Premiere: “Ondine” – Pierre Lacotte’s revival
St. Petersburg, Russia
March 16-17, 2006 -- By Catherine Pawlick
Today, during the average ballet dancer’s lifetime, the chances that he or she will learn a completely new, full-length classical ballet are slim at best. The foundations of the classical repertoire are shared by all major companies, and new works are neoclassical or modern in nature, with a “new version” of a well-known classic – Swan Lake or Nutcracker-- here or there. It was more than a gift to the dancers of the Mariinsky Theatre, then, that Pierre Lacotte gave when he reconstructed the historical ballet “Ondine”, set to music by Cesar Pugni, a ballet that almost belongs to the Kirov by birthright.
Although its first performance took place in London at the Queen’s Theatre in 1843, Jules Perrot brought the production to St. Petersburg in 1851 when Carlotta Grisi danced the role of Ondine. In 1874 Petipa completely rechoreographed the ballet, and in 1903 Alexander Shiryaev, ballet master and pedagogue, set a new version which lasted two years. That version was danced by Pavlova, Karsavina, Ksessinska and Fokine. In 1921 Shiryaev revived the ballet for the Leningrad Choreographic Institute (now the Vaganova Academy), and in 1984 a suite from the ballet using Perrot’s original choreography was performed in honor of Peter Gusev’s 80th birthday. Despite these various restagings and revivals over the years, the ballet fell into neglect, never returning to the Maryinsky repertoire – until now.
This project has spanned four years, included a long interruption and several visits by Lacotte to St. Petersburg. Its culmination took place on March 16 and 17 to a theatre packed with balletomanes, journalists, and those curious to see the historical revival for themselves.
Ondine, it should be explained, is not a mermaid but a naiad, a water nymph, and the libretto stems from the 19th century story entitled “The Naiad and the Fisherman”. Ondine’s costume, a 19th century white romantic tutu with triangular pieces of fabric trimming the top of the skirt and the shoulders, lends a floating, airy effect, and, along with opalescent accents, and a diamond-studded silver crown that circles her head, suggests a water sprite. That is exactly what Evgenia Obratsova’s characterization epitomizes: a mischievous aquarian nymph, emotional, and intent on achieving her goal – the love of Matteo – at any cost.
A summary of Act One is as follows: The curtain opens to a bright, seaside Sicilian fishing village, the townspeople looking over the day’s fresh catch. Matteo is preparing for his wedding to Jeanina. When his father asks him to cast his own net, he uncovers a naiad – Ondine – who tries to overcome him with her charms. He resists her and returns home. As Ondine is invisible to humans, she follows Matteo home and plays games with his mother and fiancé. Here moments of clever humour appear, reminiscent of Coppelia or La Fille Mal Gardee – Ondine dumps towels from the cupboard, breaks the string with which Jeanina is weaving, in general wreaks havoc and enjoys the fun. Worn out, Matteo bids good night to Jeanina and sees Ondine in his dreams. Ondine returns underwater and begs the Queen of the Sea to allow her to assume human form so that she may be with the man she loves. The Queen hesitates but finally agrees, gives her a rose and explains that she must marry Matteo before the rose dies.
Lacotte’s step combinations for “Ondine” are unique, and he carries forward the classical ballet lexicon in this production admirably with his choreography. Ballones abound, as do chaine turns with the arms in fifth en avant, and a proliferation of fast, petit allegro, especially for the men: brises, jetes and tours are plentiful. Also to Lacotte’s credit is his ability to choreograph for the corps de ballet and en masse. In most sequences, even when soloists are dancing, the corps continues to move in the background, raising the level of staging complexity from what it is in a ballet such as the second act of ‘Giselle’, for example, where, for the most part, the soloists and corps de ballet alternate movement during musical sequences. When Ondine begs the Queen of the Sea to become a human female, the corps de ballet of naiads mimics her pleas with various degradations of pleading or poses in tears. In the village scenes, there are copious variations of village people, groups of two, four or eight, each in a different costume and dancing different steps across the stage. All the young men in the ballet are clothed in smart, knee-length black pants, cumberbuns, white shirts and various colored vests. The women wear colorful, 19th century knee-length romantic tutus which change for the famous Tarantella in the Second Act.
