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Mariinsky Ballet

'Carmen Suite', 'Symphony in C', 'The Little Humpbacked Horse'

by Jerry Hochman

July 15, 16 (m and e), 2011 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York NY

All eyes were on Diana Vishneva as the partial curtain hiding her from view rose, and “Carmen Suite” began. She looked even more stunning than usual. Her dark hair was pulled back tightly against her head, framing her light skin as her light skin itself framed her dark eyes and red lips. She wore a somewhat diaphanous red chemise that could have passed for a slip over white tights, and she posed as if she knew she could seduce anyone within her view. In an instant, she had done exactly that to all those bodies in the audience behind all those eyes that were so focused on her. She began to move, translating that fierce sexually-charged look into sexually-charged movement, and all those eyes watched in eager anticipation of the sizzle to come. Shortly after her dominating introduction, she began to seduce Jose, and, against his will, he responds both emotionally and physically to her gravitational pull. As his face and arms cry for mercy and the self restraint to resist her, one of Jose’s legs slowly rises until it is parallel to the stage floor as Ms.Vishneva’s Carmen tempts and traps him, then he pulls the lower part of his leg back toward him, as if attempting to control the impulse that had caused his leg to rise in the first place, although the upper half of his leg remains erect and pointed toward her.

And then “Carmen Suite” died, degenerating into extended, repetitive posing, and vamping. The ballet went nowhere, Ms. Vishneva’s characterization seemed as confined and restrained as the ballet’s movement quality, and the expected unbridled passion was reduced to overly-stylized displays of overly-controlled hyperventilated emotions, rather than passionate action. In short, the strong beginning of the ballet was an emotional tease, which the opening paragraph of this review is designed to emulate.

“Carmen Suite” was the initial offering in the Mariinsky’s final program during its week-long run at the Met as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, which concluded with George Balanchine’s “Symphony in C.” The second program of the three (I previously reviewed “Anna Karenina”) was Alexei Ratmansky’s new version of “The Little Humpbacked Horse.” In summary, “The Little Humpbacked Horse,” led by a superb Alina Somova, was a pleasant surprise (after enduring the first Act), and the Mariinsky’s coals-to-Newcastle performance of “Symphony in C,” though not without its flaws, was a rousing success. Aside from Ms. Somova, two of the Mariinsky’s highly-touted new class of ballerinas stood out: Yekaterina Kondaurova was sensational in the little I saw her dance, and engaging little Maria Shirinkina demonstrated enormous potential. .

Although I’ve often changed my opinion about the merits of a ballet upon repeated viewings, I don’t recall a prior situation where I completely changed my mind about a piece during one performance, as I did with “The Little Humpbacked Horse.” The reason, aside from Alexei Ratmansky’s knock-out choreography for Act II, was Alina Somova. Her luminous and engaging performance made it all work.

Mr. Ratmansky’s new version of LHH (it premiered at the Mariinsky in 2009), is a deceptively simple and deceptively silly interpretation of a very simple and (to a non-Russian) very silly folk tale. All cultures have folk tales which on the surface seem very simple and silly, but are designed to painlessly teach some moral or universal truth. LHH is a tale that teaches that things don’t always happen as expected, and, with a little extra help, that the impossible can be possible and even a poor fool of a boy can triumph over a rich fool of a Tsar. But more than the story and its lesson, LHH is a sweet ballet that wears its heart on its sleeve and that has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek.

Because he’s such a good soul, success sticks to Ivan, the poor fool of a boy, like gum (that was gum, not Gump) sticks to a shoe. Because he’s simple but good (and because his somewhat less doltish brothers recruit him to take their places as a lookout for possible trespassers), Ivan is able to capture a trespassing “Young Mare,” who gives Ivan a wise and magical Humpbacked Horse along with two other horses in exchange for her freedom. He also happens to find a Firebird Feather, which everyone knows is as rare as a dragon’s egg. Ivan eventually is brought before the Tsar, who covets Ivan’s horses, Ivan’s Firebird Feather, and this beautiful maiden (the “Tsar Maiden”) who appears in a vision to the Tsar when the Tsar sees the Feather. [The Tsar Maiden is a sort of Firebird Queen, although she’s not a Firebird herself. Don’t ask; I don’t know.]

