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Kirov Ballet - 'The Golden Age'

by Catherine Pawlick

June 28, 2006 -- Mariinsky State Theatre, St. Petersburg

The Mariinsky Theatre’s new ballet, “The Golden Age”, is a theatrical production, short on ballet and long on pantomime, that takes full advantage of some modern, computerized effects in an almost broadway-esque remake of Shostakovich’s original version.

A small team of individuals cooperated to recreate the old ballet into this new adaptation. Based on Dmitri Shostakovich’s original creation that debuted at the Leningrad State Academic Theatre (now the Mariinsky) in 1930, the new version was overseen by Stage Director Andrei Prikotenko, who has won awards for his directing work elsewhere in St. Petersburg, and who was hired specifically for this task.

The ballet has a revised libretto by theatre historian and playwright Konstantin Uchitel and a slightly trimmed score attended to by the skilled concertmaster Ludmila Sveshnikova. Noah Gelber was responsible for the production’s choreography with help from Prikotenko in the larger crowd scenes, stand-ins and other non-choreographic production points. Costumes by Mariinsky resident costumer Tatiana Noginova were nothing if not dramatic, beautiful and consistent in taste and style. Tugan Sokhiev conducted the premiere masterfully.

This collective effort culminated in a rather unique result. The three and three-quarter hour spectacle opens a la Forsythe: the audience is let into the house only after the third bell to an exposed stage, with a photographer circa 1930s working in his dark room. On the large scrim upstage is a screen on which a black-and-white slide show is displayed once the music begins.

However, it should be noted that this creative beginning meant the entire audience was crammed into the theatre’s narrow hallways in sweltering heat, some waiting as long as 20 minutes to be let into the house. By the time the large crowd found its seats, the production was at least ten minutes late. One hopes that for future premieres the audience will at least be allowed to enter at a normal hour to avoid these inconvenient delays, and to keep things running on time.

The element of photography is used in “The Golden Age” to link actors, scenes and the motive of memory in time, memory and time. In a departure from both Grigorovich’s version and the original libretto, this story begins in a park setting, entitled “the labyrinth of memory” in which veterans from World War II from various countries are gathering for a reunion based on old photographs. The 80 and 90 year-olds each carry pictures of themselves as youths, in an attempt to identify each other.

Madame Sofia, played by the illustrious Gabriela Komleva, is sitting in the park with a group of pupils. She recognizes a man she knew many years before. Sergei Berezhnoi, who plays the role of Old Alexander, approaches with his photograph, and the two recognize each other. They first met in this same park 70 years ago. This happenstance meeting shocks them both, and they shift into a reverie of times past. Thus the ballet begins a series of flashbacks between present day (2000) and past (1930).

At the close of this first scene, a giant 50-foot tall camera, much resembling the train from “Anna Karenina”, is rolled onstage to photograph all of the reunion attendees together. This camera is rolled back onstage periodically between scenes linking past and present via giant on-stage photographs that are projected onto the giant upstage scrim.

The first flashback entails the arrival of the Soviet athletic team in Western Europe. Mr. von Klein, danced by the talented Andrei Ivanov, is a westerner intent on making the team members feel at home, but he overdoes it in his drunken stupor. From exaggerated facial expressions to over-enthusiastic gestures, von Klein was determined to be as hospitable as possible. Ivanov’s hilarious acting was one of the performance highlights.

Then, after a training session, two of the athletes – Young Alexander, danced by Mikhail Lobukhin, and Vladimir, danced by Islam Baimuradov – remain behind and notice a young gymnast, Young Sofia, danced by Irina Golub, teaching a group of children. The boys join her somewhat humorous stretch session in which Sofia and Alexander realize neither speaks the other’s language. Before long Sofia’s boyfriend Heinrich, danced by the easily evil Dmitrii Pikhachev, a strict, well-to-do, abusive sort, appears to take her to a reception in honor of the opening of the athletic games.

Pre-reception, a black-and-white film is projected onto the upstage scrim. It cleverly depicts the dancers, decked out in 1930s evening wear, arriving at the reception via one of the Mariinsky Theatre’s elegant staircases. The feel is retro: high tech projection used to display a black-and-white film intended to appear circa 1930.

