Title: Radiant Line of Russian Style Energized in a Triplet of Balanchines
Author: Alastair Macaulay
Date: April 21 2008
Publisher: The New York Times
A colleague of Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) shrewdly wrapped up that great impresario's work into three categories: "To reveal Russia to itself; to reveal Russia to the world; to reveal the world - the new world - to itself." We can now see that a fourth project remained: to reveal that new world to Russia. Only after the Iron Curtain had lifted, decades after his death, could that be possible. The Kirov Ballet closed its three-week season at New York City Center on Sunday with a triple bill of ballets by George Balanchine, the last of the five choreographers Diaghilev introduced to the West. These three - "Serenade" (Tchaikovsky), "Rubies" (Stravinsky) and "Ballet Imperial" (Tchaikovsky) - demonstrated just how this process is still going on.
What experience could be more historically and aesthetically complex than watching companies that are still waking from the deep freeze of the Communist era coming to terms with works made in the West by radical St. Petersburg modernists who got out of Russia before that freeze began? Even some of the early Diaghilev ballets by Michel Fokine, a few of which the Kirov danced earlier in this City Center season, have joined the St. Petersburg company's repertory relatively recently.
There have been horrors: no account of Bronislava Nijinska's "Noces" can ever have been worse (more misdirected in body language and accentuation) than the Kirov's a few years ago. There have been triumphs: the Kirov's illustrious 1989 accounts of Balanchine's "Scotch Symphony" and "Theme and Variations"; its galvanized, glowing 2000-2 accounts of his "Rubies"; and to a lesser extent, the rest of "Jewels."
Generally any Kirov season in the West will now contain a Balanchine program or at least one Balanchine ballet, and it's always a completely compelling spectacle. If St. Petersburg is the Russian city known as the "window on the West," then Balanchine in New York is always, in part, a window on St. Petersburg. When you watch the Kirov dancing any Balanchine ballet, you see how strong a stylistic connection still runs between the two. And any Balanchine ballet wakes up these dancers and turns their spectacular and competitive technique into sheer dancing.
To watch a corps of 16 Kirov women hopping in arabesque in "Serenade" or "Ballet Imperial" is a joy. The radiant line of Russian style, so juicy, here becomes not statuesque but energized. To watch the same corps, in either ballet, facing into the wings with the same annunciatory arms they use in "La Bayad?re" is to see one of a hundred moments in which the Kirov refracts ballet history like a hall of mirrors. They then move those arms, and the rest of the body, turning dance past into busy present. This is especially true at City Center, where the audience is so close to the stage and where, in these performances, "Serenade" has never been more brightly lighted. Innumerable choreographic masterstrokes that on larger stages pass casually fell into the sharpest focus here.
But it's also true that the Kirov dancing almost any Balanchine ballet will show how deep the chasm is between these two ballet cultures. Kirov dancers tend to be grandly theatrical; like the British Royal Ballet, they need almost always to act Balanchine, to present Balanchine. It's not enough for one dancer to look another in the eyes; she has to give that moment dramatic weight and let us know just what that weight is.
In the first three City Center performances of these ballets, I enjoyed and admired no dancer more than the bewitchingly elegant Ekaterina Kondaurova: beautiful in "Serenade" as the heroine (Saturday evening) and the Dark Angel (Friday evening, Saturday matinee), and marvelous as the "Rubies" second girl (Friday evening). But she seemed to need to show us (even at curtain calls) how the "Serenade" heroine was an innocent girl struck down by transformative experience, how the Dark Angel is a reluctant agent of tragic fate and how the "Rubies" soloist is a twinkling source of dark mischief. Apparently, she can't just be these things and let the rest take us by surprise.
As a result, layers of the ballets - much of their true and thrilling mystery - go missing. So much of "Serenade" is just about dancers doing, and returning to, basic ballet class work. But the Kirov responds to the real drama in "Serenade" by "playing" even the class work theatrically. (Though in "?tudes" and its William Forsythe quadruple bill, the Kirov drops its airs and shows unaffected, cool manners.)
The Kirov "Rubies" is no longer the ultrapercussive knockout it was a few years ago. All three ballerinas officially cast for it at these performances dropped out at short notice. Replacing them, Olesia Novikova danced the role with a soft and demure loveliness that was all wrong until, on Saturday night, she began to find the sharpness and nonstop impetus it needed. Of three successive men in the male principal role, Anton Korsakov (Saturday matinee) showed the right basic Balanchine style, the whole body shiningly engaged, but without any of the role's particular technical flair; Leonid Sarafanov (Saturday evening) had technical flair of a far too weightless kind.
In the central role of "Ballet Imperial," Victoria Tereshkina had something of a triumph on Friday night. Deservedly so. She not only manages all its complex turns and jump steps with real skill, she also finds moments of pliancy and luxuriance in between. On Saturday night Uliana Lopatkina showed even more understanding of its many interpretative nuances, but in a role that calls for juice galore she is the least juicy of all Kirov ballerinas, and she simply can't manage all the technical challenges with sufficient ease.
At these performances I heard some people say, "The Kirov shouldn't be dancing Balanchine," and others say, "Nobody dances Balanchine better." I disagree with both; the Kirov dancing Balanchine is revelatory. Yet even now, 19 years after the first Balanchines it showed us, there is still much left for it to reveal to itself. The Kirov has become the temple of ballet academicism. Balanchine was the genius of ballet classicism. The connections and the differences between the two were rivetingly evident at these performances.