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Kirov Ballet - 'Le Corsaire'

by Catherine Pawlick

March 7, 2006 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

Wednesday night’s dazzling performance of “Le Corsaire” by the Kirov Ballet harked back to the company’s awe-inspiring US performances of the same ballet in the late 1990s, when stars Farukh Ruzimatov and Altynai Asylmuratova drew repeated curtain calls for one of the most exciting productions shown on American stages by the company. Serving as a reminder of the talent and skill that can emerge from the core of the Kirov when the circumstances are right, Uliana Lopatkina joined Dmitri Semionov, Nadezhda Gonchar and Leonid Sarafanov in a two-plus hour bravura display of exceptional polish and superlative artistry.

Despite the audience’s initial coolness -- perhaps due to the long pauses during the first two scene changes, during the second of which the stagehands could be seen rolling on the podium for the slave trade bazaar before the curtain came completely down -- by the final act, warm, almost frenetic cheers arose from the house.

Nadezhda Gonchar danced her first Gulnara with poise and aplomb -- her initial entrance performed at a very fast tempo -- with Anton Korsakov’s comic Lankedem reliably supporting her in the series of lifts. She reminded one of Irina Chistiakova at first, but then first-time jitters overtook her strength and poise so that, by fouetté time, she had to resort to demi-pointe for some of the turns. Nonetheless, to appear alongside Lopatkina after her own recent maternity leave demands great courage and her overall performance showed a dancer strong in technique with much promise at her feet.

As Lankedem, Korsakov was surprisingly entertaining. I was unfamiliar with his acting abilities, but his talented comic sections and miming sequences were remarkable. His initial double-passé/assemblé jumps in the third scene were void of the grand plié landings that others before him have done, and initial jumps appeared more weighted down than airborne. But his manège of revoltades drew warm applause from the audience. He danced a solid performance, partnered reliably and his surprisingly expressive acting was a refreshing addition to the ballet.

Many argue that Semionov fits the danseur noble mold better than the bravura type, but as Conrad he proved that both his technique and persona can fit into the latter. Tall in stature, and long of line but well-muscled, Semionov has strong, powerful jumps that he delivers with panache. One hopes that his success in this role, and partnering ballerina Lopatkina, will win over the administration into granting him more principal roles in the months to come.

Sergei Kononenko also debuted as Birbanto in this performance. Believably sinister, Kononenko displayed his strengths at character-type roles, and hopefully will do more of them in the future.

Queen of them all, Lopatkina set the tone for the rest of her performance, as is typical, from the very first entrance. Her pleading eyes expressed fear and innocence at being captured; she danced exquisitely, crowning off the famous pas de deux with 32 perfect fouettés, finishing in time with the music. As is also typical, her characterization was well-contemplated. In the romantic, seaside pas de deux with Conrad, just after being “purchased,” she did not evade his kisses, but rather played the role of equal-in-romance, happy to be alone with her new beau, and never coy…until the flowers are delivered from Lankedem, that is. After not recognizing him, and bequeathing the bouquet to Conrad, she looked searchingly as if to ask “Just who was that who brought me the flowers?” Other Medoras have been more flirtatious, and less inquisitive as to the source of the poisoned petals, but Lopatkina’s interpretation was characterized by innocence and sincerity, to say nothing of the beauty of her long lines and pristine technique.

Sarafanov danced Ali in a display of pyrotechnics that has yet to be equaled this year on this stage. If the stage was a stove, Sarafanov lit it on fire. For all his frequent and too- evident self-absorption, it is nonetheless difficult not to appreciate his technical prowess. He looks at the audience from under his brow as if to say “if you thought that was impressive, watch this.” Lightweight, with minimal musculature in his upper body, his frame is not given to extended partnering overtures – the requisite physical strength is just not present. But that same thin frame no doubt contributes to his ability to remain airborne as well as well-centered when turning.

He punctuated the turns a la seconde during the famous pas de trois with turns in low arabesque plié (all en relevé), alternating between the two positions before pulling into retire passé and pausing, still en relevé. His manège during the coda featured a variation on a Ruzimatov jump that gave the impression he would fall from the air, but before doing so Sarafanov would flip, still airborne, and then land fine. Not one step sequence or diagonale was faulty -- all finished musically, each one outdoing the rest. Preferences aside, Sarafanov is a grand allegro technician who loves to fly.

The Odalisque Trio deserves mention for accuracy. Here, among Yana Selina and Yulia Kasenkova, it was surprisingly Daria Vasnetsova who was most dazzling. Her bright smile, flirtatious eyes and refined delivery were startling in the brisé variation. She even managed to relate to Seid Pasha, seated downstage, at the completion of each sequence. Selina danced the emboîté variation cleanly, but did not draw one’s attention to the same extent. Kasenkova unfortunately appeared misplaced in the trio, her arms marring the classical positions, her lines not as sleek as the others’.

The Living Garden of Act III was a vision of fairytale pinkness, in which the corps de ballet proved that uniform lines and choreographic symmetry can be just as pleasing as individual bravura feats. Here Gonchar reappeared, more gracious and self-assured than in her initial entrances, given a second chance to reclaim the performance for her own. Lopatkina’s refinement in her Third Act variation – highlighted by an allongé from attitude devant all en pointe – underlined her undoubted stature as a Kirov leading lady.

Appreciation goes to Mikhail Agrest, the conductor, for waiting through the pre-performance and post-intermission pauses and for his ever-attentive fulfillment of various timing requests on the behalf of the dancers. 

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