In order to use Ivan to his advantage, and to the mortification of the Tsar’s ‘Gentleman of the Bedchamber’ (the Tsar’s chief cook and body washer and humorously evil side-kick), the Tsar offers Ivan a position as a member of his household staff. But soon the G of the B connivingly separates Ivan from the Firebird Feather, which enables both of them to treat Ivan as the fool he surely is rather than as a member of the royal household, and the Tsar then commands Ivan to find the Tsar Maiden. With the help of the LHH, he does.

The ddg (ddg = drop dead gorgeous, for those who may not speak libidinous Russian) and sweeter than stevia Tsar Maiden, of course, thinks that poor dumb Ivan is really cute and cuddly. [That gum thing again.] But although she and Ivan love each other, she agrees to accompany him to the rich dumb Tsar (definitely not cute and cuddly), who immediately demands that she marry him.

Being the smartest person in the kingdom, the Tsar Maiden thought ahead and tossed a ring into the sea before accompanying Ivan to meet the Tsar. Anyway, to Ivan’s chagrin the Tsar Maiden agrees to marry the Tsar, but insists that the Tsar bring her a special ring (which just happens to have been the ring that the Tsar Maiden had previously tossed into the sea). Upon the G of the B’s advice, the Tsar orders Ivan to find the ring, which everyone in town knew was a task too formidable even for a Hercules, much less a poor fool of a boy. But with the help of the Tsar Maiden and the LHH, Ivan traverses the depths, finds the ring (along with a thriving underwater community), and returns triumphant – not realizing that he has now enabled the Tsar to marry the Tsar Maiden. But have no fear – the Tsar Maiden, still the smartest person in the kingdom, still refuses to marry the Tsar, since he’s too old. [It never seemed to occur to anyone that the Tsar Maiden could have figured this out sooner, but this probably was all part of her master plan.] To overcome this minor physical deficiency, the Tsar Maiden invites the Tsar to jump into a cauldron of boiling water, from which, of course, the Tsar will emerge young and handsome. Ever the cautious idiot, and as the Tsar Maiden had anticipated, the Tsar orders Ivan to jump into the cauldron first. Ivan, ever the innocent fool of a boy, does – and, thanks to the Tsar Maiden and the LHH, emerges as a handsome prince. Emboldened, the Tsar jumps into the cauldron, and dies. And the Tsar Maiden and Ivan, who is now a handsome prince, marry, rule the kingdom and live happily ever after.

The piece appeared completely incoherent to me in Act I. The set was essentially an oversized box, the costumes looked like thrift shop rejects, and the acting was what one would expect from a not-very-good children’s theater production. What there was of the dancing looked good – particularly the Gypsy dance and the dance for Wet-Nurses (the old Tsar was just a big baby). But these ‘divertissements’ had no relevance to the story. And the entire package was so ‘small’ looking, as well as so simple and silly, that it looked like the dead space around the Met stage would crush it.

And then in Act II, Ivan found the Tsar Maiden, the folk tale found its meaning, and the ballet found its heart. Perhaps upon some future viewing I’ll be able to see Act I through the prism of Act II, and see more in it than silliness. Regardless, because of his stunning choreography in Act II, and the equally stunning Alina Somova, the atmosphere of LHH changed, and the atmosphere within the Met palpably changed as well. The audience, which had been subdued through Act I, came alive as the piece came alive.

I’ve read comments about Ms. Somova that are not positive. Based on this performance (as well as her performance in “Symphony in C” the previous night), the criticism does not resonate with me at all. The Alina Somova I saw was supremely talented as a dancer, but more than that, she was supremely engaging as a dancer/actor, and she displayed not just perfect execution of the steps but perfect comic timing.

In the second half of the last century, there was a dumb but endearing TV show titled “I Dream of Jeannie.” The actress who made the show work was Barbara Eden, who played this completely absurd character in this completely absurd series with a combination of innocence and sensuality that made the viewer, including this viewer when he was a year or two younger than he is now, want to believe because we liked her – or at least her TV persona. If Barbara Eden (at least as Jeannie) had been a Mariinsky ballerina, she might have been Alina Somova (at least as the Tsar Maiden). And just as Ms. Eden, as Jeannie the lovely and lovable genie, was able to make the TV show work as a direct result of her sweetly innocent sensuality, Ms. Somova, as a direct result of her sweetly innocent sensuality (not to mention her extraordinary dancing ability) pulled LHH together, and from the beginning of Act II on, LHH was no longer a silly story, but a lot of fun to watch.

