June Gala Concerts
The Mariinsky Theatre
Saint Petersburg, Russia
20 and 23 June, 2011
By Catherine Pawlick
In addition to its claim as the birthplace to the greatest names in classical ballet, The Mariinsky Theatre also remains the uncontested frontrunner for the most refined and highly trained corps de ballet in the world. That fact was celebrated in a gala concert honoring corps de ballet pedagogue, Nina Ukhova, on June 20, featuring three short works that paraded the best of the Mariinsky ensemble work in front of a packed house.
The Mariinsky dancers performed “Serenade, ” the first ballet Balanchine created in America, and one of his finest works, with clarity and soul, filling the steps with a depth that underlined the ballet’s already enigmatic aura. Ekaterina Kondaurova danced the lead with lyricism and lightness, a freedom in her dancing that made it all look effortless, even through the shifts into off-balance retire passes, and hops in arabesque. Her pas de deux with Evgeny Ivanchenko filled with moments of musical indulgence. Ekaterina Osmolkina, only months on stage after her maternity leave, looked in perfect form in the pas de deux and solo work. Osmolkina’s sheer joy on stage in the numerous sautés and jetés is an added element to her performance, which has suffered no loss of line or technique since her break from the theatre. Evgeny Ivanchenko partnered the ladies, offering an abstract, nameless face to the “Dark Angel” section, in which he promenaded Ksenia Ostreikovskaya on her one-legged arabesque like a potter carefully shaping his clay. Svetlana Ivanova stood out with perfect form among the six girls who intertwine arms in the short adagio section that later gains speed and swiftness. The final scene with Kondaurova lifted high above like an offering to the heavens, reaching towards the upstage light, seemed to whisper the secrets of Balanchine’s message in a way that only Mariinsky dancers can relay onstage.
Alina Somova joined Danila Korsuntsev along with the full corps de ballet to perform the White Adagio from “Swan Lake” as the second ballet on the program. Although Somova’s ability to keep adagio lines cleaner than allegro is clear, unfortunately a stray right hand with bent wrist and stiffened fingers distracted from the overall image. The excerpt began nicely but quickly shifted to stale, dry execution. Somova eliminated the glissades in the initial entrance and more than one retiré revealed a sickled ankle in extension; pointed feet were absent in the overhead lifts. An elderly woman sitting near me had worked with the Kirov Ballet for 25 years promptly announced the absence of “soul” in the duet, and in addition to the technical glitches, one had to agree with her; the absence of emotional interplay between the soloists made for lovely moments of technique, at times, but missing was the essence of a Swan princess and a man willing to give her his whole heart. Korsuntsev’s partnering was faultless however, and he did emit an interest in the queen of his heart, that seemed to not be fully returned. The four big swans brought refreshment by means of Viktoria Brilyeva and Daria Vasnetsova, among others; this sequence is among the most pleasurable to watch in the entire act, for the “long-stemmed roses” that dance it never fail to emit elegance and tight musicality. The four little swans, including Svetlana Ivanova, Yana Selina, Valeria Martinouk and Elizaveta Cherpasova, were sprightly, their execution crisply synchronized.
The forty minutes of nonstop pyrotechnics that fills the ballet “Etudes” was a fitting closure for the evening, but one that taxes the dancers to the hilt. The Mariinsky, of course, is trained for nothing but this sort of high-level, nonstop, physical energy output and they met the challenge with stunning grace. Viktoria Tereshkina’s mastery of virtuosity made her an easy choice for lead soloist, and she moved through the entire ballet with grace and a smile. Vladimir Schklyarov indulged in the stage-as-playground concept, as he is wont to do, drawing heavy applause from the audience for his energy and artistic delivery, snapping his fingers high above his head in the finale, his cabrioles high and sharp, pulling off four pirouettes with ease and perfect placement. The evening as a whole underlined the valuable contributions of the overworked and underpaid Mariinsky corps de ballet, wherein each dancer could rightfully be deemed a ballerina (or danseur noble) in their own right.
