Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA
10 October 2012
by Catherine Pawlick
The richness of Russian Imperial ballet traditions returned to the Bay Area on this week as the Mariinsky Ballet offered thirsty ballet connoisseurs a long anticipated drink of beauty and magic.
Following on the heels of the Costa Mesa opening, the Berkeley stop offers a meager 6 performances, the briefest of opportunities to behold this visual salve in the purest form of classical tradition. As Mariinsky followers know, no American company can claim the heritage that the Mariinsky-Kirov troupe holds in history, and even Russia's great Bolshoi offers a bolder style to its patrons. Our audiences are educated in Balanchine and contemporary choreography, but few have seen the spectacle of snow white swans depicting Tchaikovsky's every note in perfect unison, and that, stemming from the very source where "Swan Lake" was created.
A full house welcomed the magnificent Mariinsky orchestra on Wednesday as it played the first notes to this famous score with principal dancer Ekaterina Kondaurova at its helm as Odette/Odile. Kondaurova has been with the company for 12 years, and only received a long overdue promotion to principal this June. Blessed with bright blue eyes and auburn hair, she is not only strikingly beautiful, but a technical master of her art (32 fouettés, with the first 16 in a single-single-double pattern, and nary a waver). Seamless flexibility, supple arches, an easy extension allow her to move through classical choreography with ease, but here, her perfect proportions set her apart from many others. Kondaurova's flawless technique has been unquestionable since graduation from the Vaganova Academy, but for the Mariinsky, that is the baseline with which every dancer joins the company, and the standards are high indeed. In Kondaurova's case, it is her manner of expression, the increased maturity and depth which she infuses into roles which has won her accolades. As Odette, she enters the stage as a stunning vision of purity -an endlessly pliant spine, and long, graceful limbs in that pristine white tulle - and one tinged with shyness and vulnerability. Her hesitation and reserve upon encountering the Prince made clear that this Odette was not one to trust a Man too quickly. Throughout the White Swan pas de deux, fluidity - her port de bras are unsurpassed - and impeccable timing created a dreamlike vision: this is the way the role should be performed. In contrast, her conspicuously cunning Odile accented the dance with quick snaps of the head and sly glances, luring Siegfried ever closer into her web, relentless in her goal. A personal touch came in a moment of leaning in to hear advice whispered from Rothbart, before continuing onto her ultimate goal: persuading Siegfried to betray his vow to Odette. In Act III, as if another dancer entirely, Kondaurova's Odette then gained further in tenderness and warmth; or perhaps it only seemed so, given the stark contrast with her darkly shrewd Odile.
Danila Korsuntsev is the requisite prince on the Mariinsky roster these days. A frequent partner to Lopatkina when he is dancing at home in Saint Petersburg, Korsuntsev is in many ways the ideal Siegfried: tall, dark, handsome, with long limbs and upper body strength to lift even the tallest ballerina in the troupe. While some say his expression is lacking, in fairness the role does not offer a great deal of acting meat, and the result tends to land in one of two categories: a bland Prince, or an overly excitable "under-aged" one. In fact Korsuntsev always emanates reserved nobility, fitting for both his position as one of the senior principal dancers in the troupe, and for this role itself. When he unleashes the manège of split jetés in Act II, and those endless limbs cut through space, it becomes apparent why he was chosen for the role.
The Jester in this production serves as glue within the libretto to a certain extent, tying in the various entries and exits of other characters (Siegfried's mother, his friends, and his tutor, among them). On Wednesday, Vasily Tkachenko performed the role with endearing lightness. Tkachenko's beautiful legs enable him to pull off five pirouettes with ease and infuse his airborne movements with plenty of ballon. But it was his lighthearted, teasing manner that gained audience favor.
Questions abounded at the first intermission, requests for the names of certain dancers, discussion of the company's superb upper body épaulement and port de bras, or the challenges of the choreography. More than one critic requested the name of one of the cygnets - Svetlana Ivanova - whose expressive footwork in the very brief pas de quatre nonetheless drew the attention of those who follow the details.
The Pas de Trois casting is not the same that the company offered in Saint Petersburg for the last 5 months of their 2011-2012 season. Alexander Popov, blessed with perfect legs, led this trio alongside Maria Shirinkina and Nadezhda Batoeva. The two girls could not be more opposite in temperament or physique. Shirinkina, often described as a sparrow, is one of the shortest ladies in the company and currently being groomed for principal status. She's at least 6 years into her tenure with the troupe and already dancing leading roles (Juliet among them). Batoeva is taller, about 3 years younger, and a reliable spitfire who can pull off pirouettes seemingly without thinking; her approach is less detailed, and more carefree, but refreshing and no less accurate. The range of temperaments in this Pas de Trois offered an invigorating look at the diapason of talent within the troupe.
Tall and lean Konstantin Zverev, in the past chosen by Lopatkina to be one of her partners, was given the role of Rothbart for this evening. Although stage time is shorter for Rothbart than for other heroes in the libretto, his taxing choreography requires both strength and dramatic presence. Zverev offers both, which places the battle between Odette, Siegfried and the Evil Sorcerer on even ground.
If the standing ovation at the end of the evening was any indication, Bay Area audiences are starved for pure classicism of this kind. It has been four years since the Mariinsky graced our stage, but it was worth the wait.
Author, "Vaganova Today: The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition" (available on amazon.com)