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Kirov Ballet - 'Romeo and Juliet'

by Catherine Pawlick

June 24, 2006 -- Mariinsky State Theatre, St. Petersburg

Fans of Shakespeare’s classic “Romeo and Juliet” tend to divide into camps behind their favorite version of the ballet. Kenneth MacMillan, John Cranko and Leonid Lavrovsky are three of the most well-known creators of this tragic love story in ballet form, and their respective compositions offer slightly different flavoring to the passion and pathos at the core of the libretto.

For years this reviewer has been a staunch adherent to the MacMillan camp – American Ballet Theatre’s version in the late 1980s was a full evening of entertainment with some of ballet’s greatest stars in leading roles – the young Julie Kent as Juliet, the bouncy, lovable Johan Renvall as Mercutio, and even Andris Liepa guesting from the Bolshoi Ballet at the time as an idyllically handsome Romeo. And MacMillan’s well-formed production seemed the ideal balletic incarnation of the story, from the initial busy town square scene to Romeo climbing the balcony trellis onstage. But on June 24 of this year, the dramatic strength of Leonid Lavrovsky’s version as danced on the Mariinsky stage by some of the Kirov’s most talented dancers proved that defection to the other camp is now a tempting maneuver. The ballet was danced with an unexpected but welcome zeal by every character, bringing a captivating virtuosity to the entire production and underlining the strengths of Lavrovsky’s version.

The production has points of contention. Perhaps the largest is the famous balcony scene. In Lavrovsky’s version, we are on the balcony; Romeo and Juliet dance on the entire stage, framed only by upstage pillars that suggest part of the balcony construction. In the MacMillan version, the lovers in fact dance just below the balcony – Juliet’s window and abode are upstage, Romeo approaches from below, she descends, and the famous pas de deux begins. Both approaches have their benefits, and it is up to the viewer to determine his or her preference.

Should one prefer the “pas de deux below the balcony” approach, Lavrovsky’s focus on choreographic pattern and drama rather than staging is a strong one, and, in defense of Shakespeare, he has adhered to the idea of a scene on the balcony itself. This particular performance was the most effusive display of drama that Kirov dancers have infused into “Romeo” in the past two years.

Maya Dumchenko’s Juliet was an essay in joy – joy to be alive, joy to be coming of age, joy to have found her true love. From her first entrance with the pillow tossed at the Nurse, one was reminded of the ebullience of the young Galina Ulanova. Here the famous ballerina’s traditions seemed close by in the form of Dumchenko’s light jumps, quick footwork and airy port de bras.  She floated through pique attitude turns and her every jump, from small jeté to large, was bouyant and bright. Her essence was that of a young, beautiful innocent girl, full of energy and zest for life, but shy and unprepared for the Fate that will befall her.

In his debut as Romeo, Anton Korsakov was unpredictably well-suited to the role. Typically more of the bravura type, he portrayed the lovesick dreamer with believability and clearly defined characterization. His more muscular build nicely complimented Dumchenko’s slight frame, creating a balance between airy, light femininity and strong, grounded masculinity. His Romeo was neither overacted nor too bland. Especially in the sword fight, one had the impression that his desire for revenge came from deep within. During the couple’s partnering sequences, aside from a few jolty promenades, all of the lifts and turns went off seamlessly. Korsakov is nothing if not strong, and nearly any version of this ballet requires a master at partnering.

Before we even got to the star-crossed lovers, however, a rare and pleasant surprise came in the form of one of Romeo’s friends. Now-pedagog Igor Petrov returned to this ballet in a somewhat rare appearance at the opening of Act One. Often cast as Carabosse in “The Sleeping Beauty”, here Petrov was easily visible for his quick smile and clear gestures. His innate sense of comedy and mime came through in the dance, almost drawing attention away from the others onstage for his know-how and inborn theatricality.

As if that weren’t enough, some other equally welcome treats were in store. Islam Baimuradov danced a flamboyant, evil Tybalt and stole the stage with his seething mal intent. One of the company’s most talented actors, Baimuradov infuses all of his characters with an inner raison d’etre: every step, glance and gesture adheres to the character’s mindset and placement within the libretto. The result is always a well-rounded role, acted with the utmost forethought, but still spontaneous enough to remain fresh.

Maxim Zuizin danced the Troubador with careful precision alongside the ever-classical Ksenia Ostreikovskaya. Blessed with the most beautiful legs in the company and despite a recent injury, Zuizin has all the capabilities to become an international star. A few more ounces of self-confidence and some support from backstage is all he needs; one hopes he acquires both.

Alexandra Gronskaya’s haughty, cold manner as Lady Capulet provided a stark contrast to the maternal warmth of Elena Bazhenova as Juliet’s Nurse. These two characterizations reveal not only Shakespeare’s obvious genius as playwright but these particular dancers’ talents in portraying divergent emotional poles and Lavrovsky’s brilliance in rendering them into silent forms of movement.

Also at his acting best was Sergei Popov as the vain and beautiful Paris. Popov, who continues to dance more frequently in various roles, portrayed both the suitor’s interest in Juliet and his cool departure at her rejection of his advances. In their brief parent-incited bedroom meeting, Dumchenko’s eyes glazed over as if she had died inside. When Popov took her wrist, her steps became mechanical as her stare continued out onto the horizon, and it was clear she only reticently accepted the future her parents had planned for her. At the same time, Popov’s strong interest in Juliet was readily apparent in his constant gaze, resulting in a visible conflict of interest and heart that drove Juliet yet nearer to her ultimate demise.

Boris Gruzin drew a roar of applause for his conducting efforts this evening. The Kirov will be hard pressed to offer a repeat performance of “Romeo and Juliet” with the same spark and sizzle that occurred on this night.

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