Just three nights later, on June 23, Diana Vishneva celebrated 15 years on stage the Mariinsky with her own gala concert, or benefice. The tradition of benefice, which began decades ago at the Kirov Theatre, was initially done in honor of a jubilee year for a star performer, the entire proceeds of ticket sales for that evening purportedly going to the performer rather than the theatre. Whether or not that protocol remains the case today is unclear, but tickets for Vishneva’s evening were sold out instantly. Her program choice drew attention in Russia for its uniqueness: Vishneva decided to bring Martha Graham’s work to the Mariinsky Theatre for the very first time. “Labyrinth” is a short ballet that depicts the myth of Ariadne attempting to escape from the Labyrinth, wherein the Minotaur resides. Under the threat of being eaten as one of his victims, Ariadne manages to slay the Minotaur and find her way out of the maze. Followers of the Mariinsky may argue that such works are best done elsewhere, and there is something to that point of view. The purism of Russian classical ballet training is unmatched, and watching finely honed bodies move through simpler choreography seems, at times, a waste of such elite artists. On the other hand, the honor to the Graham legacy, of finally being performed on the Mariinsky stage is an honor indeed.
The tribal drumbeat, flutters of little steps on the floor, and the Minotaur – a hugely muscled man wearing a cap of bull’s horns – form abstract images. Vishneva’s Ariadne traces her steps carefully along a rope on the floor, and takes refuge in a “V” – shaped metal platform downstage. The fitted bodice and long skirt of her costume emphasize the Graham legwork, full of torso curls and isolated movements. Their pas de deux “battle” is won when tiny Ariadne, standing on the Minotaur’s thighs, somehow manages to vanquish his strength with her own. The performance drew great applause, but there were more tasty dishes on offer in the evening’s program.
In the second act, current Vaganova Graduate Olga Smirnova, who has agreed to join the Bolshoi Ballet in her first season this fall, danced with Sergei Strelkov in Asaf Messerer’s “Melody,” set to music by Antonin Dvorzak. Smirnova’s already polished lines, lithe arms, beautifully arched feet, and ability to draw music out of her body to the end of every singing note are part of this promising young dancer’s internal spark.
The arguable favorite in this section, following Svetlana Lunkina's performance of the "Russian" dance set to Tchaikovsky, was the appearance of the ultra-agile, endlessly fluid Desmond Richardson, as he curled his lean frame through the detailed choreography of Dwight Roden's "Plach" (which may well be titled "Cry" in English, the program listed only the Russian title for this work). Richardson's body is a work of art itself, a mass of lean, finely honed muscles combined with a degree of flexibility and grace that is almost unseen on stages today. His nonstop variation was the only one that brought repeat curtain calls in the first two thirds of the evening; the audience loved him.
Following the almost parodied rendition of “The Dying Swan” by Vladimir Malakhov, choreographed by Mairo de Candia, Vishneva’s appearance in “La Dame Aux Camellias” with Roberto Bolle was the crowning piece in the second part of the evening. Passion, longing, love, despair, urgency – all were demonstrated by both artists in the wrenching pas de deux set to Chopin’s gorgeous ballade. The last section of the evening featured a suave and debonair Alexander Sergeyev in the pas de deux from Ratmansky’s “Cinderella” alongside Evgenia Obratsova, while the other pieces included Ekaterina Osmolkina and Semyon Chudin in the pas de deux from “ Giselle;” Anastasia Matvienko with Konstantin Zverev in the pas de deux from Benjamin Millipied’s recent premiere of “ Without;” and Sofia Gumerova in a rare (for recent months) appearance on stage in the dramatic, heavily acted pas de deux from Leonid Jacobson’s “Spartacus” alongside Ilya Kuznetsov. Vishneva’s closing piece for the evening, the final pas de deux from Prejlocaj’s “Le Park”, danced with Vladimir Malakhov, underlined her own preferences for edgy, modern works, even within the confines of the Mariinsky Theatre.
Author, "Vaganova Today: The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition" (available on amazon.com)