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Kirov Ballet - 'The Nutcracker'

by Catherine Pawlick

February 15, 2005 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

While for many professional ballet dancers, the word "Nutcracker" may summon memories of the trials and tribulations of surviving the 20-plus performance run that plagues some companies beginning on Thanksgiving weekend, for those who have viewed the ballet from outside the curtain, the idea usually elicits more positive memories. Thoughts of holiday cheer, gingerbread houses, fireplace coziness, surprise gifts and the mysterious magic that comes with Christmastime are just some of the ballet’s routine connotations.

While American companies tend to perform this work only during the Christmas season, others perform it throughout the winter weather months, and often even year-round. The latter is the case at the Mariinsky Theatre, which in fact offers two versions of the holiday classic. The Kirov Ballet’s repertoire contains the recent, modern version by Kirill Simonov, with costumes by Chemiakin, which may be viewed even during the summer months. But the theatre also offers Petipa’s classical version, edited by Vasilil Vainonen in 1934. Surprisingly, it isn’t the company which performs this production, it is the students of the Vaganova Academy. And lest one think this is simply a student showcase, think again.

As part of this year's inaugural "Tchaikovsky Festival" (Feb. 12 - 20), dedicated to the great composer, Vainonen's version of "The Nutcracker" was performed competently by those very students, suggesting that the dim moments sometimes suffered by the Kirov Ballet may be soon overshadowed by the next generation of even better and brighter stars.

Tuesday night's performance shared the features of many classical versions of “The Nutcracker” – snow flakes falling on the scrim, a wintry outdoor porch greeting scene, guests in turn-of-the-century attire gathering at the home of the well-to-do Stahlbaum’s. But for this Russian version, or one might say revision, there are several notable differences. Clara, known as Masha, is danced by two girls. For act one, the young Masha is danced by a girl who can’t have been dancing en pointe more than a year or two; and from the moment the Nutcracker turns into a Prince at the end of the second act, a more mature, teen-age Masha, danced by an older student, in this case the lovely Daria Vasnetsova. The dancing bear from the first act remains what would now be considered politically incorrect in the West – a dancing moor who both pleases and frightens the party children. What western audiences know as the dance of the Sugar Plum fairy is danced instead by mature Masha and her Nutcracker Prince; and the musical sections often dedicated to the snow scene pas de deux in other versions here are danced completely by the corps de ballet of snowflakes.

First Act highlights in this performance included all three of the dancing toys. As the Harlequin-like dancing clown, Kirill Leontiev was bouncy and as flexible as a cloth puppet. As the dancing doll, Ksenia Romashova was quite mechanical, her very thin legs appearing ideally doll-like. And the moor, danced by Denis Sapron, for all his stern scariness, got to the crux of the base-heavy measures in his section of the score.

Yulia Zubareva, the younger Masha, cannot escape mention. As the only child of her age group onstage who danced en pointe with Drosselmeyer, and whose preciousness was practically tangible across the many rows of audience members in the orchestra, her choice for the role was an obvious one. Her training and preparation was apparently quite thorough, from her joy at receiving the Nutcracker doll to her fright during the mouse/soldier battle and her etiquette at first greeting the Nutcracker Prince before quickly being replaced by Princess Masha.

Vasnetsova is one of the most promising budding ballerinas to grace the Kirov stage. Not one of her movements was technically inproficient, and she has feet and legs to rival Zakharova’s. But this was not what impressed most. It was her demeanor, her movements, flooded with a grace and warmth that was in fact surprising on this stage. This calm self-assuredness seems more at home, at times, in other companies or on other stages, but it allowed one to enjoy the performance rather than wondering who might miss a lift, or forget a prop, or slip and fall. Her smile was constant, and she radiated sheer joy in all of her dancing. Her place in the Kirov company, based on this performance, should be secure.

Vasnetsova’s partner, Philip Stepen, danced more strongly than many of the men habitually seen in the corps de ballet of the Kirov. (This is not to say that other, more competent male corps de ballet members don’t exist – they simply, for whatever reason, do not often perform). During the “Sugar Plum pas de deux”, one of the suitors (unfortunately his name is undetectable from the program) repeatedly lifted her so high, one would have assumed she was weightless. The remaining three suitors (also unmentioned in the program) were all equally competent in their partnering efforts, suggesting that the Kirov company should acquire some promising male dancers once these gentlemen graduate.

Act Three’s land of the sweets is an impressive salve to the eyes – bright, warm pink hues fill the stage sets, and the various dances were a pleasure to behold. Most remarkable were the mirliton/shepherdess participants, here simply dubbed“Pas de Trois” in the program. For this trio, Ekaterina Ulitkina and Olga Smirnova, two very petite girls who must be all of ten years of age, danced en pointe, partnered by the small but steady, and quite confident Daniil Lopatkin. The Russian trepak burst onstage with vim and vigor – Ekaterina Grazhdankinia, Tataina Gorodienko, Denis Sapron and Oleg Demchenko all deserve recognition.

As with the second act’s snow scene, so the third act’s waltz of flowers – a sea of pale pink, romantic-length tutus danced by mostly polished Vaganova students -- promises the continuation of the ever-famous corps de ballet in the Kirov Ballet company.

Valeriy Obsyanikov led the performance from the orchestra pit, and the Children’s Choir of the Mariinsky Theatre sang during the appropriate sections during the snow scene. It is a testament to the traditions of the Mariinsky, and the long list of pedagogues who have themselves graduated from the Vaganova School, that such talent continues to reproduce itself within the art of ballet in St. Petersburg.

Edited by Staff.

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