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Kirov Ballet at the Birmingham Hippodrome

by David Mead

May 20-23 , 2008 -- Birmingham Hippodrome 

May 20, 2008

Just as the value of the jewels of titles increase, so it always seems should the “wow” factor of the three ballets that make up the themed evening.  What it shows instead is that Balanchine was most at home choreographing in his neo-classical American style.

“Emeralds” is in many ways the least satisfactory of the three works.  But then again, its purpose is essentially to act as an hors d’œuvre for the more exciting fare to come.  Balanchine described the ballet as evoking the elegance, comfort, dress and perfume of France.  Unfortunately on this occasion, it brought back less elegant memories.  The company just didn’t seem to be able to connect with the work at all.  And more importantly, they didn’t connect with the audience either.  Of course, it doesn’t help that the choreography doesn’t have any of the really ‘show off’ moments that the Kirov is so good at.  But even so, there was a decided lack of precision on occasion, though I understand the following evening’s performance was much improved.  Things were not helped by the horrible shiny green leotards that looked like they had escaped from some local dance school show, and that were made to look even worse by the bright lighting.

The arrival of “Rubies” was something of a relief.  From the moment the curtain rises to reveal giant rubies hanging in the air and the dancers in short red tunics with Roman-style skirts, you just knew you were onto a winner.  Although not as sharp and spiky as when done by most American companies, this was a pretty good rendering of classic Balanchine, all quirky movements, odd angles and off-centre positions, danced along to Stravinsky’s glorious “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.”  Long and amazingly loose-limbed Alina Somova was perfect as the flirtatious girl.  The whole company looked as if they were enjoying being let off the leash, and so did we!

“Diamonds” is Balanchine’s homage to Petipa and it certainly does have more than a hint of “Swan Lake” about it, with the dancers in mostly white.  It’s a technically demanding piece and the Kirov was perfectly at home here, just as you would expect them to be.  Viktoria Tereshkina and Evegeny Ivanchenko made for a beautifully matched regal pair, backed up by the corps who melted gracefully from pattern to pattern.

Chopiniana, Divertissements, La Bayadère (Act III)
May 22, 2008

The Kirov’s second programme in Birmingham gave us a mix of the lyrical and classical, bravura solo skills and precision corps work.  “Chopiniana” (“Les Sylphides”) is all romantic elegance and restraint.  The leads, Evgeny Ivanchenko, Elena Sheshina and Anastasia Kolegova looked ideally suited to the work, full of light, yet precise technique.  The corps was, however, not as in tune as you would wish, with more than one dancer making small slips.  But it didn’t spoil what was a very enjoyable start to the evening.  The white romantic tutus decorated simply with flowers looked quite stunning, though why did someone decide to add a piece of material at the back connected to the hair and upper arms?  All it served to do was take away from the beautiful line each dancer was trying to create.  Interestingly it’s not found among the photos in the programme.  You could also argue that the forest glade was perhaps a little brightly lit, but at least it made a change from the almost perpetual gloom many lighting designers seem to foist upon us these days.

The central part of the evening, made up of four divertissements, turned out to be something of a mixed bag.  They got off to a decidedly understated start with the “Harlequinade” pas de deux danced by Anton Korsakov and Elena Shesina.  Both were pleasant enough , and Korsakov certainly gave us some spectacularly high leaps, but this short excerpt highlighted problems of taking a pas de deux out of context.  This one is very much about two characters rather than lots of bravura technique and relies on a certain understanding of the story, which is of course lost when it’s presented like this.

Best of the four was undoubtedly the “Grand Pas Classique”, often known as the “Auber Pas de Deux”.  Viktoria Tereshkina and Leonid Sarafanov were perfectly in tune with the choreography, the music and each other.  Tereshkina was so rock solid when placed on pointe that she looked like she could quite happily have balanced there in attitude all evening.  The youthful looking Sarafanov meanwhile was not only a great partner but gave us magnificent jumps, each landed absolutely precisely.  The audience quite rightly gave it the ovation it deserved.

Whatever followed was likely to be anti-climatic, but Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” was a huge disappointment.  Alina Somova showed some magnificent extensions, but the whole piece seemed flat.  Balanchine himself described it as a “display piece based on the music and the maximum gifts of virtuoso performers”.  Here, the two dancers seemed to be playing safe.  The music may be largely discarded parts of the original “Swan Lake” score, but “Swan Lake” it is not.  The whole thing lacked a much needed spark.

