Kremlin Ballet Theatre
‘Ivan the Terrible’
by Catherine Pawlick
November 15, 2005 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia
In 1961, the Bolshoi Ballet began performing periodically on the stage of the Kremlin Theatre, a 1200-seat auditorium located in the Administrative Building (#14) of the Russian President’s Kremlin complex in Moscow. During the great changes that took place in Russia in the 1980s, as with many state/non-state relationships, the relationship between the Theatre and the Kremlin went through a period of strain. During that time the idea of creating a Kremlin Theatre of Ballet arose, much to the indifference of official Kremlin representatives. But perhaps in part due to the changes of glasnost, sporadic performances continued and at last, in 1990, the Kremlin Ballet Theatre was born, based on the initiative and perseverance of Andrei Petrov, former Bolshoi Ballet dancer. Petrov knew the capacity and possibilities of the existing stage based on his own experiences performing on it, and from there grew his desire to create a ballet company with the Kremlin as its residence. Petrov is now the Artistic Director of the Kremlin Ballet Theatre.
In the past fifteen years the company has danced twenty different productions by various choreographers. They laud themselves on not being connected to one specific choreographer; theirs is a repertoire that includes both classical masterpieces and contemporary productions.
Oddly, however, the glossy programs available for the Kremlin Ballet’s November 15 performance in St. Petersburg did not include a list of that repertoire; nor was a company roster or information about its home base or studios available. The two leading roles were danced by soloists from the Paris Opera Ballet, and students of the Vaganova Academy also participated, leading one to wonder how much of a stable footing and home base this company truly has.
At any rate, the 30-year anniversary of the world premier of the ballet “Ivan the Terrible” was celebrated with the Kremlin Ballet’s production in the Mariinsky Theatre. The performance was attended by choreographic master Yuri Grigorovich, who received an award on stage for the production prior to the curtain’s rise.
In the program notes, Grigorovich writes:
“The main theme of the ballet is the formation of the Russian national character, the tradition of faithfulness and heroism, the formation of the spiritual world, of morality and the morals of the Russian man. For this reason the focus of the ballet is not Ivan IV, but the people.
“The people carry national power, cultivate and preserve national ideas and morals… In this lies the understanding of the people, their traditions and spiritual capacity.
“Thus Ivan the Terrible is shown on the one hand as a person, faithful to his wife Anastasia, sorely mourning her death, and hating the treachery and unfaithfulness of the nearby boyars; and, on the other hand, as Tsar, the head of all the boyars, himself treacherous and cruel.”
The performance is presented in the form of a historical chronicle, in two acts, with creative use of sets and a unique subdivision of the stage into three sections (upstage, stage left, and stage right) and numerous levels (the throne atop a box, stairs down to the main stage) that show Grigorovich’s talent for not overlooking the physical possibilities of large stages.
This ballet premiered in 1975 on the Bolshoi stage. The leading roles were danced by Natalia Bessmertnova (Anastasia), Yuri Vladimirov (Ivan) and Boris Akimov (Grand Duke Kurbski).
For this performance, Stephan Biuyon and Mathilda Fruste from the Paris Opera Ballet danced Ivan and Anastasia, respectively. Aidar Shaidullin danced the role of Grand Duke Kurbski.
The brief two minute overture of Tchaikovsky’s score nonetheless manages to set the emotional tone for this ballet of psychological drama. The curtain opens to the bell-ringers: six men dressed in red and black Cossack-like boots and pants, holding on to ropes that drop from six small bells positioned at the very height of the stage’s visible ceiling. The ropes are at least 40 feet in length. The men dance, turn, jump and intertwine, never letting go of the ropes and somehow managing to never tangle them either. Throughout the ballet the bells are “rung”, signaling various events – a call to war, peace at last -- and these dancers return; in the interim the ropes are pulled offstage, three to each side, creating a drapery-type effect that emphasized the vast size of the Mariinsky stage and enforced the sense of Ivan the Terrible’s reaches of power.
Following the bell ringers, the corps de ballet enters in medieval Rus clothing. The effect of their costumes and their flex-footed steps and open arms is two-fold: historical Russia, harsh life, still in the process of civilization, but united by the common bonds of its people.
The division of the stage into three gigantic cylinders which are in fact partly transparent drapes hung in circular fashion creates three additional mini-stages, almost like a tableau. The drapes rotate and open, revealing Ivan in the center, and two (seemingly opposed) factions of medieval boyars on either side, at a slightly lower level. One receives the impression of Romeo and Juliet – the Capulets and the Montagues – and already conflict is in the air. In fact however, there are no factions here. It is Ivan against nearly everyone else.
Ivan first appears dressed in all black, seated on a six or seven-foot high black box upstage, on top of which is a throne chair. His first gesture is an over-exaggerated blessing of himself, forming the sign of the cross -- head, sternum, right shoulder, left shoulder—his head and neck thrust forward always, glaring at those around him. This underlines the historical belief of the Tsar’s ordination by and connection to God. Ivan then descends the throne, down the steps to the stage with his legs as far apart as possible, gigantic steps (albeit unrefined and uncultured) for a gigantic personality.