Mr. Ratmansky created deceptively simply (like the story) choreography for Act II that was wonderfully creative (e.g., his endearing choreography for the ‘underwater community’), and the movement quality of the piece as a whole (not just the story line) propelled LHH forward. Indeed, if danced in the context of a classical ballet, the complex and wickedly difficult choreography (perfectly executed by Ms. Somova, as well as other members of the cast) would repeatedly stop the action. For example, and aside from Ms. Somova, Alexander Sergeyev, whose Ivan appeared the innocent fool that he was supposed to be throughout the piece, took a clownish solo illustrating his purported inability to execute the steps properly and not only executed the steps properly each time, but turned the comic solo into high art. And Grigory Popov was a wonderfully acrobatic energizer bunny of a humpbacked horse, with split jumps that would have been the envy of any of Balanchine’s Nutcracker harlequins.

As much as LHH grew as it progressed, “Carmen Suite” progressed in the other direction. The ballet generates lots of smoke and heat and bottled-up energy, but no fire – which appears to be the way this “Carmen Suite” is supposed to be. Created in 1967 by Alberto Alonso to a score by Rodion Shchedrin that was an adaptation and minimization of Bizet’s opera (“bits” of Bizet’s work, which Mr. Shchedrin arranged and supplemented, according to the program notes), the ballet was intended to be a vehicle for the composer’s wife, Maya Plisetskaya. It also appears to have been an attempt – and a largely successful one based on its extensive performance history – to create a ballet that would distill the essence of Bizet’s “Carmen” but that also would not run afoul of Soviet sensibility and censorship. The result is a synthetic crystallization that never allows the passion to explode – which, to this viewer, is essential to adequately convey the story’s soul.

But even if it had just been a series of poses interrupted by a suite of moving images emblematic of the story’s component parts, the concept that permeates “Carmen Suite” might have been understandable, if not entirely satisfying to watch. The problem is that the movement is repetitive, the posing is repetitive, and the emotional power is so forcibly restrained by each of the dancers as to look imprisoned. And the visual style is a hodgepodge. While it clearly is intended to take place in what is supposed to be a bullring, incorporating the stylized and symbolic movement that is an essential component of a Spanish bullfight (and in the process analogizing Carmen’s seduction of her male ‘bulls’ to the matador’s engagement and conquest of the bull in a bullfight), it also has characters costumed like harlequins and with masks that hide the faces of many in the bullring-chorus. The result appears as a cross between a bullfight, a one-ring circus, and Noh Opera.

From my vantage point, the audience was nonplused. Instead of the usual Met standing ovation, it appeared that only about a third of the orchestra rose at the piece’s conclusion, and it was not clear to me whether this response was to salute the dancers or to make a quick retreat to be first on line for the restrooms.

The reception was the same, if not even less positive, for the second performance of “Carmen Suite” on Saturday evening. This time, the leads were Ulyana Lopatkina and Daniil Korsuntsev. Although it feels somewhat heretical to say, to this viewer Ms. Loptakina and Mr. Korsuntsev did a superior job with their roles than Ms. Vishneva and her Jose, Yuri Smekalov. Although both Ms. Vishneva and Ms. Lopatkina were striking and seductive and demonstrated impeccable execution of the style that Mr. Alonso’s ballet imposed on them, Ms. Lopatkina was less of a vamp and more of a predator. As Jose, Mr. Smekalov was a volcano waiting to explode – my preference was Mr. Korsuntsev’s lower pitch. But both danced their roles with the controlled passion that the ballet requires. At both performances, Yevgeny Ivanchenko’s Torero did what he was supposed to do very well – but it was a cardboard role without any show of any emotion, even emotion restrained. Yulia Stepanova was “Fate” at both performances – she danced the role powerfully, but frankly, I did not know why her character was there. And Alexander Klimov was an appropriately martial Corregidor, also at both performances.

It took chutzpah for the Mariinsky to bring Balanchine’s “Symphony in C” to a stage across the Lincoln Center plaza from where New York City Ballet, the home of George Balanchine, performs. But although it remains necessary to go to NYCB to see “Symphony in C” danced as it should be, the Mariinsky did a superlative job with it, and the audience at both of the performances I saw (following each presentation of “Carmen Suite”) greeted it as if it were a breath of fresh air after a long heat wave. But even though the piece was not quite Balanchine style, and even though some of the dancers struggled mightily to keep in step with the tempo of piece (even though it was slower than the blistering pace that is routine for NYCB dancers), “Symphony in C” was a great way to showcase the Mariinsky dancers and to send the audience home happy.

