The Balanchine programme the Kirov presented on Tuesday 26th and Wednesday 27th July consisted of three very different ballets by the great choreographer: “La Valse”, “Prodigal Son” and “Ballet Imperial”.
“La Valse” was created in 1951 for the wonderful Tanaquil Leclerq. Balanchine used not only the score of the same name by Maurice Ravel, but also the evocative “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales” as the first part of the work. Choreographically speaking, this first part is the strongest. The wonderful French movements given to the arms, especially to the three female soloists, are so weird, even today, and yet so in keeping with some of the strange harmonies and mood that the score presents, that it really makes one wonder what the outcome of this Ball is going to be. There are few choreographers who have managed to transpose French style in quite the astonishing way that Balanchine did. The ports de bras had that unique quality that one can also see in the variation that he did years later for Violette Verdy in “Emeralds”. He would also use some of those elbow bending, insect like movements in “Agon” and they gave this section of the ballet the right feeling of strangeness and menace that the music itself seems to evoke. The structure of the piece is simple, apart from these three female dancers, there are couples dancing waltzes, some happier than others. The last and most evocative waltz is given to the main woman, dressed in white and performed by Uliana Lopatkina and Daria Pavlenko on the different nights. Both interpretations were different. Lopatkina was a delicate debutante, not quite real and with a touch of sadness in her dancing that was quite touching to see. Pavlenko was more sophisticated and secure in her advances with the man she dances with. The music’s subtlety allows both interpretations without damaging the choreographic text that was simple and yet evocative. At the final shimmering chords, Balanchine introduces Death, in the figure of a strange man looking at the couple. It seemed that everything could only get better once the much more pulsating rhythm of “La Valse” started. Perhaps we could get a better idea of who those three enigmatic female characters were, the Greek Fates?, perhaps we would be allowed to witness the destruction of the Ball and the Woman in white when the final chords of the music seem to disintegrate?
Balanchine never liked narrative ballets and in “La Valse” one can see why. He simply was not very good at creating stories through dance. Like Beethoven in musical terms, Balanchine was more concerned with the universal, the abstraction of human feelings and he tended to forget to delineate his characters, something that Ashton, in a likeness with Mozart - to follow with the musical parallels- had no problems with. So, as the action in the ball progresses, the choreography weakens to the point where it simply disappears. So, yes, the woman is seduced by Death and she is killed, but in the process we have lost all that wonderful atmosphere that had been established in the opening.
“La Valse” is a strange ballet, and the Kirov’s acquisition of this piece is puzzling. Yes, there are numbers for the corps the ballet, though not great ones. There are opportunities for the soloists in the first part, but not enough for the main couple, which is a shame. The gothic qualities of the work pale in comparison with “La Sonnambula”, where at least the main couple have some of the most exquisite choreography ever created by Balanchine and, in this ballet, the choreographer did manage to capture the gothic spirit of strangeness and unreality to the very end. As a final point, or rather a final wish… could we see Ashton’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales” again one day?
The second ballet of the programme was “Prodigal Son”, once again, a very puzzling choice for the company. The ballet has got obvious historical importance, though it cannot match “Apollo” and the Kirov already acquired this piece some years ago. Perhaps the theme is metaphorical to the choreographer’s fate in his homeland. But if that were the case, it would have been the first ballet to enter the repertoire of the company, and in fact “Theme and Variations” and “Scotch Symphony” took that honour.
There is nothing wrong with “Prodigal Son” as a ballet, it is only that it is the kind of ballet that almost any company can do, provided you have a good Prodigal Son and a Siren. So, yes, it was well done, by both casts, but I could not help thinking that it was a waste of a ballet for such a company.
Luckily, some good sense entered the company when they finally got “Ballet Imperial” (1941). It definitely did the whole evening worth attending and it reminded us all why Balanchine was the genius that we still give him credit for. The ballet is one of those pieces that has passed into legend and it is difficult to see a piece with so high expectations without being slightly disappointed. I do not think anybody was disappointed by what they saw. The company shone throughout. The music and choreography simply soared into realms of perfection that one can only dream of nowadays.
Led by Diana Vishneva, Igor Zelensky and Ekaterina Osmolkina on opening night; and by Viktoria Tereshkina, Igor Kolb and Olesya Novikova on second night, the ballet just stood out by the sheer beauty of the choreography and its rendering by all the dancers, especially those in the corps the ballet. As somebody remarked after the ballet, there were moments in the performance when the word “perfection” was the only one that could be used. This was Balanchine at his best and the company performed it accordingly.
The ballet opens with a very long first movement. Having known the music for a long time and not having seen the ballet before, I simply could not comprehend how any choreographer could manage to survive that first movement. While watching the ballet, everything on the stage made sense; the pure geometry, the translation of the music into dance… everything that Balanchine stood for, was there. The division of the motives into different sections for the different soloists and the neverending flow of inventive geometrical patterns of the corps the ballet framing the action and then taking over. There was one moment that, though simple, just showed Balanchine’s pure genius at work. When the orchestra starts gathering momentum raising the music by semitones in one of those wonderful moments that all Tchaykowsky’s works share, the ballerina starts turning, then her right hand side female corps joins her, then the left, then the female dancers at the back, then the male dancers… it was simply breathtaking… and incredibly simple, just like Tchaykowsky’s music.
The second movement was reminiscent of the vision scene from the “Sleeping Beauty”, with the man looking for his ideal woman, carrying and being carried away by a female corps the ballet.
The final movement was a joy from beginning to end. Curiously enough, there were so many steps that Balanchine did not use in any other of his “Imperial” ballets, so much closer to the English style and its quick footwork and embellished small jumps. It is no wonder the Royal Ballet made it such an important part of its repertoire.
“Ballet Imperial” was a masterpiece in motion. Full credit to the Kirov company for bringing it along. Shame that they did not fill the rest of the programme with more congenial works that did both choreographer and company full justice. It would have been so interesting to see the company dancing “Four Temperaments”! One more wish for the future, when will the Kirov acquire “Divertimento No 15”?