Title: Kirov: Traditional Yet Reworkable
Author: Alastair Macaulay
Date: April 22 2008
Publisher: The New York Times
Almost three weeks ago, I suggested in these pages that Lady Bracknell had gained employment as ballet mistress to the Kirov Ballet. In "The Importance of Being Earnest" she says: "The two weak points in our age are its want of principle and its want of profile. The chin a little higher, dear. Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn."
Kirov ballerinas often tilt their chins upward to start a dance, then again when changing gears during it and preparing for the next section, and finally when ending it. (Voila!) The effect tends to make them look defiant, defensive, immodest. Some of Lady Bracknell's disciples at the Kirov actually lift their chins until the jaw line is parallel to the floor. If the ballerina is moving forward at the time, especially in profile, that chin gives her the look of an advancing icebreaker.
In the Kirov's three-week season that ended Sunday at New York City Center, one account of the first male-female adagio in the Shades scene of "La Bayad?re" showed how Alina Somova, in one walking transition from stage left to stage right, kept hoisting her chin (in profile to the audience) as she followed the lover who had come to find her in this ballet Elysium. In consequence she was literally looking down her nose at him. House mannerisms like this make the Kirov's kind of classicism seem the least sensible in the world.
For all the company's many virtues, it was depressing how often the sum of each ballet felt negative rather than positive. The season - so full of dance-dance-dance ballets, so few of which felt like real dancing - raised many questions, small and large.
How come most of the dancers' shoes had soles that seemed heavily stained by soot? Why are the female solos of the beautiful "Chopiniana" never danced anymore by any of the company's five foremost ballerinas? And why does the Kirov perform other core items of its traditional repertory with no attempt at logic, coherence or basic theater sense?
In "Paquita" the man is given an imperial entrance, with the awaiting ballerina and her lined retinue all turning to face him as if he is a conquering hero; once he has arrived, he then partners her as if he is her devoted cavalier. But when Yevgeny Ivanchenko advanced toward Victoria Tereshkina this season, he looked both hostile and terrified, as if he were entering a realm of man-eaters. (I remembered Noël Coward's line about the Queen of Tonga's escort: "That's her lunch.")
Has nobody reminded these dancers that these grand ballet rituals are about love, courtesy and the thrill of ceremony? With zero sense of courtship, whole chunks of the Kirov repertory turned to stone.
Fortunately the Kirov's men include courteous and good-looking dancers like Danila Korsuntsev and Andrian Fadeev, who keep the essence of these scenes alive. When Diana Vishneva danced the "Don Quixote" pas de deux with Mr. Fadeev, I applauded less because she did unprecedented tricks involving her fan during her 32 fouett? turns than just because they always sustained the illusion that they were infatuated with each other. When Ms. Somova danced it with the boyishly featherweight Leonid Sarafanov, they seemed only to be conspiring to win another competition.
As the season reached its third week, however, two already striking dancers became central to its picture. Ekaterina Kondaurova, though often cast beneath ballerina level, became the star of the season for many people, and you could see why. With copper hair and sloe-eyed Cleopatra looks, she has the grand composure of the Royal Ballet's Deanne Bergsma (beloved by many New Yorkers in the 1960s and '70s) and the romantic glamour of New York City Ballet's Maria Calegari (a star principally of the '80s): the imperious arch of her arabesque is surely the most glorious that the role of the Dark Angel in Balanchine's "Serenade" has seen since Ms. Calegari's.
Ms. Kondaurova plainly revels in showing the different character of each ballet and each role. I pray the lack of spontaneity that is the Kirov's worst besetting sin becomes less, not more, apparent in her dancing. And I wish that the blithe freshness with which she dances a corps role in "?tudes" and three lead roles in different William Forsythe ballets would rub off on her Balanchine and (especially) Petipa repertory. Though nothing in "Paquita" topped her account of its "Pavlova" variation (which she danced with an "If I must, then I must" languor), her "Bayad?re" variation was on the stale side of elegance.
Victoria Tereshkina sometimes looks like a brunette version of Natalia Makarova (who, especially in the 1970s, was the foremost female exemplary of Kirov style in the West). Her main problem is another Kirov besetting sin: a tendency to seem hard-boiled. (She has been to Bracknell classes.) In several roles, however, this falls away from her.
Of the three Raymondas, only Ms. Tereshkina danced the great "czardas" variation as if its piano music pulled her through the spine. Of the season's four heroines in "Serenade," she was the most marvelously egoless in manner, the cleanest, strongest technician and the most personal in dance inflections. The high-octane energy of "Ballet Imperial" was embodied in her cool attack and sweep. Her lack of surface acting - the distinctions between her roles are all in the way she dances them - is the closest to the Balanchine New York City Ballet manner.
Tradition-bound though the Kirov certainly seems, it - admirably - keeps revising, correcting, reworking even basic academic features of its style. I think the irksome chin-up mannerism is already on the wane, but I applaud the impulse behind it: the yearning to feel the warmth of the light on the face. Today's dancers show none of the swaybacked stance (that gymnast arch of the lower spine) that so disfigured its dancing in the early 1990s.
When I first saw this company in 1982, I worshiped just the way its female corps de ballet stood to take curtain calls, stretching a magnificent line from one raised arm down through one back-stretched leg. Though I don't quite feel that way about those dancers' present-day successors, they remind me, as intervening generations did not, how I felt then, and gave me hope that I will do so again.