Song and Dance
When the Kennedy Center announced a few seasons ago that its President, Michael Kaiser, had signed the Kirov Ballet for ten years of annual appearances, it seemed not only a personal coup for Kaiser, but the beginning of a much needed renaissance of Kennedy Center ballet programming. The modern dance series was consistently bringing a good mix of established and lesser known companies; it seemed there was always something interesting going on. But the ballet season had been a dispiriting run of “Draculas,” “Merry Widows,” and their ilk, and Washington was being treated by visiting companies as a very provincial tour stop. Bringing the Kirov every year would turn this all around, showing audiences the highest standard of excellence in classical dancing. That was the theory, and it was a sound one. Somehow, though, it hasn’t turned out that way, at least not yet.
For two years in a row we’ve had kinky versions of ballets usually aimed at children, pleasing neither balletomanes nor children. We're in an age of Grand Opera, and opera conductors and designers are beginning to dominate ballet. This seems to be the case with the Kirov; conductor Valery Gergiev is running the show, and has a fondness for design-dominated productions. The dancing is taking a back seat. A gala (shared with opera) with a few showpieces and two productions (one new to Washington) of Balanchine ballets promised a welcome change of pace, a chance to see the company actually dancing. Unfortunately, the showpieces showed us things about the company it would probably have been better for us not to know, one of the Balanchines (“Rubies”) was a bit underpowered. It was left to Balanchine’s 1951 work, “La Valse” to make the evening.
For me, watching “La Valse” was a special thrill, since I’d only seen the work a few times in my early ballet-going days and never since. It was almost like seeing a brand new Balanchine ballet. The company cast the work strongly, with Natalya Sologub and Andrey Merkuriev in the first pas de deux; Yulia Kasenkova and Vasily Scherbakov in the second; and Sofya Gumerova and Maksim Zuzin in the third. Alexandra Iosifidi, Ekaterina Kondaurova, Daria Suhokurova were the three Fates. Uliana Lopatkina, dancing with Vladimir Shishov, was the Girl in White (Daria Pavlenko, scheduled to dance the second performance, did not appear here); and Soslan Kulaev was Death.
“La Valse” has a rare perfume of decadence for a Balanchine ballet. The first section, to the pre-World War I “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales,” is a comparatively orderly collection of duets and solos, showing the private side, the humanity and individuality, of the characters we're about to see destroyed. The second section, to the post-War “La Valse,” is entirely different in character. Like “La Sonnambula,” it’s neo-romantic rather than neo-classical, and there’s a lure of decadence, as strong as fate, that not only draws the Girl in White to Death, but engulfs the heedlessly whirling dancers who are truly “dancing on the edge of a volcano,” as Ravel wrote. It’s as though the dancers are sucked into that volcano by the pull of the music. As the Girl in White who leaves a perfectly charming young man to dance with Death, Lopatkina doesn’t seem to have found the role’s center as yet. She wasn’t quite innocent, wasn’t quite sophisticated, and certainly not the vampire one reads that was Patricia McBride’s characterization. But she showed the Girl’s revulsion at seeing her face in Death’s mirror, and then fascination (although whether it was with the jewels and gloves, or danger, wasn’t quite clear to me). The Girl is a female Faust, in a way, greedy for experience, young enough to think she’s immortal and thus can dare anything without fear, and that didn't come through. Nor could I tell whether Kulaev’s Death was implacable or merely inexpressive. But the dancers showed the ballet clearly and were caught up in its beautiful menace.
“Rubies,” danced in front of a blue and gold backdrop that looked like a theater front curtain, wasn’t as successful, despite Diana Vishneva’s deliberately careless energy in the McBride role. I liked Vishneva’s “Rubies” a lot. She held nothing back, and in this ballet, her high extensions aren’t forced, but part of her charm. The only thing she lacked was a suitable partner. Leonid Sarafanov isn’t sophisticated enough for the ballet, and was miscast physically and technically as well. This young dancer has been given chance after chance here, and still lacks seasoning. Sofya Gumerova, who had been out of her depth in “Black Swan” earlier in the evening, was a bit subdued as the second ballerina.
“Black Swan” had been a last minute addition to the program, and would have been better left off it. For one thing it opened the evening, literally. It’s hard to imagine who could have carried that off, but Gumerova wasn’t the one to do it. She was cruelly exposed in this work, with poor lines and port de bras. (It was fascinating to see, a short while later, how none of this mattered in “Rubies.” Clever Balanchine.) Unfortunately, Gumerova had technical difficulties as well, and lacked glamour and seductiveness to boot. Her partner was Igor Zelensky, much injured but still with gorgeous lines and plush (if, alas, not silent) landings. On top of everything else, Gumerova and Zelensky had to put up with conducting, by Maestro Gergiev, that could most charitably be described as "unhelpful," insensitive to the pulse of the music as well as the needs of the dancers.
This little treat was followed by a student level Corsaire pas de deux, much more suited to a Saturday afternoon at home than a top price gala evening (not even in the family, but in front of opera people!). The dancers lacked polish, partnering skills, technical acumen, and apparently any idea that the ballet could be more than a succession of tricks. It seemed a very cruel thing to do to two rather engaging young dancers. This is the Kirov?
Lopatkina’s “Dying Swan,” programmed between one long and one interminable (“Sadko”) opera excerpt, was by far the most smoothly danced of the evening. One could quibble with her lack of innocence—she entered in a state of High Tragedy and proceeded to enjoy her death throes—but not with her physical beauty and control or her musicality. This is the Kirov.
The company will return this summer with “Le Corsaire,” a ballet last presented here as high camp, but with a collection of stars and promising soloists it’s hard to imagine the company in its present state can match, but one lives in hope. Michael Kaiser’s idea to make the Kirov the cornerstone of the Kennedy Center ballet season was so right, one longs for the company to be seen here at its best.
3, No. 4