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The Fifth International Mariinsky Ballet Festival

Opening Night - 'Apollo', 'Approximate Sonata', 'Reverence'

by Catherine Pawlick

March 24, 2005 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia

The Fifth International Ballet Festival, which runs from March 24 to April 3 in St. Petersburg, will feature dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Ballet, and Paris Opera Ballet, among others, in a wide range of works from strictly classical to some of ballet's newest creations.

This is the first in a series of five reviews from the Festival.

It is said that the mark of good art is that it leaves a lasting impression, creates pause for reflection, implants an image or idea inside the viewer that continues long after the viewing has ceased and after the individual has left the music hall, museum or theatre. The ballets that premiered during opening night of the Mariinsky Ballet's Fifth International Ballet Festival fall into this category. Both the Mariinsky premiere of William Forsythe's "Approximate Sonata" and the world premiere of David Dawson's "Reverence", created specifically for six Kirov dancers, offered food for thought in their billing as 'two ballets in the manner of the 21st century'.

True to its name, the Festival is indeed international in nature. Roberto Bolle of Italy's Teatro La Scala danced the title role in the first ballet of the evening, Balanchine's "Apollo", flanked by three Kirovian beauties as his muses. Fitting as an audience warmer for an evening of three contemporary works, "Apollo" a la Kirov is an increasingly, intriguing dish. Bolle's technically careful rendition of the role displayed his musculature to advantage, but the abandon found in some other interpretations was missing. Bolle was more adult deity than baby god learning to walk, and a sense of curiosity at his new life was missing.

He was shown the way by the lovely Viktoria Tereshkina as Terpsichore, the ever-frailer Maya Dumchenko as Polyhmnia and newcomer Olga Esina as Calliope. Of the three, Tereshkina was the most goddess-like of them all, which is more impressive when one considers that this was her debut in the role. There is a perfect sense of regal grace and self-confidence in her dancing that, combined with her beautiful proportions, speaks of heaven. Her strong facility allows her a degree of certainty in Balanchine's works that is rare among Kirov ballerinas, and results in almost faultless performances. Dumchenko is equally beautiful to watch - her legs seem endless and she has a doll-like face that was made for the stage. But in this performance, her strength seemed to be lost at the expense of her thin frame. She stumbled in each of the pique turns into plie arabesque in her variation. Esina's dancing was reliable, if a bit raw, a testament to her younger years.

The USA and, tangentially, Germany were represented in the second ballet of the evening, this time danced entirely by Kirov dancers. The Kirov Ballet premiere of William Forsythe's "Approximate Sonata", first set on Frankfurt Ballet in 1996, was delivered in polished, expert fashion and with confidence by all involved. Kudos for this feat go to Noah D. Gelber, a former New York City Ballet, Royal Ballet of Flanders and Frankfurt Ballet dancer, School of American Ballet graduate and, since 1997, one of Forsythe's assistants who continues to set the choreographer's works on companies across the globe. Gelber spent significant time last year setting and rehearsing the piece on the company (only to have last summer's premiere cancelled by company management), and returned this year to ensure the choreography, costumes and sets would adhere to Forsythe's standards. His hard work paid off. Seeing the six Vaganova trained Kirov dancers swivel, shift, and carve innumerable abstract lines in space was another step forward in Kirov history.

"Approximate Sonata", for the uninitiated, and in the absence of any program notes that might help determine its deeper meaning, is set to the music of Tom Willems with additional audio effects by Tricky. It begins with the sound of a growling lion against a Bjork-like musical theme. A man in a purple tank top and blue pants makes large growling shapes with his mouth, slowly walking forward as a lion. He suddenly shouts out in Russian, and a woman's voice answers back through a loudspeaker 'da' (yes). 'Do you see my hands?' 'Yes, do the lion.' He leaves his track on stage right and runs to the center of the stage, beginning to dance. 'Go back', the voice tells him and he returns to lion stance. That the voice-over is done in Russian for the Kirov audience, is a warm touch for the local audience.

Following this unique introduction, the first couple in 'Sonata', Elena Sheshina and Andrei Ivanov, began to dance. Sheshina is one of the shorter dancers in the troupe, but is often cast for her ability to move. She proved faithful to her talents here, and even if one isn't attached to the long, lithe body type, she is a pleasure to watch.

