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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"
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 have
affected every creative artist who has passed through the theatre, Balanchine
Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt
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