Title: Chopin in the Moonlight, Drenched in History Yet Fresh in the West
Author: Alastair Macaulay
Date: April 07 2008
Publisher: The New York Times
"Chopiniana", which opened the Kirov's recent quadruple bill at City Center of ballets by Michel Fokine, is 100 years old this year. This is the plotless, Romantic dream-world, poet-muse ballet that used to be known - very well known - in the West as "Les Sylphides", the title Diaghilev gave it in 1909 when he also gave it a different overture and a new décor, by Alexandre Benois. It was said to be Diaghilev's favorite ballet, and for decades it was the epitome of what many dancegoers wanted from ballet: atmosphere, romanticism, poetry.
It has become, however, a rarity among Western companies. Though I can remember seeing three British companies and two pickup troupes perform it in London in 1977-78, the only Western company I have seen dance it since 1980 is American Ballet Theater. You can understand why some people aren't interested in it; all those posey sylphs and that one equally posey poet can easily look like everything that gives ballet a bad name.
Though these Kirov performances weren't ideal, they were in basic respects exemplary: no soppiness, just focused evocation of the changing moods of this moonlit nocturne. "Chopiniana," by far the richest of Fokine's pure-dance compositions, is brimming with history. He had been inspired by an all-Chopin recital given by Isadora Duncan on her 1904-5 visit to St. Petersburg, including some of the same music here; you can still feel her rapturous way of carrying gestures around the stage and her way of turning simple runs, walks and poses into images of inspiration.
Rebuking the virtuoso excess of late 19th-century ballet, Fokine also invoked Romantic ballets of Chopin's era, like "La Sylphide" and "Giselle," in which all technical display was subsumed in dramatic expression. He was also responding to Glazunov's orchestrations of Chopin items, to many of the less virtuoso structural features of Marius Petipa's choreography and to the compositional precedent of Lev Ivanov's 1895 setting for Act IV of "Swan Lake," notably its "Un poco di Chopin" episode. In that (as in "Chopiniana") a female ensemble frames but constantly responds to the dances for heroine, hero and two female soloists.
"Chopiniana" in turn became the archetype of a whole 20th-century genre of ballet in which the prime subject was the music. Without its kaleidoscope of moods, the Chopin ballets of Jerome Robbins would probably have never happened; his "Dances at a Gathering" is its radical update. Balanchine's "Serenade" and "Emeralds" are especially indebted to its Romantic groupings.
One of the choreographic fascinations of "Chopiniana" is that use of the corps de ballet. In the opening and closing sections the members of the corps are almost always dancing, using both upper and lower body in orchestral support even when they're lined up by the wings. During most of the central episodes they mainly hold one picturesque tableau after another, but the way those tableaus melt into one another (sometimes it happens the very moment a soloist enters; sometimes it reflects a change of tone in the center-stage dance) is part of the poem.
During the Prelude the dancers cluster in three flowerlike groups, and there's an astonishing long phrase in which the outer women, like petals opening, very slowly sink to one knee and then arch back while the woman at the center of each group, like a stamen, remains standing and slowly lifts her arms. Yet you hardly notice, for meanwhile the soloist is passing around the stage as if listening to the sounds of the night and opening her arms to the moon.
All these Kirov dancers maintained the spell. Ekaterina Osmolkina, dancing the solo Mazurka and Valse pas de deux, was beautifully rapt, with the most delicate and spontaneous dancing of the season so far, on Friday and Saturday evenings. The male role is almost always performed with dignity by Kirov men, without a hint of the embarrassment or effeminacy that Western men have often brought to it. On Saturday afternoon Danila Korsuntsev, a handsome performer with great charm (an excellent partner too), even carried off the daft moments when he must pose on half-toe, eyes lowered and arms circling his head with dropping hands, without looking at his beloved as she dances elsewhere.
Nothing else in this program is choreographically of much import. The middle two ballets - the "Spectre de la Rose" pas de deux and the "Dying Swan" solo - last less than 17 minutes together (including the pause in between), after which the Kirov thinks nothing of drawing out the next intermission for 30 to 40 minutes before the final "Scheherazade." (When finally the curtain rises, we then get a drop curtain and a long overture.)
"Le Spectre de la Rose" is really a short reverse-gender view of the situation in "Chopiniana." Here is this girl's dream; the soaring male rose-ghost is the poetic figure who transports her. Isabella Fokine, the choreographer's granddaughter, is responsible for this often clumsy Kirov version; none of her work that I have seen has been much good. Leonid Sarafanov was the most aerial, effortless and noiseless of the three Spectres I saw without quite suggesting any sensual perfume.
Sources differ as to which dancer once confused her admirers by saying "I am the best Fokine ballerina in the world." Today neither Uliana Lopatkina nor Diana Vishneva, who both appeared in "The Dying Swan" and "Scheherazade," takes the prize. (It would have been better to see them in "Chopiniana.") Ms. Lopatkina, a bleakly restrained but dull swan, was more dramatically focused as the adulterous Zobeide in the melodramatic "Scheherazade." Ms. Vishneva, a more artfully intense but not more convincing swan, seemed to have based her Zobeide on the recent YouTube footage of Angelina Jolie at 16, especially the glossy, parted lips.
"Scheherazade," despite the valiant efforts of Dance Theater of Harlem in the early 1980s to render it serious again, should really be left to Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. These Kirov performances - the silliest "Scheherazade" I have seen in 30 years - were already halfway to the Trocks comedy style. I especially admire the pelvis wiggling of the three odalisques; someone should cast them at once in "Kismet" as the Three Princesses of Va-Va-Voom.