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Stars of the White Nights Festival
Opening Night of A Century of Balanchine: "Chopiniana," "Tanz Symphony," and the Kingdom of the Shades from "La Bayadere"

kirov ballet chopinianaby Catherine Pawlick

June 2, 2004 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia

In June, St. Petersburg marked the centenary of George Balanchine's birth with a multi-tiered tribute to the esteemed Russian-American choreographer. A new exhibition at the Hermitage Theatre featured rarely-seen photographs of Balanchine dating from his childhood in addition to a film documentary. A conference held in the Hermitage Theatre early in the month provided a forum for Balanchine scholars to discuss his life and work; and a series of performances by the dancer of the Mariinsky Theatre highlighted Balanchine in Russia and in America each evening.

The conference lectures centered around the influences of Russian culture on Balanchine's genius, the pre- and post-American periods in the choreographer's life, the influence of jazz and American culture on his choreography, and his musicality. Lourdes Lopez, Executive Director of the George Balanchine Foundation, organized the project with Makharbek Vasiev and Valeri Gergiev at the Mariinsky Theatre, and Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the Hermitage Theatre. As such, it is the first joint project of its kind between the three organizations. American speakers included Merrill Ashley, Francia Russell, Peter Boal, Francis Mason, Lynn Garafola and Robert Gottlieb among others. The list of Russian speakers included the highly-regarded Moscow ballet critic Vadim Gaevsky, ballet historian and critic Inna Sklyarevskaya, dance historian Elizaveta Suritz, and Oleg Lebenkov, a former soloist with Perm Ballet and now teacher and author.

Comments on working with Balanchine were provided by Lourdes Lopez and Merrill Ashley as well as Francia Russell and Robert Gottlieb. They described Balanchine as practical, humorous, and having absorbed and reflected the emotions of those around him, acting as a mirror in some cases. And yet still, the question arose repeatedly throughout the conference, whether any one person really knew Mr. Balanchine.

Following the first day's opening press conference and lectures, groups of Russian dancers presented an ode to "early Balanchine," featuring not his own works, but rather the Russian ballets that influenced his growth as a choreographer.

The evening opened with "Chopiniana" set to Chopin's inspiring music. Yanna Selina performed the first variation evenly and without obvious fault. Daria Pavlenko -- with what seemed an even slimmer form (if that is possible) than last fall while on tour -- danced the Prelude, faithful to the romantic style in her epaulement and hand gestures. Evgeni Ivanchenko was the man surrounded by the ethereal sylphs. Ivanchenko has perhaps the longest legs of any male in the company, aside from perhaps Danila Korsuntsev, and this was even more apparent when he performs a jete entournant, the arabesque leg extending even further, as if it were on a flight of its own. Irina Zhelonkina danced the Mazurka with Ivanchenko, and, to his credit, she appeared to float seamlessly in the series of lifts overhead.

The corps de ballet lines in "Chopiniana" were remarkable synchronic in arm as well as in leg, and aided by the score. This ballet, when performed by the Kirov, always gives the impression of being otherworldly. Indeed the Mariinsky sylphs are another, lighter breed, and more delicate than those found in other companies. The world would be hard pressed to find a better place for a ballet such as this, or a better company to perform it as faithfully and consistently as the Kirov does.

In contrast to the wispy specters, the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory dancers performed the second ballet of the evening. "TanzSymphony," a reproduction of the work by Fyodor Lopukhov, was performed to the music of Beethoven, with a digital kaleidoscope projected onto the back scrim. The dancers all wore tan, peasant-like costumes, blouses and knee-length skirts for the girls, and similar shirts with knee-length pants for the boys. While no doubt faithful to the original costumes, these tended to obscure line more than they revealed it -- a bit frustrating given some of the awkward steps and poses.

The ballet is said to have influenced the young Balanchine and proof of that is suggested in various arm gestures and steps hands covering the eyes as in "Serenade," for example. However, it was sorely apparent that this was a revival that should perhaps have been left quietly alone. That it was not danced by the Mariinsky dancers was only one disappointment. No doubt the electronic display was not part of the original production, and it distracted from the work, which, after three of the four sections, seemed long enough. The grounded, earthy quality (aided by the tan costumes) lent a weight to the ballet that was not so pleasing to watch. Whether it was faithful to the original or not, one can only guess.

In welcome relief, the evening ended where it should have, with a classical Russian ballet. The Shades scene from Act III of "La Bayadere" was performed by Diana Vishneva and Leonid Sarafanov to the backdrop of the spectacular 32 mirror images of "the ballerina" in the dream sequence. This was the historical Russia that influenced Balanchine -- classical, formal, tutu-ed and traditional.

Sarafanov as Solor emerged from the wings like a cannon and claimed the stage for his own. The arch in his back in arabesque has become as cat-like as Vladimir Malakov or Farouk Ruzimatov and his partnering of Vishneva was reliable. However --proving that divas too can falter --Vishneva stumbled on each of the three sets of arabesque turns with the scarf, and Sarafanov finally snatched away the scarf to help her out.

Aside from that mishap, Vishneva was the star she is known to be. This reviewer was not convinced, initially, that her range of emotion would be as wide as it actually is. But having now seen her in both Balanchine and a classical ballet, it is clear that her dramatic capabilities are perhaps one of her greater strengths.

Vishneva's body is compact and sinuous but in some ways she is not the most obvious "ballerina." Her feet are strong, but by no means the most archy or beautiful in the profession, not of the Ferri or Guillem type. She does however have the flexibility of the most extreme gymnast, which, when combined with her strength and control, create an almost inconquerable technique. Her challenge however, is to fight against the tendency of becoming a one-woman circus act, towards which she can easily shift. And yet her dramatic maturity and range is the gift that sets her apart. She is a sublime actress, emotionally malleable according to the demands of the role and choreography. She fits as well into a jazzy "Rubies" as she does in a solemn "Bayadere."

Three International Laureates performed the three variations. Olesya Novikova was the first, her hops forward in arabesque en pointe laudable for their strength and Novikova for her stamina. Ekaterina Osmolkina, a new favorite with a winning smile, performed the second variation with aplomb and energy in the cabrioles. The third variation was performed by Alina Somova, a red head with impossibly long legs. She must have performed the sissonne ouverte sequence well, as one really just remembers those legs moving into assemblé for the turn. The evening was saved by beautiful images such as these, a fitting symbol of the beauty of the Mariinsky, its history and traditions, and how they hav
e affected every creative artist who has passed through the theatre, Balanchine included.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt

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