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Kirov Ballet - 'Swan Lake'

by Catherine Pawlick

September 30, 2006 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

In just over two weeks, California audiences will get a glimpse of perhaps the purest representative of inveterate Mariinsky style when Uliana Lopatkina opens “Swan Lake” in Costa Mesa’s Orange County Center for the Performing Arts on October 20. As the beginning of a North American tour that will take this production filled with white Russian swans to several cities, the casting choice for opening night on the tour’s first stop is not haphazard. Lopatkina has come to represent the traditions of Vaganova-based Kirov style, exceptionally refined technique and artistry, and has a following in St. Petersburg that is almost unparalleled among leading ballerinas.

Lopatkina’s genius lies in her unwavering attention to detail. It seems rather scientific to describe a living artist in this manner – Lopatkina is nothing if not an artist – but it is her precision that in many ways defines her, imparting perfection to roles and steps, a level of flawlessness that not all professionals can achieve. Her own discrimination within her repertoire –refusing to dance Aurora, for example, because, in her mind, the role is meant for a small, compact ballerina – attests to the presence of careful consideration and evaluation, not only of how she dances, but of what she dances, and why. Lopatkina’s approach to her art is intellectual, and perhaps therein lies some of its attraction. Nothing is left to chance, and yet her renditions are never stale, cold or programmed.

In Saturday night’s performance, in which she appeared to a completely packed house, Lopatkina danced sublimely, from her first bourrée onstage in Act I, through the skyward-bound embrace with Siegfried before the final curtain in Act III. Upon her first encounter with Siegfried in the lakeside meadow, Lopatkina’s movements depicted a nervous, fluttering, innocent, shy and tender being, demonstrated by her emotive gaze and fluid port de bras. She excluded the grand jeté after the arabesque from the initial entrance, clearly a decision made during the rehearsal period, and strangely, the musicality of the entrance was not only unaffected by the omission, but in fact improved by it. At the end of the sequence, when Rothbart calls her to return to her swan form, Lopatkina’s steps clearly explain the transformation. Bourréeing backwards towards the wings, she first reaches towards Siegfried with her entire body, only her legs pulling her away from him, clearly against her own will. Gradually her torso joins her legs and finally, in a touch of interpretive genius, her Swan Woman is “struck” by Rothbart at the crescendo in the music, at which point her longing glance towards Siegfried shifts into a blank stare towards the audience. She then moves her arm wings and bourrées offstage, in a trancelike state, once again completely a swan. While these movements adhere to the choreography and are not her invention, few ballerinas emphasize them accurately enough to clearly depict this transformation that is key to the libretto.

Such are the details of Lopatkina’s genius, though others, arguably even stronger, abound. Her strength of interpretation is perhaps most evident in Act II. For Odile, from as much as one can judge in watching Lopatkina dance, or reading interviews she has given, is in nearly every way the ballerina’s polar opposite, and yet Lopatkina’s rendition portrays a believably despicable seductress.

This time in testament to Lev Ivanov’s genius, the steps echo those in Act II. A soutenue, followed by a relevé in attitude is now accented differently, the seasoning has changed. Gone is the fluid languor of the white swan. In its place are sharp edges, quick turns of head and sly glances.

I noted in a previous review, and will note again here, one central component of Lopatkina’s Odile that encapsulates her characterization of the role. In Act II, following the brief appearance of Odette in the window that causes Siegfried some momentary confusion, Odile assumes swan-like stance and bourrées towards him. These steps epitomize the wolf in sheep’s clothing: Odile is turning herself momentarily into the innocent, vulnerable swan that Siegfried truly loves in order to seal his decision. As planned, his memories of Odette then immediately fall to the wayside in the presence of this tempting, voluptuous female who simply must be his true love, for she looks and even moves like Odette. Never have I seen a ballerina make the distinction between the two swans more clearly. In Lopatkina’s delivery of these steps, there is no doubt that Odile is bent on ensuring Siegfried’s betrayal of his oath to Odette. For the moment Siegfried turns his head away, she is instantly the evil seductress again, her gaze burrowing into him in silent determination, her arms lifted at the prospect of impending triumph.

Topped off with 32 perfectly musical single fouettés that were accompanied by applause given in time to the music, a Russian ode of appreciation and participation in the performance, Lopatkina’s Odile clearly had seduced not only Siegfried but the audience as well. Then a gracious bow, as the mercurial Odile continued to play with the spectators.

If Lopatkina’s repertoire is not large, her accomplishments in this dual role, the ultimate test of a purely classical ballerina, more than compensate for it. Here her subtleties find expression in both adagio and allegro, where, in both cases, her tempi have been carefully considered and planned for. Lopatkina tends to lean more towards adagio, which is no surprise given her long limbs and height, and this preference lends continuity to the movement, especially in “Swan Lake”. Here, this is an achievement, for not all ballerinas can produce a slowly flowing line that moves without stopping, which is a necessity for the characterization of the Swan Queen. But she carries out the speed of the second act without impediment, which hints at the range of her technical and artistic capacity.

As her Prince, Ilya Kuznetsov displayed a strong acting ability and equally polished technique. His partnering efforts were delivered with smooth ease, his jumps lofty. Halfway through the evening he had difficulties with pirouettes to the right, stopping short twice during the Act II variations, but these troubles were more than compensated for with his dramatic projection and attentive duet work.

Of the four large swans, Ksenia Ostreikovskaya, Ekaterina Kondaurova, and Yulia Bolshakova all exhibited long lines and uniform musicality, while Viktoria Kutepova’s movements appeared stilted and out of synch with the others. In their solos as the two swans, both Ostreikovskaya and Daria Sukhoroukova epitomized delicacy and grace, leading one to wonder how each would fare in the leading role.

For the Act II national dances, Valeria Martinouk replaced the usual Yana Selina in the Neapolitan Dance, alongside Maxim Khrebtov, and the pair were bubbling with energy and smiles throughout. Anna Sisoeva and Yulia Slivkina danced alongside Andrei Yakovlev (1) and Alexander Sergeev for what was a very spicy Spanish dance. The refreshed costumes were again notable for their brighter colors and slight difference in design from the previous versions.

Perhaps the only disappointment came in the initial pas de trois in Act I. While Daria Sukhoroukova’s slim neck and endless limbs were a pleasure to behold (limbs which, it should be noted, were kept to tasteful heights), and her musicality was continuously accurate, Yulia Kasenkova’s tightness made one nervous to watch. Kasenkova’s step-up pique turns were done onto a bent knee, and despite her natural turning ability, the overall impression raised question marks in one’s mind. To boot, the ends of both of her pointe shoe ribbons were not tucked in, leading to a sloppy appearance during her solo work. Luckily, Alexei Timofeev, a relative newcomer to this section (although this was not listed as his debut in the program), impressed with his crisply defined beats in the male variation. While his transition work (walking and posing) requires a bit more articulation, his jumps had both strength and potential.

With attention to detail that matched Lopatkina’s, Boris Gruzin conducted the evening. North American audiences will be lucky to partake of such visual wonders as this "Swan Lake" later this month.

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