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Kirov Ballet - VI International Ballet Festival

Program 5: New Names Gala
'Petty Bourgeois', 'Du Cote de Chez Swan', 'The Overcoat'

by Catherine Pawlick

March 21, 2006 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

As if to herald in the long overdue spring thaw in one of St. Petersburg’s longest and coldest winters in years, a much-anticipated evening of three new works greeted the Mariinsky Theatre on March 21.

This theatre, home to the greatest names in classical ballet, the likes of Petipa, Fokine and Nijinsky, still so steeped in historical tradition, seems an unobvious choice as a creative cauldron for innovation. But these three new dishes have been simmering since January, and a sumptuous repast was served to the public on Tuesday night as the premieres of “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” (“Petty Bourgeois”), “Du Cote de Chez Swan” and “Overcoat after Gogol” greeted the audience of balletomanes and critics, many of whom flew in just for this Sixth Annual International Mariinsky Festival.

The air was abuzz with excitement as the curtain opened on the first piece, Nikita Dmitrievsky’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.” Based on the play by Molière and set to music by Richard Strauss, Dmitrievsky’s creation offered a fresh, modern take on the French playwright’s story of comedic intrigue.

Costumes were clever – the Marquise Jourdaine, Valeria Martiniouk, wore a pink satin low-cut corset and knee-length satin skirt, with long black gloves, her hair pulled into carefully arranged flat curls atop her head. Her husband, danced by Mikhail Lobukhin, wore striped pants and a beret. Alexander Sergeev was the cutting edge of cool as Covell, Cleonta’s servant, appearing more like a slick homosexual gangster magician, dressed in a beret and short gloves. Nicole, the stereotypical French maid, danced by Evgenia Obratsova, wore high black stockings and a short red satin tutu, her hair, a blonde curly wig á la Marilyn Monroe with a pout, and long white puff feather in hand, to match. Four male students looked fresh out of a 1950s cartoon with hair slicked into wild styles, plain blue t-shirts and black aprons over black pants. They provided a corps de ballet (of sorts), along with the four female cabaret dancers, in miniscule baby blue tutus and bare legs accented by garter belts.

And for a bit of shock effect, Ekaterina Kondaurova emerged from the wings as the Marquise Dorimaine, in a tight black leather dominatrix suit, accented by red tights and a perfectly coiffed French twist with chopsticks. She danced with Islam Baimuradov, the Count Dorant who was dressed more like a ‘90s rock band leader, in casual pants and t-shirt, head in an orange wool ski cap.

Ample use of lighting between four black panels upstage provided four well-lit “doorways” that the dancers used in addition to the wings for entrances and exits. The beginning of the ballet showed Obratsova, the French maid, simply walking across a smoke-filled stage, as if in a night club. The orchestra members hooted and hollered as she waved her fluffy feather in their direction, sighed, and continued offstage. Simple, but oh so effective.

Although the intrigues were difficult to follow without reference to the program, the general idea of pairs coupling off, jealousies, and love affairs was clear. Dmitrievsky used Molière’s themes almost, one could say, as a stepping stone to exhibit his production talents. It would not be surprising to find this ballet coming from Michael Smuin, as both choreographers have an innate sense for theatricality and drama. Dmitrievsky’s choreography is modern in nature, punctuated only rarely by classical ballet steps or positions. Plenty of swivels done with hips and arms fill the music, along with ample use of on-the-floor activity. Men run and slide on their chests downstage, or are dragged offstage in the same manner. Women are carted from wing to wing on skateboards, their arms moving fluidly during the flight. Other highlights included: an acrobatic “fight” between the male students; a pas de trois between three men in which Lobukhin decided to dance like a swan; a separate moment in which, seeing the Marquise (Kondaurova), he extended his arm to and from his heart in time with the drum beat in a cartoon moment, and Kondaurova’s own exasperation at Baimuradov’s pursuit of her. Dmitrievsky’s dancing language is unique, clever and never dull. This ballet was a delightful evening opener and one I hope to see on the Mariinsky stage again more than once.

It is impossible to laud one of this evening’s ballets at the expense of the others, as each was uniquely entertaining. The second work, Alexei Miroshnichenko’s “Du Cote de Chez Swan” was thought-provoking and avant-garde in both theme and meaning. As Miroshnichenko explained to me in a February interview, the ballet uses word play and the theme of Proust’s novel as a launching point. He explained that composer Leonid Desyatnikov took Proust’s title, “Du Côté de Chez Swann” and Saint-Saëns’ theme of “The Dying Swan” to create his own musical score, in which Saint-Saëns’ theme is clearly audible, but other musical variations are added around it. The word play centers on the exclusion of the additional ‘n’ in the title: not the side of Swann the character in the novel, but of a swan, the bird that, in this case, has just died. As Miroshnichenko pointed out in the program notes as well, “The Dying Swan” points to the death of the swan, but we are not privy to its life. Desyatnikov wanted to look inside and see what happened beforehand. Miroshnichenko thus decided to begin the ballet at the swan’s death and rewind in time, reflecting Proust’s own unique space/time continuum in which there are no beginnings and endings; everything simply exists.