At the July 15 performance, the piece’s opening allegro vivo section was danced by Ms. Somova, partnered by Andrian Fedeyev; at the July 16 performance, Viktoria Tereshkina assumed the part of the lead ballerina, while Mr. Fedeyev repeated his role. Ms. Lopatkina was the lead in the ballet’s second, adagio, movement on the 15th, partnered by Mr. Korsuntsev; Yekaterina Kondaurova and Evgeny Ivanchenko danced these roles the next evening. The third and fourth allegro vivace movements were the same at both performances: Yevgenia Obraztsova and Vladimir Shklyarov in the third movement, and Maria Shirinkina and Alexei Timofeev in the fourth.

Ms. Somova was as technically able in “Symphony in C” as she proved to be later in LHH, but stylistic lapses marred the performance. For example, she looked spectacular as her unsupported leg climbed so high that her ankle seemed to caress her ear, but I don’t recall seeing anything in any Balanchine performances I’ve seen that appears quite as stylistically wrong. But stylistic purity aside (and even though Ms. Tereshkina got it right), to this viewer Ms. Somova’s performance was the more exhilarating of the two. Mr. Fedeyev had some difficulty keeping up with the tempo at Friday’s performance, but overcame that deficiency the following night.

For the adagio movement, adequate partnering is a necessary ingredient to making the ballerina look good, and Mr. Korsuntsev and Mr. Ivanchencko displayed accomplished and extraordinarily capable partnering. But the focus of the movement, if not the piece as a whole, is the ballerina. Ms. Lopatkina is a supreme technician – everything that I saw her do in each of the two ballets in which she performed during the Mariinsky’s limited engagement was executed to perfection. But in “Symphony in C,” she appeared to this viewer to be too careful; too antiseptically perfect. On the other hand, Ms. Kondaurova gave a performance of the same movement that was just as perfectly executed, but which conveyed personality smoldering beneath the surface.

Both Ms. Lopatkina and Ms. Kondaurova are (relatively) very tall ballerinas, and they use their height to add a quality of regality to their dancing that makes them appear almost superhuman, like ballerina wonder-women. But each also displays a delicacy that somehow adds a touch of fragility to the strength. It’s a heady combination. The difference between the two, based only on what I saw, is that Ms. Kondaurova has an inherent sensuality to her movement quality that is transmitted effortlessly and naturally, and which takes her stage persona beyond the technical so that she establishes an emotional connection even without emoting. And if it sounds like I’m describing the effect that Suzanne Farrell had on an audience, that is exactly what I intend.

In the third movement, Ms. Obraztsova and Mr. Shklyarov danced with appropriate vigor. In particular, Mr. Shklyarov gave a spectacular display of facility with the Balanchine choreography, and appeared to be the most comfortable of all of the men (at least in the allegro movements) with Balanchine style. Ms. Obraztsova performed equally well, but her constant smile looked forced and artificial, which diminished this viewer’s ability to connect with her. On the other hand, Ms. Shirinkina, who was capably partnered by Mr. Timofeev, was delightful to watch. She had less to do in the fourth movement than other dancers had in theirs, but what she exhibited considerable promise.

Ms. Shirinkina appears to be one of the few small (in stature) dancers in a company filled with ballerina amazons, but she displayed an elegance and grace and understated radiance, in addition to technical proficiency, that made her the equal of the more experienced dancers who preceded her in the piece. This same elegant radiance transmitted a stage persona that at once reflected classic beauty, noble bearing, and the pretty girl next door. [If you recall Kenn Duncan’s famous photographic portrait of Gelsey Kirkland (which was included in ABT’s 35th anniversary souvenir program), and combine that with the memory of a young Audrey Hepburn, then you can grasp Ms. Shirinkina’s ‘look’ and stage persona.] I don’t yet know whether Ms. Shirinkina will attain the stamina, strength, speed of movement, and acting ability that will be necessary for her to succeed in more classical roles (and, at the same time, whether she’ll be able to shed the Mariinsky-imposed stuffiness), but I’m willing to bet the farm that she does. And if Natalia Osipova can dance her first Aurora in New York, as purportedly was the case when she danced the role with American Ballet Theatre last year, then perhaps some miracle will allow me to see Ms. Shirinkina’s first Aurora (or Giselle or Juliet) performed in New York. Otherwise, whenever that happens, I may just have to dust off my passport and travel to St. Petersburg.

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