Title: Where Beauty Is Not Beastly
Author: ROBERT GRESKOVIC
Date: March 5, 2008
Publisher: The Wall Street Journal
Beauty and ballet were the focus of two recent, touring dance events with pasts in the Soviet Union. "Diana Vishneva: Beauty in Motion" -- a Sergei Danilian presentation in cooperation with the Orange County Performing Artscenter and Ardani Artists Management in association with the Maryinsky Theater of St. Petersburg -- completed stints on both the West and East coasts before moving to a few outings in Moscow. Nina Ananiashvili and the State Ballet of Georgia are on a U.S. tour that ends in Minneapolis in mid-March.
The witty Nina Ananiashvili is the linchpin in Alexei Ratmansky's enchanting 'Bizet Variations.'
For all the mustiness, and worse, of Soviet-era dance behind the Iron Curtain, these recent outings showed that innocence still clings to Russian and Georgian understandings of beauty and ballet. So often nowadays in the West, these ideas and ideals are embattled and fraught with distrust. "Who can say what 'beauty' is?" goes the American and Western European argument for an all-inclusive definition. And the carefully calibrated art of ballet is asked to be all-encompassing, too -- often turning an initially courtly and formal art into a free-for-all where the dancers who train for years in a classroom are asked to turn their backs on their schooling and dabble in endless forms of movement that reflect ignorance of ballet's ways or disdain for them.
"Beauty in Motion" eschewed the word "ballet" itself, even though its impetus was the showcasing of Ms. Vishneva, a renowned ballerina with the Maryinsky Ballet who began her training in the 1980s. The three-part program included new dances commissioned for this presentation and meant to provide the singular Ms. Vishneva with opportunities to reach beyond her standard repertory into fresh, tailor-made showcases. Two-thirds of the program fit that bill agreeably for both audiences and, one presumes, the "Beauty" herself.
In Alexei Ratmansky's "Pierrot Lunaire," a quartet of Pierrots dance to Arnold Schönberg's 1912 sprechstimme (or spoken-song) composition that gives voice to an innocent whey-faced clown during a night overseen by a bright and affecting moon. Mr. Ratmansky, greatly aided by his inspired and sympathetic scenic and costume designer, Tatiana Chernova, makes Ms. Vishneva the central and feminine personification of this world of flour-powdered clowns. Mr. Ratmansky uses the classical ballet vocabulary to present his alternately playful and pictorial inventions, sometimes deftly riding the music's wave and other times addressing the text's words. For all the floppiness associated with these clowns and their dress, this ballet underpins its 21 distinct scenes with a porcelain sheen and doll-like delicacy, all perfectly suited to Ms. Vishneva's physical and facial loveliness.
Moses Pendleton's "F.L.O.W. -- For Love of Women" is a triptych of vignettes to various recordings. With his almost infallibly keen eye, Mr. Pendleton reveals Ms. Vishneva (in one instance alongside two of the Maryinsky women who were also part of the program) in ways that are charming, riveting and, yes, beautiful. Wearing what looks at first like a birdcage of raindrop-clear, strung beads, Ms. Vishneva ends "F.L.O.W." by spiraling and spinning through Mr. Pendleton's choreography like a water spout, essentially becoming La Source: liquid, feminine and eternal.
The less said about "Three Point Turn," a pointless, narcissistic exercise by choreographer Dwight Rhoden and composer David Rozenblatt, the better for all concerned. In this prolix and shapeless display, the beauteous Ms. Vishneva looked more workaday than stellar as her choreographic motion amounted to numbing relentlessness.
* * *
Ms. Ananiashvili, a Georgian by birth and a Moscow-based Bolshoi Ballet ballerina for much of her more than 25-year career on stage, became director of her war-torn homeland's ballet in 2004, when the company was languishing long after its heyday from the 1940s to the 1980s. She was asked to assume the reins of the troupe by Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili.
This presidential interest and the company's recent, ambitious history of making up for the years when the state troupe was largely deprived of its school, theater and performing opportunities are testaments to the fervor in this part of the world for flying the flag of ballet's fine and noble art.
There was more inherent nobility of manner than thorough technical finesse on display within the company's ranks during its run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but the essence of the art of these dedicated performers, including the still-accomplished 44-year-old Ms. Ananiashvili herself, was unmistakable. Luckily, as with Ms. Vishneva's program, this one had some help from the imaginative Mr. Ratmansky. His "Bizet Variations" is an enchanting and rich romp for three couples, with the witty Ms. Ananiashvili as the sextet's linchpin. Set to Bizet's "Chromatic Variations," the dance's savvy challenges showed off the company at its most coherent and accomplished.
Mr. Ratmansky's even wittier, 10-year-old "Dreams About Japan" is a seven-dancer excursion into the world of Kabuki theater themes as translated into Russian ballet modes (to a drum-and-flute score by L. Eto, N. Yamaguchi and A. Tosha). Too bad it had the misfortune of being presented after Yuri Possokhov's discursive dance doodles for "Sagalobeli," an undistinguished suite of dancing set to lively, traditional Georgian folk music.
"Duo Concertant" by George Balanchine, the world-renowned choreographer of Georgian heritage, came first on one program, where it was not best-served. Regardless, it got an especially electrifying performance from Nino Gogua, an arrow-sharp ballerina who made the Stravinsky-inspired ballet grip the imagination as it seldom does, even at New York City Ballet, the company for which Balanchine created the 1972 work.
As noted, what this company now lacks in finesse it makes up for in poetic spirit and outgoing warmth. Pace Broadway's "A Chorus Line," everything is not necessarily beautiful at the ballet. But in the ethos of the State Ballet of Georgia, ballet's rigorous art is something to be cherished and cultivated and matter-of-factly thought of as beautiful.