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Kirov Ballet - 'Legend of Love'

by Catherine Pawlick

May 24, 2004 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

In the final days before the opening of the "Stars of the White Nights" Festival in St. Petersburg, the Kirov offered a glimpse into Soviet-era ballets with Monday night's performance of "Legend of Love." The three-act exemplar of Soviet realism displayed Yuri Grigorovich's choreography at its budding, if lengthy, best. At nearly three hours long, the story of forbidden love and self-sacrifice remains a commentary on the Russian State's voice in the arts in the late 1950's while offering a coherent language of choreography unique to the ballet itself.

Grigorovich, former director of the Bolshoi Ballet, found his early beginnings at the Vaganova School. But "Legend of Love," one of his first choreographic works, is testament to the largesse better known at the Bolshoi. Ensembles of men performing petit and grand allegro, ensembles of women doing pointe work, and every dancer speaking the language of the ballet -- as observed in their straight arms, fluttering hands, bent elbows and knees, and flat palms -- this is the native "tongue" of the libretto by Nazym Khikmet, set to music by Arif Melikov. Sets and costumes bespeak the Middle-Eastern palace and village settings: Arabic letters decorate the buildings, heads are nearly always covered, scarves plentiful and Egyptian-type arm movements percolate throughout.

The theme of self-sacrifice is central to the libretto. Queen Mekhmeneh Bahnu's younger sister, Princess Shyrien, is dying. A stranger enters, claiming he can cure the princess. He demands the Queen's beauty in return, and she obliges. Once saved, the princess is horrifed at her older sister's disfigurement. Shyrien then falls in love with a local artist, Ferkhad, who believes it impossible to ever dream of being with Shyrien.

Sofia Gumerova made her debut in the role of Queen Mekhmeneh Bahnu on Monday night, an authoritative ruler clothed in a (usually) black unitard with scarves on her head and hips. Gumerova was believable in gesture, and her legs and feet mezmerizing in their articulation and line. Coached by Olga Tchenchikova, she was a pleasure to watch and seemed more self-assured in the emotions of this role than in some of her performances in "Jewels'" in the States last fall.

In pleasant contrast to the evil queen, Yevgenia Obraztsova also debuted in the role of Shyrien. Obraztsova is a more compact, sprightly dancer with lean legs. She was champagne in pointe shoes, her youth and happiness accentuated by the white unitards that identified her benevolence.

Ferkhad was danced by the strong, consistent Nikita Shcheglov. He approached his jumps with a grandeur befitting Mukhamedov or Vasiliev, even if he did not always achieve their same height. Likewise his partnering was notable, aside from a few moments of unease during a gymnastic-like lift with Gumerova at the end of the ballet.

The ensembles of men and women, befitting Kirov caliber, were pleasing to watch, even when the group sections tended towards lengthiness. Women clothed in ocre leggings and black skirts decorated with gold coins and men dressed as guards or village people added to the Middle-Eastern feel of the ballet, lending greater coherency to the libretto and the ballet's choreographic language. Steps in the men's ensemble sections offered a view into one of Grigorovich's later works, "Spartacus," where renversés, large unique leaps, and synchronic steps are even more prevalent. Grigorovich's talent for creating a believably authentic non-Russian setting is visible in "Legend of Love."

Act Two offers another dramatic conflict. The village people have no water and have to cut through a mountain in order to procure more. The Queen, it so happens, is also in love with Ferkhad, who meanwhile has found his true love in the Queen's sister. The Princess leaves the palace in order to be with Ferkhad. The Queen is told of this by the Vizir (one of the court advisors), and enraged, she sends the guards after her sister.

Vizir was danced by Ilya Kuznetsov, who offered a persuasively wicked conspirator to Gumerova's alternately grieving, enraged persona. At the end of one of their pas de deux, he lifts her in a frog position above his head, his hands under her thighs, and she balances there as he walks across the stage. The lift, and Kuznetsov's strength, drew applause from the audience.

As the story goes, the guards find the lovers, and Shyrien entreats the Queen to allow them to be together. The Queen agrees, but only on the condition that Ferkhad cut through the mountain to procure water for the people; the Queen then separates the lovers.

This ballet also has its vision scene, similar to "Bayadere" or "Sleeping Beauty." While at the mountain, Ferkhad dreams he sees his beloved in the water of the stream. They dance a romantic pas de deux and then Shyrien leaves. Notable in the choreography is that only during the second pas de deux do Shyrien and Ferkhad actually touch each other. The first pas is entirely lacking in any physical contact between the two lovers, but this somehow doesn't give any sense of disconnection. It rather effectively emphasizes the lovers' longing for each other.

"Legend of Love" ends in rather Soviet fashion. After Shyrien begs the Queen to allow them to be together, the Queen agrees, but this time changes her part of the bargain: Ferkhad must give up his work on the mountain and leave the people to be with Shyrien. Ferkhad cannot betray the hopes of the people, and Shyrien also knows this. So ends the plot: the Queen is still disfigured, the lovers separated, and the artist Ferkhad chipping away at the mountain, because the happiness of the people is dearer to him than Love itself. As such, the libretto offers plenty of food for thought, especially in our current era of personal gain being of primary interest.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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