Festspielhaus Baden Baden
28th December 2004 (matinee)
As it was the Christmas season, I suppose it was inevitable that the Kirov took its version of “The Nutcracker” to Baden Baden. Nutcracker is a ballet that I always approach with a mixture of pleasure and trepidation; pleasure because of my love, no, – adoration – of the Tchaikovsky score and trepidation because I’ve watched more terrible productions of this ballet than any other. Happily the Kirov Vainonen version is one of the very best around and I had another reason to approach the Festspielhaus high on expectation because Zhelonkina was to dance the role of Masha.
Irina Zhelonkina is a dancer who for me always stands apart from the rest. Her beautiful line and faultless musicality are matched with her singular ability to dance almost silently, making you wonder if her feet actually touch the stage or not: she is a dancer formed of thistledown. This was to be my first experience of seeing her in a full-length role, as this jewel of a dancer has only danced supporting roles in London, her full-length appearances being mostly in Russia and Japan. She is a dancer who represents the true Kirov style, a style in danger of being jettisoned in favour of “extreme technique” she understands that ballet is about poetry and not about acrobatics.
The first act is always a test for a ballerina, not technically of course, but she has to convince us that she is a child among children, which is rarely an easy thing to do.
The Kirov doesn’t use actual children but short girls from the corps pretending to be excited kids at a party and as always in that situation, they don’t quite bring it off. Zhelonkina’s Masha is a quiet dreamy girl, lacking the rumbustiousness of her peers; she is gentler and more thoughtful than the others, at the same time enjoying the Christmas events every bit as intensely. When waking to discover the marauding rats, she registers first disbelief and then defiance, but it is at the transformation of the nutcracker into the prince that Zhelonkina weaves her magic spell.
Her prince was Anton Korsakov, the first time I had seen him in a princely role, and what a prince he makes: handsome and sensitive, he has a tremendous rapport with Zhelonkina who simply melted into his arms in the pas de deux as if experiencing some private ecstasy. They danced this scene so beautifully that when the curtain came down for the interval, my eyes were moist with tears, overcome by the sheer loveliness of what I had seen.
In the third act the divertissements were performed with considerable panache with both Islom Baimuradov in the Chinese dance and Feodor Murashov in the trepak being rewarded by gales of applause in the middle of their solos. I have my reservations about the pas de deux being supplemented by four male cavaliers. I find them obtrusive, rather like Benno in “Swan Lake”; this is Masha’s moment of triumph and surely a moment when two is company and six is a crowd. All the same this was a dazzling finale to a performance that was by far the highlight of this Kirov season and as I mentioned, “The Nutcracker” has always been my favourite Tchaikovsky ballet score and it was played with total sympathy by that matchless Kirov orchestra, adding to the enchantment.
As I left the theatre, clutching the rose that the Festspielhaus staff charmingly present to all female members of the audience, I stepped out into a scene as pretty as a Christmas card as soft snow fell transforming the town into a backdrop of the ballet itself. A magical moment to round off an exceptional afternoon.