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Kirov Ballet

Balanchine Mixed Program: 'Apollo', 'Prodigal Son', 'La Valse'

by Catherine Pawlick

November 22, 2006 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia

Wednesday night’s triple bill Balanchine program at the Mariinsky brought with it both surprise debuts and one welcome return to the stage.

In her first appearance on the Mariinsky stage since dancing “Emeralds” last March, Zhanna Ayupova performed Terpsichore in “Apollo” alongside Evgenii Ivanchenko. The role is an unlikely but intriguing choice for a dancer raised in, and sadly, mostly ignored during, Oleg Vinogradov’s tenure in the theatre, for Ayupova’s nature and training hail from the heart of true Kirov style. She is one of few holdovers from what seems to be increasingly considered the Kirov’s peak years – as witnessed by their tours in the late 1990s to the United States – a time when the company was in stellar form, setting new world standards for classical technique with the likes of the young Assylmuratova, Terekhova and Tchenchikova onstage. For those who saw some of those earlier performances, the difference in form and technique are readily visible among the troupe’s current crop of dancers.

There are many things that Ayupova is not. She is not of the Somova, Guillem-like limbs that warp lines to the extreme at the expense of restrained, traditional classical technique. She is not a dramatic spitfire, and technical tricks (or dramatic ones) are not her forte. Her gifts lie in her understated reserve, her adherence to choreography, her immense physical control coupled with grace that emerges at once from her limbs and her doll-like visage. For Ayupova, technique is a reliable foundation and launching point into a role, but not a means to an end. It is not a matter of circus display as has become the case with the aforementioned dancer and others of that generation. She remains an example of old school Kirov style – restrained but never stiff, tasteful, refined, and elegant.

These are the traits she brought to the role of Terpsichore on Wednesday night. Those hoping for a Balanchinean interpretation would have been disappointed, but then, this is not New York City Ballet. Not to fret: the steps were faithful, Balanchine’s name was not defamed in this delivery. But the reading given by Ayupova was her own. As Terpsichore she was self-reliant, assured of her own gifts, presenting them to Apollo as a knowing muse would. Her temperament spoke reserve – at more than one point she lowered her eyes, but just as often they were lifted, her smile extending out to the audience. Technically Ayupova possesses a sensual articulation of the foot that some of the younger dancers do not. In a company where this pliancy occurs only sporadically, it is a particular pleasure to watch her in movement, knowing she comes from a generation that is much closer to the core of Vaganova style.

Flanking Ayupova were Sophia Gumerova and Tatiana Tkachenko as Calliope and Polyhymnia, respectively. There is an aristocratic essence to Gumerova’s legs that mesmerizes. From the knee down especially, her slim calves and unique arch of the foot almost distract from the rest of her dancing. As Calliope she was beautiful and accurate, her smile dazzling as she interwove steps around Apollo. Tkachenko, a veritable powerhouse of strength, delivered glorious sissones and strong jetes with mere glissades as preparation. A series of double pique turns ended seamlessly in plie arabesque.. In her variation with the mask, she moved flirtatiously, adding a welcome dramatic dimension to the dance.

Ivanchenko was a solid Apollo who certainly fits the role physically. If a bit bland dramatically, his lovely limbs and accuracy somewhat compensated for his reserve. On the one hand, one admires his restraint and control. On the other, a bit of fire would be helpful in a role with such electric possibilities.

The second ballet of the evening, “Prodigal Son”, brought Andrei Batalov to the stage in the title role. Here is a dancer whose technique knows no bounds. Aided no doubt by his compactness, Batalov can pirouette until he runs out of “turn”, literally, and stop en releve, ready for the next challenge. As the Prodigal Son, Batalov expressed the impatience and curiosity of the immature young man intent on experiencing the world at any cost. If his fist-banging gestures were a bit soft, his allegro movements compensated for it in their authority. Alongside him Anton Lobukhin and Philippe Stepin were the Friends, somehow appearing as if they were Batalov’s own brothers, caught up mostly in various quarrels between themselves.

Yulia Makhalina reappeared as the Siren, unfortunately no more impressive than the last time I reviewed her in this role. Her extreme weight loss has left her without any muscle tone in her legs, and the result is a knobby-kneed, weak look. Having seen her dance in the late 90’s at her peak, clearly something has been lost in the past decade. It appeared as if she had deliberately broken the shanks of her pointe shoes in order to manage to even stand en pointe. The entire line of her leg was thus marred, her feet appearing almost flexed while in theory pointed, the result most shocking. Whatever her dramatic abilities, she was disappointing in even this minor (technical) role.

Thankfully the evening rose to another welcome high with a couple of unannounced debuts appearing in the third ballet of the evening, "La Valse". Anastasia Kolegova, an adorable, amazingly flexible young blonde woman who recently joined the Kirov this season from Konstantin Tchatchkine’s troupe, appeared next to Andrei Ermakov in the leading roles.

Blessed with strongly arched feet, loose limbs and natural grace, Kolegova was the perfect princess in white for this mysterious ballroom role. Alongside her Ermakov appeared the ideal partner for the ball, tall, handsome, and ever attentive. Ermakov is a young dancer still in his first or second year with the company, and despite his evident star quality, at well over six feet tall, he has to date rarely been given leading roles. This evening was an exception and Ermakov rose to the challenge. Unfortunately this role is little but partner and mime for the man, and as such we didn’t get to experience Ermakov’s true dancing chops. He will be performing ‘Don Quixote’ at the Hermitage Theatre with Tatiana Tkachenko soon, and that will be a performance not to miss. Here at least his partnering strengths and some of his acting abilities were confirmed. The few opportunities he had to jump presented long, strong limbs and certain technique.

Other performances have brought more dramatic impact to this mysterious ballet. Pavlenko remains the queen of the role, as her ability to infuse meaning into the enigmatic dialogue of gesture reigns supreme. Likewise, Kondaurova’s stunning beauty and ability to project dramatically to the far reaches of the house also drew attention. Kolegova is no less beautiful than these two and equally strong technically. Her challenge will be to find her own meaning and project it to the audience. As a newcomer she danced wonderfully. There is certainly time ahead to refine the details.

Mikhail Agrest conducted.

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