V International Ballet Festival Mariinsky
Daria Pavlenko Gala Performance
"Daphnis and Chloe", "Steptext", "La Valse"
St. Petersburg, Russia
28 March 2005
by Catherine Pawlick
Daria Pavlenko is a phenomenon that eludes precise categorization. She is a mystery in motion. A strange obscurity surrounds her persona and her dancing, perhaps partly due to her youth – she is the youngest of the few active dancing female principals at the Kirov Ballet, and her career is still just beginning – perhaps due to events in her personal life – she lost her parents at a young age, they never saw her perform – but perhaps for some other, larger, preordained reason. In the article dedicated to Pavlenko in the Mariinsky's Fifth International Ballet Festival program, Yulia Yakovleva compares the dancer to Maximova, and describes her features: "with cunning eyes… and a shy smile, always ready to be covered with sadness." Indeed there is a sense of tragedy and mystique in Pavlenko, but an equally prominent compassion and warmth in her dancing. Yakovleva theorizes that Pavlenko is one of those rare dancers who appear suddenly, every 30 years or so, unannounced, unexpected but long awaited:
"Two or three times every 100 years there is a massive surge of talent. Several years in a row dancers and ballerinas are added, each one more beautiful than the next. And then the spring falls dry for 30 years or even longer. The last of these emergences is the 'young daughter'. Strangely created, remaining on her earthly path, her origin and destination both unknown, with the calling of a tragic actress and the stamp of a cruel personal fate. She arrived late to the dividing of the spoils. Material wealth, titles, awards -- all of these pass her by. No one expected her, but her calling is too strong to be ignored. Her roles reflect the gleam of a deep red sunset of a great era."
A more accurate description would be difficult to find. The air of soulfulness about Pavlenko, the sense of buried grief that emerges at times, the playful warmth in her smile, the beauty of her lines and her movement – all are at once describable and elusive. She excels in enigmatic roles such as "La Valse" or those touched by a hint of misfortune such as "La Bayadere", quite likely because they so closely mirror parts of her. But she also shines in abstract works with emotionally empty slates, which she fills with defiance, power, or longing, as required. Her repertoire credits include lighter fare as well – Princess Florina from "Sleeping Beauty", the Odalisque Trio from "Corsaire", and Calliope and Terpsichore from "Apollo", the grand pas de deux from "Paquita", to name a few. One would not want to typecast Pavlenko, it would limit her possibilities and growth.
Physically, although not the tallest Kirov ballerina, she is long-limbed. Her long, arched feet extend her lines, contributing to an appealing coltish-like quality in her legs, and her flexibility allows her to easily accomplish anything from the extreme edges of Forsythean repertoire. In classical roles her attention to detail is appreciable; she is one of few Sylphides, even among the Kirovians, with proper epaulement. I recall watching her rehearse a passage from Balanchine's "Diamonds" two years ago. She repeated the same challenging sequence with her coach several times, intent on perfection. Following a Berkeley performance on the company’s last tour – one in which audience members raved about her – she emerged from the theatre distraught. "The next time will be better," she kept repeating. How can one explain to such an ethereal creature that what she offered was already beyond what most American audiences ever see?
The gala performance in her name on March 28 at the Mariinsky offered Pavlenko another chance to demonstrate her skills, and she did not disappoint. Despite the administration's (dare one say typical?) unfortunate programming decision to set Pavlenko's program for a Monday night, when her counterparts received billing on Saturday and Wednesday nights, the house was nonetheless perhaps 90 percent full. The audience was comprised predominantly of young people – the elder crowd was conspicuously absent this evening. One hopes that this is due to the expansion of the younger ages within the audience.