To continue with the libretto, Sofia is the daughter of an important western diplomat, and at the reception Heinrich won’t allow her to be seen with the Soviet athlete. An argument occurs, Sofia is asked to leave and insists on staying at the ball. The romantic tension is similar to that of “Romeo and Juliet” – the lovers cannot be together for family position and cultural differences prevent them. Act One concludes with Old Alexander and Madame Sofia back in the park. The memories of the past are too strong for Sofia and she collapses in Alexander’s arms.

The action in Act One moves swiftly, but the real dancing sections are limited, as they will be throughout the production. There is the initial stroll of two young lovers, Anton Pimenov with Anna Lavrinenko, who present the contrast between relationships now and those 70 years ago. Pimenov depicts a typical 21st century guy being led by his girl: Lavrinenko yanks him into position, places his hand in hers, in general controls the relationship.

Interaction between Old Alexander and Sophia, on the other hand, is softer, and there is much arm-in-arm initiated by Alexander, but this becomes blurred with their “language of gesture” that is defined in the course of the evening. There is also a pair of girls dancing with a tightrope, Elena Vasiokovitch and Valeria Martiniuk, who have a very brief stay onstage, performing any number of pique turns and bourrees en pointe.

In passing, four soccer players in normal clothing flirt with girls sunbathing while two ‘fast-walking’ joggers speed upstage. This all sets the tone of the park adequately enough, but is background to the main action of the libretto. One immediately has the impression of watching a silent play, where pantomime and gesture pull the libretto forward, and any dance involved is almost mere decoration.

Act Two opens with Madame Sofia in the hospital. For this scene, Komleva is wheeled in on a gurney, and a camera attached to the lighting rack films her from above, and projects the image onto the back scrim. Other images of soccer matches are projected as well.

A flashback to the soccer match ensues, in which Alexander is wounded and Sofia comes to deliver first aid. This shifts to the young couple, Golub and Lobukhin, returning to the stage. Alexander is impressed by Sofia’s own flexibility; she tries to “stretch” him out of his injury. In this scene, again the dancing is minimal, but the steps that the soccer players perform are cleverly inventive. The majority of the scene involves mime and gesture.

The second scene shifts to a cabaret show, featuring Olga, the glamorous movie star, danced appropriately by Ekaterina Kondaurova, whose glorious wardrobe is different in every scene. She had appeared initially at the reception for the athletes, where she had taken a liking to Vladimir and helped encourage the coupling of Alexander and Sofia, taking Sofia, specifically, under her wing.

Olga here performs a dance similar to the seven veils idea for the cabaret audience, among whom are Sofia, Alexander and Vladimir. When a group of acrobats appear to entertain the guests, Olga helps Sofia and Alexander escape briefly for some alone-time. The couple flee to the stadium and dance their first pas de deux together. At the end of the dance, they have their photo taken together – a giant black and white image of Golub and Lobukhin in costume is then projected upstage – as a memento.

Aside from the initial couple in the park at the opening of the ballet, this Act Two pas de deux is the first real duet, the first chance that the protagonists have to dance together. Characterized by crossed limbs – arms crossed in partnered promenades, lots of over/under crossing of limbs – the brief dance symbolizes the lovers’ challenging position.

Lines (of communication) are literally crossed; Sofia and Alexander don’t speak the same language, so they find a common tongue in gesture and movement. This point isn’t denoted in the program however, and may pass unnoticed by most spectators. Both Golub and Lobukhin executed the intricate maneuvers here admirably. The motion flowed smoothly, so much so that particular step sequences didn’t necessarily stand out.

The last scene shifts to the soccer match – which turns musically into one of Shostakovich’s impressive, impending marches. Here is a brief look at some of the most interesting choreography of the evening. Without a soccer ball present, the soccer players perform all manner of kick, jump or tour while retaining a sportive look. However, by the time the curtain falls, the players are no longer dancing but marching in icy salute, staring across the stage at each other, two opposing teams walking in tandem to a bone-chilling beat.

It becomes clear at this point that the ballet is based on the German-Russian opposition during World War Two. The allusions are plentiful (for one, “Heinrich”, “Sofia” and “von Klein” are all German names). On the heels of “Leningrad Symphony,” which is being danced more frequently this year as part of the Celebration of Shostakovich and which also depicts this antagonistic relationship, this point is risking dilution for its widespread nature.