For his ballet, Miroshnichenko clothed the dancers in simple black leotards and tights, attaching luggage tags to their left ankles. The backdrop was an over-large serial number, black stripes and numbers on a white background, similar to the ankle tags. Olesya Novikova and Alexander Sergeev danced the avian creatures, fulfilling Miroshnichenko’s choreographic and musical challenges with dexterity. Novikova sported a chin-length black wig which only amplified her long neck and deliciously slim limbs,  adding shock effect in this most classical of ballet houses. Sergeev’s hair was slicked into a beak-like point on his forehead, and he partnered Novikova with equal parts attentiveness and agility. When the score returned periodically to Saint-Saëns’ theme, Novikova would suddenly assume and execute swan-like poses and steps, supremely classical in nature. Moments later, as the score began its theme, she and Sergeev would walk as young birds do, in wide-eyed wonder, their positions becoming more grotesque with bent elbows, turned-in feet and chins jutting out. The quicker partnering sections were similar to Forsythean combinations, but Miroshnichenko’s talents for a unique creation are nonetheless undisputable. The ballet is an essay in contrast – classical and modern, refined and grotesque, graceful and clumsy, black and white, life and death, and as such, it provides plenty of room for contemplation, even long after the curtain has closed.

The final ballet of the evening, Noah Gelber’s interpretation of Nikolai Gogol’s Petersburgian “Overcoat” was a much awaited, and much publicized ballet. Having followed the work’s creation from the start (see my interview with Gelber in the March issue of Ballet-Dance Magazine), the outcome was not a surprise, but the lighting design and sets were not seen until the week of the premiere, and they added significantly to the overall production, which is very much a dramatic representation of the famous novel.

Gelber’s choreography is a complex mix of modern movements, influenced by his many years in the creative studios of the Frankfurt Ballet, where his choreographic juices were first given reign to run freely. For the ballet, Gelber followed Gogol’s storyline closely, using various step-themes for each of his characters. Akaki, the story’s protagonist performed by Andrei Ivanov, dances with endless ticks, scratches and twitches until he decides to follow the tailor’s suggestion to actually purchase a new overcoat. At that point he dances fluidly, excitedly awaiting his new garment. Ivanov’s built-in classical technique offered a strong basis on which to create the character and the outcome was successful: one believed in the poor man’s attachment to his decaying piece of coat, and Ivanov’s capacity for expressive acting came through in this role.

The wardrobe attendant, danced by Yana Selina, was given mostly circular step combinations; the tailor, expertly dance-acted by Islam Baimuradov, sewed his way through thin air in a series of zig-zag, crossed steps, reminiscent of the character’s profession as well as his inebriated state. As the deliverer of the military letter, Grigory Popov performed a virtuosic variation that Ivanov then mimicked while reading the letter. The bearer of the invitation to the ball, Anton Pimenov, danced a quick variation with surprise jumps and temps de flêches. Fyodor Murashov and Alexei Nedvega were the other two bureaucrats, while Soslan Kulaev and Maxim Chashegorov danced double duty as the two thieves and the invisible partners for Selina during Akaki’s dream sequence.

Maxim Krebtov was a stately Police Commissioner, demonstrating his bureaucratic, cold-hearted power in a complex arm gesture language that got the refusal across.

Costumes for all were created in adherence to historical Russian fashions at the time of the novel: overcoats, top hats, vests and brocade jackets with tails lent an interesting level of authenticity to the production that contrasted nicely with the modern choreography.

Pieces from old Shostakovich scores were obtained with permission from the Shostakovich Foundation, and the Mariinsky Orchestra played them under Valeri Obsyanikov’s undyingly attentive baton.

The only disappointment in this premiere was the failure, at two points, of the curtain managers to adhere to plans. Before the Epilogue, Akaki dies, and what must be the world’s largest overcoat appears onstage. Akaki walks onto it, and then through the torn fabric in the back of the coat, as it continues to rise. Unfortunately the torn fabric was invisible due to darkness, and the full height of the coat was obstructed by an early curtain. At another scene change, the curtain was lowered prematurely while Akaki was still dancing. Given limited stage rehearsal time prior to the premiere, these issues are explainable and can easily be smoothed out in future performances.

It will be interesting to see what Petersburg critics and balletomanes think of these three new ballets. To Western eyes at least, they were spectacular proof that creativity can thrive within the boundaries of the world’s most classical ballet theatre. Repeat performances have been promised for this summer’s White Nights Festival. Hopefully more spectators will be able to partake of this dance bounty then, and decide for themselves.

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