composed works in which dance, music and décor create a unit larger than its parts and his belief that dance can tell a story without recourse to mimetic gestures or a fixed vocabulary. This program offered the opportunity to try to see if and why Fokine succeeded in these three pieces and why his first audiences were so enthralled. Granted that today’s technically better trained dancers cannot embody their predecessors. Still theirs is a direct line into Fokine’s Russian heritage. Additionally, Chopiniana has been in their repertoire almost continuously.
Trying to look into the past also afforded surprising glimpses into the future. Seeds were planted in these works that would blossom in ways that neither its performers nor its original audiences could have anticipated. Bronislava Nijinska, for instance, danced in the corps of Chopiniana. I tried to imagine her stocky body among these exquisitely elongated ballerinas with their extraordinary swan necks on top of subtly shifting épaulement. I couldn’t, and yet she was there.
Chopiniana was exquisitely danced with a pristine preserve-under-glass delicacy that made you want to hold your breath out of fear that you might accidentally disturb the pictures unfolding in front of you. With a master’s touch for nuances, Fokine deployed the corps in formations that frame, support and respond to what happens center stage. Whether fanning out to create a performance space much the way Petipa did, executing alternating tendus to enliven otherwise static poses, or crossing wrists to draw our attention to what was happening in the pas de deux, these dancers moved with a common purpose. They knew that they were there to create a setting and enhance a mood. And they did it superbly. There was a set, almost static quality to this imagistic dancing that took some getting used to. But it worked.
What drew my attention this time was the two upstage group formations behind the Young Man’s (The Poet) Mazurka. Facing front, the dancers kneeled, each of them shaping two overlapping semi-circles; one closely cupping the head with one arm, the other reaching over it to the next dancer. While these poses were at once pretty, they were also strong with a distinct architectural quality to them. All of a sudden, I seemed to see a young Nijinska and wondered whether maybe, much later when she choreographed Les Noces, she was remembering Chopiniana.
Irina Golub’s private meditation in the ‘Prelude’ invited sighs. Exquisitely rounded arms tried to catch a long lost melody and in the superb balances--torso pushed forward just a fraction--she was the embodiment of those 19th century engravings. I the 'Valse,' lovely Yana Selina’s looked like she was gathering clouds, scooping them up with her arms and sending them off just beyond reach as her port de bras stretched to elongate an arabesque a mite beyond what seemed possible. Magnificent, with stately, evenly paced and perfectly placed relevé hops in the Mazurka, Daria Sukhorukova was delicate, even a little bit flirtatious, with Danila Korsuntev in the ‘Valse.’ Dancing with her, Korsuntev opened like a flower, trying to fluff her wings, but always discrete as if afraid to damage the vision in front of him. Wonderfully pulled up, he was the perfect poet, inward looking but responsive to the beauty around him.
Scheherazade drew on much more robust material. The reconstructions of Bakst’s costumes and designs looked less opulent than expected. From the reproductions I anticipated more of a textural quality, a certain heaviness through all that layering, that did not materialize. The set also did not include the painted floor cloth which had given the original—as least as appearing from pictures—such a self-enclosed, hermetic hot-house atmosphere. The costumes in motion, however, yielded wonderful surprises. The Eunuch’s (Roman Skripkin) boxy coat over pants, for instance, transformed him into a wind-up toy when the Sha’s wives’ tickling set him spinning. In her turns Zobeide’s three tiered harem pants bloomed into little pagodas.
It’s understandable why it’s no longer acceptable to slather the slaves with the “bluish-gray” (according to Nijinska) body paint. But from a purely visual point of view, all those intertwining limbs might have looked a little bit more differentiated if you had been able to tell who did what to whom. Also to watch these girlish concubines, quite playful in the way they teased the poor old Eunuch, turn into viragos of lust by the turn of a key was stretching credulity more than a bit.
Scheherazade's story is simple enough. Sharir, an oriental potentate is burdened with a jealous and conniving brother, Zeman, and quite a few unfaithful wives, including his favorite one, Zobeide (Tatiana Tkachenko). One day, while the sha goes hunting, the concubines have their way with the slaves. Upon the ruler's return, and egged on by the brother, everyone is unceremoniously slaughtered. Except Zobeide. She kills herself.
In general Fokine’s storytelling is clear with a stern, yet deeply in love Sha Shahryar (Vladimir Ponomarev), and a brooding Rodinesque—leaning over, chin cupped in hand, staring at the lovers--Zeman (Andrei Yakovlev). Characterization was as broad as we're used to seeing in silent movies and melodramas. Curious also were the gestural repetitions which underlined the Sha’s authority—and the brother’s jealous conniving. While they afforded authority, maybe Fokine wasn’t quite confident that the audience would understand a “no” the first time around.
The three sinewy Odalisques’s temptation dance looked back at La Bayadère but the two-dimensionality of their Egyptian-style stepping in profile certainly must made have an impression on young Nijinsky who was watching them from the wings, waiting to burst out of his cage. So maybe Parisian audiences were not quite as overwhelmed as we have been led to believe when they saw his nymphs in L’Apres-Midi d’un Faun, more flattened to be sure, a few years later.
Tkachenko, a beautiful, sinewy dancer with a floor-sweeping cambré danced the flame-fanning Zobeide with languid authority. Hers was a smoldering passion that teased the Golden Slave (Igor Zelensky) into surrender. She initiated the action; feminists would approve of her. Fokine built a crescendo into their rising passion that still works. Zelensky looked wonderful jeteéing around the space as if trying to escape or jump out of his skin and at the next moment helplessly groveling at Tkachenko’s feet. At first he didn’t dare to touch her, but he learned quickly.
Nijinska had talked about the confusion on stage when the Sha returned with his scimitar swinging supernumeraries; the scene still looked pretty chaotic. But at least the Kirov’s men, unlike the non-professionals in the Diaghilev company, knew how to hold the swords close to their own bodies. I would have liked to have see nZelensky in the pirouette on his head that Nijinksy apparently managed to execute in his death throes. Oh well, you can’t have everything.
The Firebird was performed with the Alexander Golovin-inspired costumes (also Leon Bakst) and set. The painted backdrop of St. Petersburg rising like the sun developed some wrinkles in the performance I saw. Still this was an apotheosis that Louis XIV would have approved of. The contrast between the lacy golden gate and the gloomy wall of frozen into stone bodies nicely set up the two poles of the piece. How authentic this realization was I couldn’t tell. What was definitely missing was the premiere’s black horse, representing night, and the white horse at the end, standing for day. I am sure I would have seen them.
Victor Baranov danced Ivan Tsararevich a little stolidly perhaps, more like a peasant, than a young prince. But possibly Fokine tried to create a more close-to-the people young tsar, appropriate to a folk tale. Irma Nioradze’s edgy, flicker-Firebird, almost went over the top with her frightened eyes and flirtatiously leaning shoulders. But she didn’t. She balanced her characterization with a pristine technique that gave her the needed authority to control Katschei's—danced by Vladimir Ponomarev as a quite Halloweenish ghoul—monstrous beasts.
Someone once said that The Firebird was Stravinsky’s rehearsal for The Rite Spring. It certainly looked like Nijinsky reached back to Fokine when he choreographed the Rite. The concentric circles of stomping dancers—at one point divided into two circles, encasing the princess (Yana Serebriakova) and the Baranov—must have served as inspiration.
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