The premier of Kirill Simonov's "Daphnis & Chloe", created for Pavlenko, opened the program. It featured six couples clothed in 1920's style turquoise boy-short, one-piece bathing suits and swim caps, dancing, hopping and swimming around the stage. Attempts to follow the course of the complete mythological libretto in this ballet were for naught. The most that could be surmised was that Daphnis and Chloe were two very young, very naпve, very playful children, enjoying a day at the beach. When the remaining six couples lay down, performing a "swimming" motion, breast-stroke style on the floor, reminiscent of a 1940s water ballet, Pavlenko wanted to join the fun. Partner Mikhail Lobukhin repeatedly prevented her from doing so, interrupting her intentions with some dance steps that would distract her from her goal. No sooner would she again reach for the group of swimmers, wonder-eyed and intent on joining them at play, than Lobukhin would pull her away again, gently. And once she began dancing with him, that smile would return, the swimmers were forgotten. A metaphor for Pavlenko’s uniqueness, her star calling? Or the implication of the human ability to adapt and find happiness in our Fate, whatever it may be?
A few odd musical decisions pervaded Simonov's choreography. At musical crescendos, the dancers end up frozen, staring at the (high) horizon, or flat on the floor, motionless. On the one hand, this is an extreme departure from most typical choreographical interpretations of similar musical sequences. As such, some might consider it refreshing or "new." On the other, this misuse of wide-open possibility is slightly disturbing, especially when the music in question is Ravel’s Suite No. 2 “Daphnis and Chloe”, created in 1912 specifically with this myth in mind.
However, to Simonov’s credit, "Daphnis and Chloe" had its charming moments as well. The "butt scratch" as all the dancers walked upstage, their back(sides) to the audience, offered an authentic, human injection (thankfully brief) of people at the seaside. A few of his lifts –- Pavlenko does a double retire-passe and then kicks both arms and both legs out, jellyfish-like –- often echo Forsythe or Ratmansky's creations. And the six women doing echappe-passe pointe work, arms relaxed and legs moving in isolation, was one of the more effective, more intelligent choreographic decisions he has ever made.
Unlike Vishneva's 40-minute intermission, Pavlenko doesn't herald to diva-like status. And this is refreshing. Both intermissions during her program were brief. Following the first, we shifted to Forsythe's "Steptext". It seemed fitting that Natalia Sologub, who so often performs this work, was watching Pavlenko from a few feet away, and seemed to approve of the results. Pavlenko's elasticity is only one of her fine attributes, which is allowed full display in this ballet. Although not as compact as Sologub, Pavlenko's long lines are intriguing, especially clothed in a unitard. When pushing away her partners' arms, and during Forsythe’s mimed arm "sign language", Pavlenko injected a sense of "leave me alone" bordering on anger and then, indifference, as she would resume her movement.
"Steptext" always begins without music, the house lights on, stage completely dark, with a male dancer performing a series of movements from the waist up, in silence, downstage. With repeat viewings one would think audiences might catch on, but it still takes the full dimming of the lights and functional soundplay in order for it to register with the viewers.
The final ballet of the evening, Balanchine's "La Valse" was perhaps the perfect choice for Pavlenko. Although it left the program void of hard-core classical samples of her work, "La Valse" gave room for her to express the tragic, the mysterious and the beautiful all at once. Express them she did, partnered by Andrei Mercuriev, the partner of choice for his impeccable timing and equally non diva-like attitude.
From the very first, the two were enchanted with each other at the ball. Upon Death's arrival, Pavlenko was hypnotized in her new direction, shrinking in horror at her image in the glass, and then unable to cease gazing at herself, already swathed in Death's clothing. As Death twirled with her, everyone else frozen in time and unaware of Pavlenko's encounter, one understood another aspect of what Balanchine was saying in this ballet. Fate, Death included, waits for no one. Fate is invisible to most of us, and, witnessed by the dancing couples who do not stop to answer Mercuriev's pleas for help, beyond our control to either prevent its effects or undo its intentions, however harmful or innocuous they may be. And yet there is beauty here, now, to enjoy – the twirling couples, the whirling music. A greater metaphor, again, for Pavlenko -- not of death, but of life? Ballet is her calling. To have it any other way would make no sense. No one saw her coming, no one predicted her arrival. But she is here, she is beautiful, and we should enjoy her God-given gifts as long as we can.
We wouldn't have it any other way.
Author, "Vaganova Today: The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition" (available on amazon.com)