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The Eighth Annual International Mariinsky Festival

Opening Night

by Catherine Pawlick

13 March 2008 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia

Opening night of the Eighth Annual International Mariinsky Festival provided a cozy retreat from drizzle and near-freezing temperatures in chilly St. Petersburg this time of year. Curiosity over the much-discussed new ballet by Kirill Simonov, "The Glass Heart", was sated during its premier to a full house and warm audience reception.

Based on motifs from Hugo von Hofmannsthal's little-known libretto "The Triumph of Time", the ballet traces a love triangle offset to the backdrop of an idyllic couple, and takes its themes from some biographical facts from Alexander Zemlinsky, and Gustav and Alma Mahler's lives.

The full version of the ballet's score, written by Zemlinsky between 1903 and 1913, has been lost, but the second act remains, and this evening it was heard for the first time, played expertly by the Mariinsky Orchestra under Mikhail Agrest's reliable baton.

In the ballet, Gustav, a rich nobleman danced with great finesse by Islam Baimuradov, is engaged to Alma, danced by the stunningly beautiful Ekaterina Kondaurova. Baimuradov's ability to shift from classical to modern movements and back in the blink of an eye brands him as one of the company's most tireless and talented dancers. But in this performance, his ability to sneer in the role of the physically abusive, "loving" husband captured his dramatic talents better than many other roles to date. Kondaurova, she of the longest, leanest legs on the company roster, her bright red locks recalling Moira Shearer's grace and mystery, was rightfully deemed by Dance Magazine one of "25 to Watch" this year. Doing honor to that categorization, she danced Alma with bravura and emotional abandon. Dressed first in red lace and later in a red velvet sleeved bodice with white lace skirt, she became both a mistress of her character and of Siminov's unique language of movement. Together Baimuradov and Kondaurova have a physical understanding that make their partnership seamless and intriguing to watch.

Maxim Zuizin appeared as Alexander, the poor poet in love with Alma. Zuizin danced his role with more passion and dramatic energy than I've seen from him in the past four years, his bold movements and confident demeanor replacing the tentativeness that has often marked prior performances. In the final scene, Alexander first strangles and then tries to drown a doll replica of Alma in the onstage fountain. This interlude approached madness, resulting in water all over the stage and Zuizin more than a little soaked. But Zuizin embraced it all with fervor, revealing the seeds of deeper dramatic talent than anyone might have suspected. He is a company treasure rising out of dormancy who excels when given something meaty on which to chew.

In contrast to this openly abusive and needy love triangle, Triton the Gardener and His Wife the Nymph, danced by Anton Pimonov and Yana Selina respectively, embodied pure unadulterated love. First appearing in a kilt with knee-socks and later in tight baby blue jazz pants, Pimonov is an old hand to the modern steps in "Glass Heart", his undulating movement and quick transitions seemingly second-nature. Selina kept pace with him, her wide smile constant throughout, as they both floated through brisk arm movements or soaring jetés across the stage. In juxtaposition to the dark lust of the initial trio, a surprising moment of a full kiss between the two sealed the romantic nature of their interaction.

Another notable appearance was made by Svetlana Ivanova, her fragile but uber flexible limbs adapting effortlessly as the lead in the Hours - five ladies in midnight blue dresses who look at their wrists and mark the passage of time. Ivanova danced with unusual plasticity, her upper back elastic, her jumps light and airy as always.

At various interludes in "Glass Heart", a corps de ballet enters. At first, the women appear in pill-box hats with small feathers, long gloves and knee-length flower-print dresses en pointe; the men are in tails and pants, the look reminiscent of Ratmansky's ballroom in "Cinderella". Later, the men lose their shirts, and the women shift to yellow frocks. A smaller set of women come out in high-waisted ragged edged skirts with gold glitter on their bodices. The unique costumes do not tell you exactly who the characters are, save for the opening of the second act, when nymphs with watering cans walk across a stage of low fog, with large crossbows hanging from the ceiling which underline the theme of the "Glass Heart" that is, presumably, about to be shattered. But in each shift the costumes intrigue and color the stage, dressing the libretto in an avant-garde fashion.

The ballet's title prompts the obvious question: to whom does the glass heart belong, and does it break? The answer appears to be Alma - her cold glass heart shatters only the hearts of those around her as she is incapable of anything but teasing men to the point of distraction. The heart theme is emphasized throughout by Alma's pointed index finger maliciously pushing Alexander in the chest, and his crumpling reaction.

Simonov's choreography, which will be familiar to those who have seen his very modern "Nutcracker", is not for everyone, and it is here that most observers will disagree on their conclusions about the piece. He favors a cross between Eifman and Forsythe, with lifts from the modern vocabulary - legs both bent in retire passé position, one then piercing the air with an abrupt battement - and port de bras reminiscent of the near sign-language arm movements used in "Steptext", only ramped up considerably in speed. The characters repeatedly carve any number of ovals or circles in the air while swiveling their hips and bent knees into various positions. Straight elbows and flat hands add frequent accents. But there are pointe shoes as well as bare feet in this ballet. The overall effect could be called overdone or busy. But if it's less than the lovely Mariinsky dancers deserve, it is nonetheless not far from the growing trend in contemporary movement shown by many other choreographers in the West. A recent visit to San Francisco left me with rather poor impressions of the caliber of dancer at one of America's greatest ballet companies when compared to the polished, unified look and unadulterated high level of technique that seeps from every Mariinsky dancer. Whether you like the movement and "look" of "Glass Heart" or not, the entire cast looked comfortably at home in Simonov's idiom, and that only speaks to their own skill and beauty.

Simonov's "Glass Heart" is a unique, modern work that reflects the shifting choreographies of our times. Its libretto offers plenty of room for thought; its costumes surprise, and its movement-whether you love it or hate it- intrigues. This short ballet is sure to incite some sort of reaction in each viewer. And isn't that what art is about, anyway?

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