For both performances Anton Pimenov and Mikhail Krebtov danced Matteo’s friends, good-natured buddies who advise him not to follow his apparent pipedream of some naiad he thinks he has seen on land. Their acting efforts impressed, and their trio work was pleasant to watch as well. It is rare to see groups of men given jumping sequences to dance in unison, and here there was a plethora of those which Pimenov, Krebtov and Sarafanov carried out beautifully.
As Jeanina, Yana Serebriakova danced expertly the first night, ebullient and technically quite impressive. It made one wonder why, aside from her appearances in Forsythe’s “Approximate Sonata”, she is so infrequently given solo opportunities. This was a favorable casting decision on the part of Lacotte. When Ondine begins to appear everywhere, distracting Matteo from his fiancé, Serebriakova was intent to distract him right back, using smiles and charm to get her way. In contrast, Ekaterina Osmolkina’s rendition on March 17 had traces of Gamzatti in it. She was more quickly angered, and her dance-of-distraction seemed more of a reprieve than any attempt to seduce. As always Osmolkina was technically faultless, but different from Serebriakova enough in temperament and timing to make her performance unique.
A better audience favorite could not have been chosen than Leonid Sarafanov as Matteo. The Romeo-like, dreamy poet characterization somehow fit, and he turned it into a man chasing impossible dreams that somehow vanish into thin air before they ever truly materialize. Sarafanov’s technical achievements in solo work are irreproachable, and here his love of attention seemed well-placed given the plethora of solo opportunities at his feet. The most notable sequence in this ballet is perhaps an unforgiving section in Matteo’s variation. He dances: entrechat six, tour en l’air, pirouette ending in developpe a la seconde en releve, repeated four or five times. Endless groupings of brise voles and jete battus showed off the dancer’s speedy, clean footwork. Surprisingly, and perhaps due to her smaller size, his partnering work with Obratsova was also without visible fault. To his credit, several of her long, slow lifts appeared as if she truly was a weightless, invisible phantom of the sea.
Following the much-discussed issue of who would dance the premiere, Diana Vishneva’s two-week illness, and a bad strain of the flu that hit the company in early March, the choice was made that Evgenia Obratsova would dance the role of Ondine, and that decision, it turned out, was no mistake. Obratsova’s contagious, wide-smile, and seemingly effortless mastery Lacotte’s choreographic technique were a perfect match for the role of the lively water sprite. Blessed with a compactness that allows for easier, faster execution, Obratsova doesn’t have to contend with the challenges that taller ballerinas do. Her uber arched feet allow for beautiful lines, and her port de bras has a lightness about it that is almost unmatched in the company ranks. As Ondine she was delightful in every respect, delivering two flawless performances in a row. Her recent role in the film “Russian Dolls”, her competition win and increasing press about the young ballerina are all well founded, and prove that despite Vishneva’s absence for the premiere, Obratsova’s lure is strong and her talent commendable.
The only regret is that other young ballerinas did not have the opportunity to try on the title role for size. Olesya Novikova, one of the unchallenged beauties of the company, danced one of the two water naiad demi soloist roles. Her long neck and arms lithe and fluid, she too seemed an obvious choice for the role of Ondine, and it is a shame that she was not displayed as such at least one of the opening nights. Nadezhda Gonchar danced the other water naiad with strong jumps and attack. Viktoria Tereshkina brought some of her signature strength and Myrtha-like sternness to the role of Queen of the Sea, impressive in her jumps and turns, her mime sequences filled with conviction.
The production's singular drawback, if indeed there is one, is the almost over-plentitude of solo dancing. It sounds strange to say that there can be too much dancing in a ballet, and the counterargument is that not enough dancing would provide a similar imbalance -- most likely "too much mime". But here, in addition to Matteo, Jeanina and Ondine's solos, (in both acts, several times), and aside from the Queen of the Sea and her two leading naiads, we still have the duet of Matteo's friends, a separate duet/trio danced by Jeanina's friends, and the ensemble work in the village, underwater, during the Tarantella, and so on. "Ondine" cannot be faulted for lack of dancing, but some may feel that the various combinations approach dance overload if one is not prepared for it.
“Ondine” brings a charming, if tragic story to the Maryinsky Theatre, a ballet filled with technical and dramatic challenges and room to develop and grow into them. Pierre Lacotte is to be commended for his production, and one hopes that this time it will remain in the company repertoire for years to come.
Mikhail Sinkevich conducted both premieres.