Act Three opens with Madame Sofia again in the hospital, semiconscious. She recalls the wartime horrors in another flashback. Young Sophia reappears, and Heinrich comes to offer her a chance at freedom. She refuses to go without the children she is caring for. Heinrich hits her, and Mr. Von Klein diverts the children from a man fallen dead nearby. According to the libretto, everyone onstage is apparently imprisoned, although the scene is still the stadium park, and there are no balls, chains or walls to speak of. The libretto explains that Mr. von Klein tries to distract the children but his imprisonment has affected his reason and he dies suddenly.

A group of prisoners in grey loose-fitted pants, shirts and caps lines up downstage. To a repetitive drum chord, they fall, as if shot, one by one. As this happens, Vladimir extricates Alexander from the lineup. Together they try to escape but Vladimir is shot in the process. Vladimir grabs Alexander and kisses him on the lips before falling limp in his arms.

Alexander performs a solo dance, half in disgust at the mouth-to-mouth contact, and half in confusion over what it all means. The scene reverts back to Old Sophia in the hospital, and, as the libretto states, “in the course of a few minutes they once again live decades of hopes and despair – their happy youthful dream of a ‘golden age’.” This closes Act Three.

For this performance, the entire cast came out on stage and bowed at this point. The curtain went down twice, and then rose again to and empty stage, save for a simple photograph of the young Shostakovich on the back screen. The audience was beginning to depart when Sokhiev began to conduct the final part of the powerful score to this backdrop. This last section imposed the idea that the ballet was a dedication to Shostakovich’s talents and memories, and perhaps not intended to be considered otherwise. It was a strange, or at least unexpected, epilogue to the new work.

Needless to say, the libretto is complex. This “The Golden Age”, as with Grigorovich’s version, is encumbered by the fact that the onstage action is at once both so plentiful, but also does not – can not possibly – depict all of its nuances, leaving much for the audience to discover or understand for itself.

For example, what must have been the first onstage male-to-male kiss at the Mariinsky took place between Baimuradov and Lobukhin in the ballet’s final Act, as stated above. This gesture expresses the fact that Vladimir was secretly in love with Alexander, hiding his attraction due to his job and to the unacceptability of homosexuality in the Soviet Union. But this kiss wasn’t announced in the program – thus no one could have anticipated it – and during the premiere, the audience showed no visible or audible reaction to the kiss. One wonders if it went unnoticed.

It should be noted that following the first of two intermissions, approximately one fifth of the audience had left the hall. In some ways this is not surprising given the non-balletic nature of the first act. Those who left guessed correctly that the performance would be consistent in maintaining a higher percentage of pantomime to dance throughout. Additionally, as often occurs at a premiere, the audience seemed unsure at which musical interludes to applaud, so it was difficult to judge public reaction based purely on applause feedback.

Unfortunately also, at times the clever inventiveness that permeated Gelber’s first ballet, “The Overcoat”, here gets buried in music, costumes or staging. Having watched some “Golden Age” rehearsals before the premiere, little gems like Andrei Ivanov’s mechanical doll solo prior to his death seem lost the hubbub of onstage commotion and bodies (several of the young children were standing between him and the audience, so viewing was a challenge).

Other details like the interaction of the young lovers in Act One, where she yanks him repeatedly into position, directing the dance in true feministic Y2K style – or the stadium cleaner during the Act Two secret meeting pas de deux – or the fact that the 1930s society followed etiquette, gentleman offered their arms, ladies went first – were these points noticeable to the rest of the audience? Doubts remain.

The strength of “Golden Age” lies in its theatricality, its novelty and the fact that this is the first full-length, modern production of the Mariinsky since “The Magic Nut”. But one won’t find displays of balletic virtuosity here. The short dancing sequences are permeated with short – and long – acting ones. There is much gesture and nuance. “Golden Age” tests the dancers’ acting mettle, staying power and the theatre’s ability to juggle massive sets, computerized projection, and multiple scene changes. Therein lies its attraction. 

