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Stars of the White Nights Festival
A Century of Balanchine: "Donizetti Variations," "Concerto Barocco" and "La Sonnambula"

by Catherine Pawlick

June 4, 2004 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia

The third evening of St Petersburg's Balanchine Festival continued with three Balanchine ballets, all performed by the P. I. Tchaikovsky Perm Ballet Theatre on the Mariinsky stage. Despite the frequent punctuation of the performance with Vaganova style, the Perm dancers are to be commended for their courage in taking on this task.

Set to music by the composer of the same name, "Donizetti Variations," the first piece of the evening, is a "pretty" ballet. Judging from the Giselle-like peasant costumes one might conclude, at first glance, that this is an early Balanchine work -- and one would be incorrect. The work was first created in 1960, after the ballet divertissement from the opera "Don Sebastian," and the visual emphasis is on form and pattern. For example, the cannon of three couples performing the same steps one count apart (pirouette to arabesque, penchee, fifth, repeat) outlines the layers within the musical structure--one of Balanchines great talents.

Overall the ballet, as performed Friday night by the Perm Ballet, was so courtly and polite as to be unremarkable, and, as several former New York City Ballet principals in attendance noted, the sense of humor that may have pervaded the piece in New York versions was absent. Nonetheless the choreography was pleasing to watch. Of note was the xylophone section performed by three men, Nikolai Viozhanin, Konstantin Olionin and Nikolai Kalabin, their cabrioles well syncopated and crystal clean in an introduction to Natalia Moiseeva's legato fouettes. Moiseeva was partnered intermittently by the reliable Sergei Mershin.

The company likewise, gave "Concerto Barocco," a conservative delivery. Even under American presenter Robert Cole's conducting, the dancers appeared less jazzy and more upright. Yulia Mashkina, Natalian Makina and Roman Geer were the leading Baroccians.

"La Sonnambula" offers an obviously meatier story line to follow and was easily the crown of the evening. Replete with lavish court costumes, the masked ball is well underway when the curtain opens. Vitaliy Poleshuk danced the role of the doomed Poet, aside Natalia Makina as a rather evil coquette and Elena Kulagina as the evasive Sleepwalker. Poleshuk's interpretation was rather tame, and his theme seemed to be the chase. He chased, but never captured either the Coquette or the Sleepwalker, receiving death as his only reward.

Kulagina was an ethereal Sleepwalker, commendable for her bourrees and ability to change momentum or direction instantly. Makina danced elegantly, suggesting a beautiful woman fully aware of her charms and her power over men. Her betrayal of the poet was tangible and prompted food for thought.

The ballet's conclusion prompts a number of questions that those not equipped with personal tutorials by Balanchine will have more difficulty answering: why does the sleepwalker take the poet's body in the end? Is it out of love? Or rather, is she a symbol of death itself, claiming his body after she has already taken his soul, upon first meeting? If love, then what other explanation could there be for accepting the body, and perhaps the promise of love it once held, when the sleepwalker has never consciously seen the poet? Is this a commentary on the strength of love, beyond conscious thought? Or is the sleepwalker an angel of sorts, a benevolent if mystical being, taking the poet back to heaven with her? Answers are not offered in the ballet's libretto or program. The mystery of Balanchine continues.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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