Title: At the Kirov, Can Too Many Cooks Spoil the Ballet?
Author: Alastair Macaulay
Date: April 10 2008
Publisher: The New York Times
During most of the third program in the Kirov Ballet's season at City Center - a quadruple bill of excerpts from late-19th-century ballets by Marius Petipa - an alarming question kept flashing into my mind: "Maybe I don't like ballet after all?" Here were virtuoso episodes from "Le Corsaire" and "Don Quixote"; here was the "Diana and Acteon" pas de deux; here came salvo after salvo of audience applause. And almost all of it left me cold.
Fortunately, friends admitted at intermission that they felt the same way. More fortunately yet, the evening ended with the Shades scene from "La Bayad?re," which - despite my enduring reservations about the Kirov's current way of performing it - at least provided the much-needed proof that ballet can be an art of substantial dance architecture and eloquence. Elsewhere, however, this feeling of indifference was disquieting.
There is more than one problem here. For one thing, whose choreography are we really watching? For another, to whose music are we actually listening? Above all, is there any kind of coherence to be found here? In the program alone, the introductory essay, the central list of credits and the detailed series of notes on individual ballets all have divergent accounts of who made what.
The "Corsaire" episode, listed as Petipa's choreography and Adolphe Adam's music, is actually a nutty conflation. You no sooner start to watch - and listen to - its women-only garland-waving "Jardin Anim?" scene than one confusion arises. This music (the "Naila" waltz) isn't by Adam but by Leo Delibes. (Many New Yorkers will recognize it from Balanchine's ballet "La Source.") The program notes establish that by the time of Petipa's final 1899 staging, the complete "Corsaire" had music by 11 composers; in these excerpts we hear work by at least four.
And what we're watching has been considerably overhauled by successive post-Petipa hands. This staging doesn't make it clear that the setting is a harem or that the three women who dance a virtuoso pas de trois are odalisques. In the middle comes a grand pas de trois from another part of the ballet: the ballerina Medora dances with her Byronic partner, Conrad, and his slave, Ali. Then Medora and the harem girls resume their horticultural scene as if the male intruders had been irrelevant anyway.
Similar problems surround both the "Diana and Acteon" and "Don Quixote" excerpts. Nomenclature: This should be "Diana and Endymion." Accreditation: Its music is at least partly by Riccardo Drigo, whereas the center-program billing lists it as by Cesare Pugni. But not even the program notes explain why the "Don Quixote" excerpt is performed with the same backdrop of an imperial-theater curtain that also accompanies the Kirov's "Paquita" grand pas, or why one soloist contributes a solo variation that more usually turns up in that divertissement (as it did last week).
This litany of textual collage and corruption only begins to explain my problems with the first three excerpts. In "Corsaire" the introductory "Naila" waltz looks woefully underchoreographed. Yet even so, the Kirov has moments when dance and music suddenly split apart. When a bell rings at the end of a musical phrase, no corresponding dance image occurs; a second or so later, however, six women lift their feet into a retir? position that has no corresponding musical cue.
I don't actually care if what we're shown isn't authentic Petipa; I just want to see dancing that feels like dancing - musical, spontaneous, connected. But the Kirov has spent decades honing these chunks into material that makes ballet feel like a graduation exercise or professional competition.
The emphasis becomes so point-scoring and prize-oriented that there's far less difference than there should be between the first three ballerinas. The sheer beauty of Diana Vishneva (sometimes glowing in Tuesday's "Corsaire" but still capable of ending a dance well after the music has stopped); the dramatic-theatrical gifts of Victoria Tereshkina (seen in "Diana and Acteon" on Tuesday); and the stunt-laden, toneless effects of Alina Somova (Tuesday's Kitri in "Don Quixote"): these should be worlds apart, but all seem to have acquired the same glaze. Some kind of prize for lurid sex appeal should go to Mikhail Lobukhin for the bare-limbed flash he brought to "Diana and Acteon": it scarcely matters here that he seems devoid of classical finesse.
Meanwhile, some technique prize should go to Leonid Sarafanov. In his "Don Quixote" solo he knocked off a single sequence of alternating double air turns and double pirouettes. Why is it that such rare feats, which I have cherished with a few other artists, still don't quite feel fully dimensional with him? I like his boyishness and his buoyancy, but not his dancing's lack of weight or contrast.
In the famous entry of the Shades in "La Bayad?re," the corps women enter in a long succession of arabesques, showing several different conceptions of what the front arm should be doing. But who can forget how, formerly, each one aimed her arm ahead into space like a search beam? Still, when these 24 women end that opening dance and stand there, each with one leg stretched behind her and resting on point, it's still one of the great images of ballet: all those calves and feet seem to have been specially shaped and trained to this one end.
And on Tuesday Uliana Lopatkina's coolly admirable Nikiya took us away far from the madding competition world of the earlier excerpts. With the gesture of blowing a whispered message into her partner's ear (an image that Fokine borrowed in his "Chopiniana," also being danced this season) she took us right back into the severe and spiritual drama that this scene is about.