If work such as Ratmansky’s “Cinderella” is on the cutting edge of contemporary ballet, then “The Golden Age” a la Mariinsky is of the arriere-garde mode, presenting the past to us from a present day perspective. The feel of “retro” permeates the work, down to the lighting design by Gleb Filshtinsky, which has the dim look of modern day dramatic theatre, with abundant use of fluorescents and shadows rather than the brightness one would find in Act Three of “The Sleeping Beauty” or “Don Quixote”.

Costuming details such as the purple sash around Komleva’s neck, and matching the purple tie on Berezhnoi are also strong points. The scenography too is interesting. Sets were sparse but mobile, including stadium stands that glide on and offstage. All of this sets the tone and points the viewer in the right direction. It’s not grand ballet. But it is theatre.

Uchitel, the ballet’s librettist, authored a lengthy explanation in the program explaining that, “this is of course, a story not just about soccer and sport in general. Like almost any story, it is about love, the present and the past, youth and old age, war and peace. And it is also about memory, those priceless fragments than can give sense to life in times when it is drowning in the amorphousness of the absurd.”

Although war itself is horrific, the element of the absurd seemed difficult to directly pinpoint, but nonetheless this production achieves its goal in presenting the other elements that Uchitel delineates. Similarities to both the original and to Grigorovich’s version also remain: the musical score, save for a few omissions, is unaltered. There is still a soccer team, a pair of lovers, a nightclub, and the time is still 1930. The differences, as already suggested, are numerous. The theme of photographs, memories, war, cultural differences, and the challenges posed to relationships over time and in times of war are emphasized here.

Uchitel also notes that the theme in Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was written before the war. Along with other examples, he suggests that part of Shostakovich’s talent lie in the gift of prophesy through a musical medium. He also comments on the original ballet’s title, “The characters in the ballet of the 1930s look forward to a glittering future, they believe it will come to be. They are not alone. The west believes it will soon be free of the Great Depression…One sixth of the world striving towards industrialization believes it will soon and unequivocally conquer all. Shostakovich himself…doubtless shared the mood. They didn’t know what this golden age would be. Because of that, specifically because of that, they could be happy. Back then.”

That specific idea of a “golden age” thus holds a tragic note. This longed-for utopia either doesn’t exist or cannot exist. In the case of Alexander and Sophia, separated by 70 years of time, an international war and cultural differences, it is only just before death that they find each other again. Perhaps therein lies the absurdity of which Uchitel speaks: the unfairness of circumstance and the inability to control our fate – the bittersweetness of holding onto something valuable for only a few final fleeting moments.

It is somewhat disappointing that this long advertised grand ballet of the Mariinsky is in fact not much of a ballet at all. One might categorize “The Golden Age” as a dance drama, for it has elements of movement, some brief snippets of ballet and plenty of dramatic action and pantomime throughout. On the heels of “The Magic Nut”, the company’s other recent but clearly non-balletic production, it seems audiences must continue to wait for a full-length real ballet at the Mariinsky.

What the fate of “Golden Age” will be as far as the company repertoire is concerned will no doubt be determined shortly. In the meantime, the Mariinsky Theatre’s first, present day, full-length pantomime-drama “ballet” to Shostakovich’s classical score deserves at least one viewing.

A bit of history

This is the first of three ballets Shostakovich composed for the Leningrad State Academic Theatre in late 1929. The other two, “Bolt” (1931) and the “Bright Stream” (1934-35) followed, in between compositions for movie and theatrical productions. The program notes that Golden Age’s initial debut was successful, and a note from Shostakovich to Zakhar Liobinski is excerpted,

“Dear Zakhar Isaakovich, The day before yesterday we held the premiere of ‘Golden Age’…in short, the performance was a triumph. All of its creators had great success…Most important is that yesterday, and the day before, the public appreciated our work. The performance was so successful that on November 6 they will perform it again at an awards ceremony for the Leningrad Council. The second and third acts had greater success. The first for some reason didn’t quite work. I believe this is due to a few perfect dance numbers. But generally, come and see for yourself.”

Shostakovich’s “Golden Age” lasted for 19 performances. After the Leningrad premiere it was performed in Kiev and then in Odessa. But following that, it was criticized severely in the papers, from the libretto to the dancing, down to its very title. It lasted in the repertoire until the end of 1931– just one season. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Yuri Grigorovich recreated the ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre, performing it on international stages.

 

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