Forsythe's choreography is both discovery of and play with movement. He pushes the limits of hip joint rotation in off-balance, tilted penchees, ronds en l'air and quick movements following slow, liquid ones. The other Kirov dancers seem to have mastered this vocabulary with equal understanding. Ekaterina Petina, a young beauty with thin, muscular legs and incredible facility was pulled and twisted into any number of positions with partner Anton Pimonov, whose solo section depicted him going through a series of invisible 'holes' upstage, which he did with competent professionalism. Viktoria Tereshkina returned (her second ballet of the evening) with the young Maxim Ziuzin and was challenged only perhaps by Petina for the 'most accomplished Forsythean' award among the Kirov ladies. Tereshkina, as already noted, is a ballerina of the regal type, and she brought her trademark exquisite certainty to this piece as well, even when moving at lightening speed through the complex choreography. Yana Serebriakova and Dmitri Pixachov completed "Sonata's" casting with equally impressive delivery.

As the dancing in "Sonata" begun, so it ended - with Sheshina and Ivanov together. After a choreographed pas de deux, the two fall into 'human walk' stance and begin to discuss choreography onstage, gesturing, trying a sequence, stopping, and then trying another. This is a comforting side of Forsythe, although to some balletomanes it may seem strange. The division between dancer and person, the separation between onstage or off, dancing or not, is revealed before us on stage. One remembers this is still choreography - they're supposed to be looking like they've stopped dancing- but it is awfully close to what one might see in a glimpse at a studio rehearsal.

Finally Ivanov stands upstage, arms crossed, watching Sheshina go through a series of her own movements. As the curtain slowly drops, she is still moving, and he is still watching. The dance, Forsythe might be saying, continues, whether or not the spectators watch.

It was in almost eery fashion, then, that the world premiere of David Dawson's ballet concluded in a manner choreographically quite similar to "Sonata". This may be due to Dawson's own ties to Forsythe. A graduate of the Royal Ballet School (1991) and former dancer with Birmingham Ballet, English National Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, Dawson joined Frankfurt Ballet in 2000 as a principal dancer and retired from the stage two years later. His choreographic achievements began earlier, however, in 1997 with a composition for the Dutch National Ballet for whom he continues to create new works and was just named resident choreographer this year.

Having performed Forsythe during his own dancing years, it perhaps comes as no surprise that Forsythean influences are readily visible in Dawson's work. His movement themes are the same, even some of the steps are the same, but Dawson's choreography is a bit more fluid, a touch - and only a touch - more classical. Arms might be in classical positions but hyperextended. Sweeping lifts and dancers running, arms and heads thrown back, occur throughout the piece. As in Forsythe, the movement is edgy and often, but not always, stems from the hip. Dawson's musical choice, Gavin Briards‚ String Quartet No. 3, further emphasized the ballet's classical tendencies. But the costumes, long-sleeved black leotards with material hanging from each wrist for the girls, and sets (the stage became a dark grey box) had overtones of mourning and containment.

Dawson commented in an interview included in the Festival program that this ballet was his internal answer to the physical side of the musical score. He called this work a "journey which gives immeasurable joy. The story presents itself as some sort of death, both spiritual and physical, which can shift someone into another dimension. It is a tale about the future."

Combined, the costumes and music do in fact suggest death and transition. The movement itself, while not seeming particularly morbid, also hold overtones of dejection and solitude. The dancers dance alone and with each other, but the overall sense is that they're each separate individuals, going through life on separate paths that may overlap but are distinctly their own.

It is said also that Dawson created this ballet to depict the personalities of the six Mariinsky dancers specifically chosen for its debut. But on first viewing, it is very difficult to determine the intended 'personality' effects for each of the six.

Sofia Gumerova, quite unlike her usual self, smiled and appeared freer, in a fabulous mood perhaps, but her movement cool and reserved as she usually is. Natalia Sologub's speed seemed to be a metaphor for passion, or her love of movement. Daria Pavlenko - who seemed airbound much of the time, but in lifts not in jumps - had an alternatingly tragic and dramatic quality about her. Of the men, Mikhail Lobukhin, when not partnering Sologub, ran across and around the stage with abandonment.

At the end the six individual personalities were more visible. Pavlenko and partner Andrei Merkuriev, along with Gumerova and Alexander Sergeev, walk upstage, while only Sologub remains downstage, dancing to the tune, well, of her own drummer. Pavlenko continues looking straight ahead, certain of her direction. Gumerova pauses and looks back to watch Sologub, who seems lost in her own movements, while Lobukhin, remains nearby. The curtain closes.

Having vanished at the pre-agreed upon time for an interview with this reviewer this past weekend, Mr. Dawson may have proven his professionalism, or at least his talent, by the premiere of "Reverence". That the Kirov administration is keen to add new choreographers and new works to their repertoire is a welcome gift indeed.


Edited by Staff.

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