A change to the original programme brought the series to a close with the pas de deux from “Don Quixote” danced by Olesya Novikova and Mikhail Lobukhin.  They gave solid performances with Lobukhin, in particular, looking to be rock solid as a partner, but they never really managed to light up the stage.

Finally came Act III (Kingdom of the Shades) from “La Bayadère” with its well-known opening procession of 32 ballerinas, all identically dressed in white tutus, all in arabesque and all perfectly spaced, who slowly fill the stage.  And in Birmingham, the Kirov did it with just the trademark precision we have come to expect.  But it didn’t stop there.  Ekaterina Kondaurova was delicate, exquisite and feather light as Nikiya, while her partner, Evgeny Ivanchenko made for a classic Solor.  We expect high standards from the Kirov, and this was definitely the company at its delicious best.

Don Quixote
May 23, 2008

They say you should always leave the best to last, and the Kirov certainly did that in Birmingham.  Alexander Gorsky’s 1900 version of “Don Quixote” broadens the dramatic from Petipa’s earlier staging and gives the whole thing a more naturalistic and, dare one say, even English style.  Some of the humour and at times the whole feel of the piece is decidedly reminiscent of Ashton’s jollity at its best.  It’s not surprising that the audience lapped it up.

The ballet would perhaps be better described as ‘based on “Don Quixote”’ as it does rather lose the detail of the story.  It is for example not always clear why things happen, including the tilting at windmills scene, which, while over quickly, was well done.  Don Quixote himself is more of a constant presence than a central figure in proceedings, although Vladimir Ponomarev brought a nicely understated dignity to the role.  It does hang together well, presenting a series of colourful and energetic dances wrapped around the love story of Kitri and Basil.  Indeed, the dancing never seems to stop.

Of course, it helps to have a great leading couple, and Alina Somova and Leonid Sarafanov were certainly that.  These two, incidentally, were undoubtedly the stars of the week.  There was a chemistry between them that made you really want to believe they were in love.  And they not only reeked personality and charm, but backed it up with glorious technical work.  Somova in particular looked quite accomplished as an actress and her wonderfully natural smile would melt anyone’s heart..  Sarafanov is not the strongest when it comes to lifts but his jumps and pirouettes were quite magnificent.  Somova’s rock-solid fouettés showed she can certainly turn too and reprised the amazing extensions seen in “Rubies” but now allied to a more delicate and sensitive artistry.

Elsewhere, Tatiana Tkachenko as the street dancer, and Ji Yeon Ryu as Mercedes were both dramatic and captivating.  In contrast, Yulia Bolshankova as the Queen of the Dryads and Elizaveta Cheprasova showed a nice lightness of touch as they danced in the garden of Don Quixote’s dream.

Final thoughts

Looking back at the week as a whole, it was a classic display of excellent technique.  The energy levels were sometimes amazing.  How do the men leap so high or spin so fast, yet land so softly without a sound or stop with such control?  Strength is not a male prerogative though.  The women may have the most amazing extensions, but they can control and hold them too.  Let’s hope the Elmhurst students who were there for the gala programme were taking notes.  If there was a disappointment, it was the Balanchine works.  While they were not badly done, and I know Balanchine was quite happy to see companies and dancers put their own stamp on them, they did lack that edge that you always seem to get with American companies in particular.

The orchestra was in good form the whole week, playing the Minkus in particular with great attack.  It would be nice not to hear them talk during performances though, as happened during “Kingdom of the Shades”.  The conductor throughout was Pavel Bubelnikov.

Much has been made of the audience numbers on the tour.  In Birmingham they were not the largest, though only for Don Quixote could really be described as poor.  They were however certainly enthusiastic for what was the company’s first visit to the city.  While they were popular visitors, someone somehow needs to find a way out of the cycle of increasing costs and increasing ticket prices.  Promoters are always going to struggle if they insist on charging Covent Garden prices in the regions, and with everyone starting to feel the squeeze financially right now, it’s doubly difficult.  In Birmingham tickets were double that for Birmingham Royal Ballet with no special offers for booking all three programmes or the like.  No-one should be surprised that many were put off.  It was however a great week with which to conclude the inaugural International Dance Festival Birmingham.  Let’s hope they can come back.

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