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Mariinsky Ballet

Les Saisons Russes: 'Chopiana', 'The Firebird', 'Scheherazade'

by Carmel Morgan

January 18, 2012-- Opera House, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC

This year the Bolshoi Ballet isn’t coming to Washington, DC until late May, so the Mariinsky Ballet is it for Russian ballet fans in the nation’s capital this winter. Not surprisingly, the Kennedy Center was packed with Russian speaking audience members for the Mariinsky’s annual visit, as is typical when either one of the big Russian ballet companies is in town. This year, rather than performing an evening length story ballet, the Mariinsky presented a popular program titled, “Les Saisons Russes” (The Russian Seasons), featuring three beloved shorter works from the early 1900s choreographed by Michel Fokine: “Chopiniana,” “The Firebird,” and “Scheherazade.”

“Les Saisons Russes” takes you back in time, and it’s a nice trip. A lovely retro curtain with “Les Saisons Russes” spelled out on it set the mood for the evening. Exotic bodies formed the shapes of the letters. Opening the much anticipated performance was “Chopiniana,” also known as “Les Sylphides,” a ballet that isn’t seen terribly often any longer. It provides an important glimpse into ballet history. The long white wispy costumes with tiny wings at the back are certainly familiar in the ballet world! Against a bucolic backdrop, sylphs gracefully moved to music by Chopin, creating the image of a romantic painting come to life. They sylphs were observed and joined by a lone young man (Igor Kolb on Wednesday night). The women clasped hands, joyfully listened to the tunes, and arranged themselves in pretty patterns and poses. They frequently placed their arms over their heads, framing their sweet faces. This plotless ballet imparted a calm feeling. Like Kolb, the lucky man surrounded by incredible ethereal beauty, we in the audience happily took in the picturesque scenes. Daria Pavlenko, dancing the Prelude, conveyed an appealing maturity. What a gorgeous long neck! What lightness and expression and strength and precision and timing! The other dancers did not captivate as Daria did. I cringed when I saw some wobbly toes, double hop landings, and strangely stiff legs from the other leading ladies (Anastasia Kolegova and Svetlana Ivanova).

“The Firebird” showed some flaws as well. When the curtain rose, a surprised figure quickly stepped from the stage into the wings spoiling the unveiling of the grand peacock and gold colored set. I grew up reading about and admiring Maria Tallchief, and I wished I had seen her as Balanchine’s Firebird. Alas, Wednesday night’s performance with Anastassia Petushkova in the title role did not wow me the way I imagined Tallchief would have done. Yes, she was limber and mysterious. But somehow I felt a lack of real spark. Petushkova was fast and fierce, but she failed to fully finish her movements, cutting off the flow of the dance. The wavy locked Ivan Sitnikov, a member of the corps de ballet, chased after her, but his performance, too, was a bit lackluster. The dancer who held my eyes was definitely Ekaterina Mikhailovtseva, also from the corps, as the Princess of Great Beauty. A bunch of awkwardly dropped and kicked apples made me wonder if the dancers were suffering from jet lag or too little time rehearsing. And, for me, the shaggy muppet-like captors of the princesses bordered on the ridiculous. Their silly costumes, in purple and day-glo green among others, distracted from their dancing. Overall, “The Firebird” fizzled.

Last up was “Scheherazade,” and this gave an entirely different flavor to the Fokine evening. No floating white ballerinas in this one! “Scheherzade” is all about sex (and not being too covered up). In order to get to the sumptuous and sensuous Indian-inspired costumes and set, however, the audience had to sit through a very, very long musical introduction. Easily long enough to have downed an extra drink or two from the lobby café and then climbed to an upper balcony seat. Thankfully, the entertainment was worth the wait! A fortuitous cast change resulted in Wednesday nights’ performers being Daria Pavlenko as Zobeide and Igor Kolb as the slave. This was a wonderful, passionate pairing. The two embraced tightly, skin touching skin. They made their lusty romance believable. Pavlenko did not overact, nor did she act mechanically. She and Kolb danced together with enviable ease and emotion (although maybe Kolb was too relaxed – he brushed the floor with a hand after a jump).

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