The musical tone changes from overbearing heaviness to the light, beautiful sounds of flute and harp as women enter en pointe, stepping as each note is played. They are dressed in beige-white, long slim dresses, each with a hankerchief attached to the middle finger of their right hand. In order, they parade up to the Tsar, single file, bow to him and then disperse onto the stage, kneeling on the floor in front of him as if to a deity, their backs to the audience. Among them is Anastasia, dressed in white, in contrast to Ivan and the other women. He sees her from the throne and makes his way through the kneeling women to her. They dance a romantic pas de deux, filled with unique lifts that accentuate her long slim legs and his partnering strength, and it is clear he has chosen her as his own.
As Ivan, Stephan Biuyon here displayed rapt attention and a magnetic pull towards Anastasia. His strength was evident in firm lifts, one of which entailed a mid-air fouette from lift position one to lift position two, and was repeated several times. For her part, Mathilda Fruste was the epitomy of graceful innocence and beauty. Clothed in white, her steps were natural but well-placed. Fruste is blessed with beautiful legs and feet, which seem a requisite for any female lead in Grigorovich’s choreography, accentuated by the costume – an almost ankle-length dress, split on both sides up to the hip. In his solo work Biuyon had fully mastered the psychological, dramatic aspects of Ivan’s character. There was no doubt of Ivan’s strong personality and fearsome aura, his courage and strength, his unbendable will. Fruste was softly feminine in her brief solo work, offering precision in her dancing and equally visible emotion towards Ivan, although her role offered fewer dramatic possibilities overall, save, perhaps, the death scene.
The male corps de ballet has plenty to play with choreographically in ‘Ivan’. Their movements include plenty of flexed feet, outstretched arms with hands spread, similar to sections of ‘Spartacus’, effective in their masculinity and far from classical in structure.
A brief summary of the ballet’s plot is helpful for those who aren’t familiar with it. Following Anastasia and Ivan’s initial pas de deux, the bells are rung, and women in mourning enter. Then the warriors prepare for battle, Ivan enters after them. More women follow en pointe dressed as grim reapers in white, with gauze over their heads and faces, symbolizing the death that comes with war. The warriors leave for battle in a long parade of grand-jetes from upstage right to downstage left. The ringers return to the stage signaling the war’s end, and the corps de ballet returns to the stage. Russian national dances are performed, and a pas de deux between Ivan and Anastasia ensues.
The conspiracy to gain the throne is cleverly depicted by Grigorovich in this ballet. The boyars enter, making the gesture of a crown on their heads. One of the boyars climbs to the empty throne chair only to have Ivan jump out from behind it and slowly strangle him, as he falls backwards – slowly – down the stairs to the main stage. The other boyars cower in fear. This is the end of Act One.
Act Two opens with the two lovers on the same base of the throne, which has turned into a symbolic bed, devoid of pillows and bathed in white light from overhead. Anastasia is in white and Ivan still in black. They perform a pas de deux depicting their happiness and love, and exit. The boyars enter with a chalice that they pass around the circle. A plan to poison the Tsar is in place. Grand Duke Kubinski by default is tasked with the job. He hands the chalice to Anastasia and she drinks from it. He cringes – he too has been in love with her and now is losing all possibility of having her for his own.
Ivan then enters the stage beset by grief, crossing himself, clearly anguished over her death. The back throne area is changed to an altar and Anastasia in her death garments appears. Women with candles surround the “tomb” that the previous throne-base has become, and choral music is heard. Ivan takes Anastasia’s weightless frame down from the altar and they dance. Her arms are held stiffly, in a mummy-like forward reaching position. This pas de deux combines the effects of the weightless lifts of ‘Giselle’’s second Act and the unresponsiveness of Juliet’s body in the family crypt in some versions of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. It is touching from the perspective of Ivan’s grief: here is a man, alone and opposed by those around him who has just lost what was (apparently) most precious to him. One begins to fear that others will pay for his emotional state, and the next scene proves that true. Ivan with a whip and a cane stands atop the throne pedestal. He thrashes his whip left and right. The male corps de ballet is dressed as he is, standing below him, in obedience. “Terror” is achieved.
The final moments of the ballet are somewhat confusing. Three jesters appear and hang Ivan with a rope, but he stands up at the end, climbing the ropes that hang from the ceiling bells and balancing on them as the curtain closes.
Aside from its creative approach to recounting historical narrative, ‘Ivan the Terrible’ is further testament to Grigorovich’s talents as a full-length ballet producer. Those expecting strictly classical dance and profuse solo opportunities will be disappointed. But strong corps de ballet sequences, unique set designs and costumes, and meaty choreography for the leading roles are elements that Grigorovich has mastered with finesse and abound in this ballet.
Vello Pyakhn conducted the Mariinsky Orchestra for the performance.