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Stars of the White Nights Festival
Gala Concert:  'Chopiniana' and gala divertissements


by Catherine Pawlick

June 12, 2004 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia

Image: 'Chopiniana' - Zhanna Ayupova, Danila Korsuntsev and Xenia Ostreikovskaya

A typical night at the Kirov brings with it certain expectations: excellent dancing, perhaps viewing a favorite ballerina or favorite ballet, the chance to admire the baroque interior of the Mariinsky Theatre and take in the general excitement of an evening in what is arguably the ballet capital of the world. What one doesn’t usually think of, however, is the conductor. But during the Kirov’s “Gala Concert” on June 12, it was Mikhail Agrest’s conducting that took center stage and -- almost -- stole the show.

The curtain opened to “Chopiniana”, the second performance of the ballet this month. The casting differed entirely from the previous performance, featuring Daria Sukhorukova, Ekaterina Osmolkina and Diana Smirnova alongside Sergei Popov. Sukhorukova emerged, with her usual flowing port de bras, but this time she was more in her element than ever before. Her arms floated, as did she, seemingly through the air, aided by Popov’s smooth partnering in the Nocturne section. Whereas her lovely arms are noteworthy in a piece such as “Emeralds” (where she is frequently cast), Sukhorukova was born for “Chopiniana”, both physically and musically. She danced the Mazurka with consistent fluidity, and Mr. Agrest, to his credit, delivered even slower tempos for both her variation and partnering sections. While one might think this would detract from the flow of the ballet or demean her interpretation, it did quite the opposite. Chopin’s music does not lose effect when the tempo is lowered, and a ballerina who can extend herself into that sort of legato is one blessed with gifts indeed.

Osmolkina danced a graceful waltz that was very well-balanced. Smirnova delivered a solid Prelude, managing to float soundlessly *out* of the tour jetes. She performed the series of arabesque releves moving upstage on her left leg rather than the usual right leg choreography. Smirnova has the kind of grand jete that leaves the hind leg higher than the front, and she seems to excel in allegro and batterie. The tall, slim and blonde Sergei Popov offered double beats in his tour jetes during the variation, and throughout was on the same timing as Sukhorukova, to his credit. But Agrest’s keen awareness of the dancers and their desired tempos was more visibly evident – and pleasing to both ear and eye – than previous performances of his. He is to be commended.

The second half of the evening offered seven different divertissements, all of them pas de deux excerpts, and several of them drawing significant audience appreciation.

The pas de deux from “Harlequinade”, a ballet rarely if ever performed in the States, featured Evgenia Obraztsova and Andrei Ivanov, both small, compact dancers with winning smiles and charming stage presence. The pas de deux itself is charming too, the Harlequin in love with the ballerina, the two kissing each other on the lips in young-love fashion.

Victoria Tereshkina and Igor Kolb danced the “Black Swan Pas de Deux.” It is a shame Tereshkina was not included in the Kirov’s tour last fall, as U.S. audiences would have adored her. She has the most female of forms, but she also has long, thin legs and arms, and beautiful feet that compliment her lines. Her Odile was seductive, evil, and nicely untrustworthy. Kolb has feet that many female ballet students would envy. Likewise, his jumps and arabesque lines are beautiful to watch. He was bewitched by his Odile, and when the score changed to the Odette theme, Tereshkina had him entranced as she mimicked the white swan. Tereshkina made it through a solid 30 or so fouettes and then finished, slightly off the music, but Agrest tried to help her out.

Despite it being the exception to the classical rule of the evening, Alexei Ratmansky’s “Middle Duet” drew more applause than any of the other divertissements. Set to somewhat electronic music by Yuri Khanon that includes the purr of the same instrument used to depict the Nutcracker, the piece was an essay in swivels and collapses, as if the two dancers are puppets driven by a force outside themselves. This interpretation is more plausible at the conclusion of the ballet when the couple both flop onto the stage as if lifeless. Natalia Sologub, one of the Kirov’s leading resident masters of modern ballet, danced with Andrei Mercuriev. Sologub could be thrown into any modern ballet company and hold her own – and then some – and it shows when she dances pieces such as this. Mercuriev would support her under the arms and jerk her from a balanced position in retire passé back to another place of balance. Jerk, pose, jerk, pose. The ballet was punctuated with this sort of movement. He also lowers her from a lift in three curt movements, rather than in one sweeping gesture. Ratmansky tests the limits of balance, and the relationship between collapse and recuperation. It is an innovative choreography, one that is unique to Ratmansky and endlessly intriguing to watch. The Bolshoi Ballet has a gem on its hands.

Irma Nioradze’s too-slight frame was hardly substantial enough for the Spartacus-like “Talisman” pas de deux. Accompanied by Mikhail Lobukhin, it seemed as if even his strength could not make up for her lack of stamina. Ms. Nioradze has the look of the Bolshoi’s Alla Mikhalchenko, but, on Saturday night, did not have the same endurance. That the Talisman music has the feeling of something grand is dampened by its rather restrictive choreography. Despite Lobukhin’s good efforts and strong jumps, and Nioradze’s delicate and clean variation, this was unfortunately not one of the highlights of the evening.

In like fashion, Yulia Makhalina, often hailed as a leading Kirov ballerina, was anything but in her mediocre portrayal of “Manon” in the adagio pas de deux from the same ballet. Non-balletomanes may not have noted that her feet, strong or not (it is difficult to tell), are not blessed with any sort of arch, and as such her legs do not have the requisite ballerina line. She was unable to maintain that intended line during one of the arabesque lifts, and her partnering skills were anything but smooth or well-coordinated. One would hope that acting talents could make up for this deficit of physical technique in such an emotional pas de deux – and one would in turn wonder why someone with such a deficit exists on the company roster -- but that was not the case. While Ilya Kuznetsov deserves kudos for his efforts to meet her half-way, Makhalina’s mind, and apparently body, must still be on summer vacation.

The divertissements section was saved by the last two pieces of the evening. The “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” was danced exquisitely by Olesya Novikova and Leonid Sarafanov. To their credit and in contrast to Vishneva’s broadqay-esque catch-me-if-you-can portrayal on Monday night, Novikova took the serene, respectable approach and the result was even more pleasing. She was softer, more reserved, and used Balanchine’s steps not as a vehicle for her personal circus but as a showcase of how a real Kirov ballerina can stay within the constraints of the choreography and still deliver a la Balanchine. Sarafanov was as before – strong, smooth, consistent, reliable. He is one of the more valuable males on the Kirov roster and does particularly well in this role.

Danced by Anton Korsakov with Elena Sheshina, the pas de deux from “Don Quixote” concluded the evening on a festive Spanish note. Korsakov took a cooler approach to both his partnering and his variation, taking his time and dancing neatly, but safely. He seemed a bit more caught up in his own world than the performance taking place around him, but this didn’t detract from his technique. Sheshina, a short, compact, and fuller-figured dancer, delivered a crisp, quick-tempoed variation and a solid set of 32 fouettes. Evenings such as these provide a real showcase of the Kirov technique, exposing it in more raw form without the drama of full-length ballets. Whether tourist, city resident or simply ballet lover, given the chance, a gala concert program such as this should be the ticket of choice.

Edited by Jeff.

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