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The Eighth Annual International Mariinsky Festival

'Swan Lake'

by Catherine Pawlick

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

The arguably intriguing arrangement of six sequential "Swan Lakes" during this year's Mariinsky Festival began on Saturday night when Mariinsky principal dancer Diana Vishneva appeared alongside Igor Kolb who replaced the initially advertised Herve Moreau of the Paris Opera Ballet.

I saw Vishneva's St. Petersburg debut as Odette/Odile in 2005 which, as many critics noted, left much to be desired. She was not, at that time, a fragile, loving Odette, and technically she faltered at numerous points, starting from the initial arabesque in Act One. The feedback from her Saturday night performance, however, was more positive; the audience gave her a warm reception and numerous curtain calls. Clearly she has improved in this role.

But this festival is about more than the Mariinsky stars - it is, by definition, an "International" festival. Obviously it is both a great honor and a considerable responsibility for any foreign-trained dancer to appear on the Mariinsky stage - the literal birthplace of "Swan Lake". No doubt one goal of this year's festival is to compare and contrast various styles and interpretations of the same role in the same production while pairing Mariinsky dancers with foreign stars.

The first mixed couple appeared in the second "Swan Lake" of this sextet. Gillian Murphy of American Ballet Theatre joined the Mariinsky's Andrian Fadeev, who danced as her Siegfried.

Having refined my eyesight by a steady diet of Mariinsky Odette/Odiles these past four years in St. Petersburg, I've come to prefer the purest technician of all as the ideal Odette/Odile: that of Uliana Lopatkina. While many argue she is too "cold", she remains, for me, the example by which other ballerinas can be judged technically. The rest is a matter of drama and expression, and so of course will vary from performer to performer.

That Gillian Murphy is a beautiful dancer with a strong sense of balance and honed technique is clear from the moment she appears on stage. That she was not trained with the strong épaulement and careful wrist and hand placement favored by the Russians is also obvious from the beginning. I found her port de bras distracting, as her hands favor a spread-finger approach with wilted elbows. I also noted a lack of pliancy in her back - she remained more upright than other Kirov Odettes I have seen on this stage and didn't have that sharp arch in her arabesque that many of the Mariinsky soloists have. The effect of both arms and back resulted in a very Romantic era feel, but not what one typically sees on Theatre Square these days.

This was compensated for, however, by several moments of technical expertise that stunned more than a few audience members. Murphy's transformation back into a Swan at the end of Act One was done facing upstage, her back to the audience. As the music hit the appropriate crescendo, she froze en pointe, motionless, and then bourréed offstage as if pulled away by the Evil Sorcerer's magic. Applause erupted in the house. Likewise, in her Act II variation, a set of double turns à la seconde were models of classical purity.

In this particular performance, several alterations were made to the Sergeyev choreography. At her initial entrance, Murphy did not bourrée onstage; rather she bourréed in place upstage, before the first arabesque. During the White Swan Adagio, she altered the sequence of partnered "step-up" turns; a number of lifts were replaced or otherwise altered. The reason for these shifts were not clear: is this ABT's version? Or did Murphy have issues with those particular steps?

The partnering sequences with Fadeev, however, were faultless, a testament to his skills as a partner. He has been paired with a wide range of ballerinas during his career to date and never ceases to make the female appear weightless, the double work effortless. There is never any fumbling or grasping for hands, never a half-missed turn or failed lift. Fadeev is seamless when it comes to supporting the ballerina, and just as smooth in his solo work. From his very first entrance, he was the noble Prince, and his movements exuded this persona: slow, measured turns, impeccable jumps, all performed with the cleanest of lines. His distraction in the first scene provided ample juxtaposition to his keen interest in Odette after their first meeting. Likewise, after being tricked into pledging his love for Odile, Fadeev's shock was tangible, his rush to the scene by the lake done with a run that implied the urgency of his grave error.

Other more welcome changes occurred in the dramatic realm. As Odette, Murphy did a fine job of transmitting the warmth and fragility of a white swan in her gestures and interactions with Fadeev. A kiss on the lips, a head on his shoulder, his arms around her - it was clear this was a couple in love, not just going through the motions. As Odile, Murphy's persona was stronger. She performed triple pirouettes in the Black Swan variation, and her fouettés, dotted with doubles every other turn with the arms in third high, were indeed impressive. She regarded Fadeev as a spider watches a fly; their pas de deux was about her conquest, and her success.

Pavel Bubelnikov conducted the evening, which embraced slower tempos and abrupt endings at several points, presumably at the dancers' request.

While the house was, strangely, not entirely full this evening, the number of "bravos" that rang out during numerous curtain calls attested to the audience's approval of the Murphy-Fadeev performance. This American ballerina managed to enrapture the local crowd just as much as our beloved Kirov ballerinas do. It will be interesting to see if the Royal Ballet's Tamara Rojo, who performs on Thursday night with Igor Kolb, will have the same success.

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