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First International Ballet Festival

Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, Russia
February 10-18, 2001

By Emma Pegler

The vision I had of St Petersburg before finally going there was one firmly rooted in pre-revolutionary days. One in which women dressed in elegant furs are helped into troikas which glide noiselessly across a city subsumed by the silence caused by the blanket of snow which I believed a permanent feature of a St Petersburg winter. By the time I saw the Kirov Ballet performing in London last year, I was so immersed in the spectacle of Tsarist Russia that I had to go. I waited until February this year so that I could, according to the guide books, be assured of snow. My travel agent, charged with securing tickets for the Kirov Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, informed me that coincidentally the First International Ballet Festival would be taking place at that time and there would be some very interesting performances on offer. The Astoria Hotel, in association with the Mariinsky Theatre, was offering packages that would include tickets to the festival every night and a number of dinners with the stars. I tried to avoid the package and plumped for just the Finale Programme (minus vodka tastings and tourist excursion trips) which included the Stars Gala, featuring a tantalising list of international and national dancers.

I need not have studied the programme so closely in advance. What the Astoria had offered was a loose approximation of what would actually happen. A quick scan of the programme purchased at the Mariinsky on Stars Gala Night revealed that Sylvie Guillem would not, after all, be dancing. Worse than that, however, it appeared that the Russian version of the programme was completely different from the English version. Some of the English members of the audience were trying to find their Russian tourist guides to translate what was assumed to be the correct version of events. However, after a while, you give up trying to keep in control of events by identifying choreographer, dancers or composer. Instead, you rely on word of mouth after the performance when you are waiting in a long queue for a glass of vodka, during one of the many arbitrary intervals, at one of the may bars dotted like serving hatches around the Mariinsky Theatre. (If you choose Russian champagne you will be given something quite undrinkable and if you choose water you will be given “wodka” in any case, so you might as well at least feel in control of the interval and ask for something you know you will get.) Or you rely on a combination of gut instinct and past experience.

The programme featured Apollo as the opening piece but I was not about to trust this after being on notice that the Russian and English versions differed. Past experience, however, told me that the score was Stravinsky’s and gut instinct told me that the choreography was by Balanchine and that the male soloist was an American guest artist rather than home grown. It was the way that he was confident of the piece but the three female dancers, whilst secure amongst themselves, were insecure with him. Insufficient practice time with the guest (American Ballet Theatre’s Ethan Stiefel), I would guess, meant that the tall thin leading girl (no further details available) had to glance nervously behind before perching on the knees of a reclining Apollo when she should have assuredly come to rest upon them.

I had no idea what the second piece was, I just recognised the brooding bare-chested young protagonist to be Igor Zelensky. Enter sexy siren in yellow who could have been any good dancer (but turned out to be Kirov principal Yulia Makhalina) because the black bob wig proved a total disguise. We are definitely in Paris - there is an Eiffel Tower and the set is unmistakably a bohemian Paris apartment. The choreography (so brilliantly executed by Zelensky that you think this is really happening in real time and was never rehearsed) is sensual and erotic to the point that there are gasps from the audience when Zelensky lights his girl’s cigarette by storming passionately over to her, scraping the match across the table and pursuing her over the tables and chairs. It all ends in tears as unrequited love leads to the young man hanging himself whilst Makhalina dons a death mask to carry him away. I was happy to have got the whole story sewn up even though the piece was nowhere to be found in the English programme – this was Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort (the Young Man and Death) to an orchestrated version of Bach’s Passacaglia.

Without doubt, local people paying in roubles are getting a good deal at the Mariinsky. Paying in dollars, but compared to the Royal Opera House, we were getting a good deal too. The Mariinsky is a beautiful theatre – all pale greeny turquoise not dissimilar to the colours of the domed ceiling of the Royal Opera House but much more intimate because although there are more tiers, each is only a few rows deep, giving the appearance that everyone is near the front. This seems to be essential for the Russians because they like to take part in the production, applauding, cheering virtuosity and snapping photographs all the way through. At the beginning of the evening, a calculatingly articulate Russian voice announced in English that there should be no flash photography during the performance. As the curtain lifted it was like being attacked by machine-gun fire as people blatantly flouted the “no flash” rule. The two rotund middle-aged Russian ladies in front of me applauded every great leap of every male dancer. By far their favourite was Carlos Acosta visiting from the Royal Ballet. Already made appealing for them for his exotic Cuban looks, he had been made to look even more exotic by a loin cloth in which he performed repeatedly what looked like 360 degree turns with a 90 degree extension. The piece was Diana and Actaeon’s pas de deux from Esmeralda, premiered 1935 by Vaganova based on Petipa’s choreography. Since the original three act ballet choreographed by Perrot in the 1840s was based on the Quasimodo/ Esmerelda story, I could not quite work out why Acosta should be clad in a loin cloth. It was certainly not in keeping with the pale and delicate elfin looks and costume of his partner (alleged by the programme, but not confirmed by any member of the audience, to be Elvira Tarasova). But superb he was and performing with greater virtuosity than even he is normally capable of in response to the audience’s cheers. Like Stiefel in Apollo, he was out there alone because his partner was at least one of: under-prepared with her partner, new to the choreography or just plain in awe of her partner inspiring such emotion in the audience.

According to a televised interview, Vladimir Malakhov, who had trained with the Bolshoi and joined American Ballet Theatre in 1995, was more nervous than ever before in his career at the prospect of dancing in the mother country under the gaze of his compatriots. Although he had been paralysed with fear at rehearsals, his solo performance of Voyage, created on him by Renato Zanella to music by Mozart was a legend in the making. His contemporary white linen suit against the stark black background set a dramatic note for a modern choreography that flowed and flowed and showed him off to be the perfectly expressive ethereal dancer that he is. My palms were beginning to wear out from the excess of clapping. Malakhov, who bears a striking resemblance to David Bowie, turned up later in the evening with Kirov principal Diana Vishneva, who, as she walked on stage to perform an excerpt from Manon, won immediate applause before dancing a step. Malakhov was less foot-sure in this piece but otherwise they were perfectly matched, with the pronounced arch to his back and her long arms creating a languid, romantic pas de deux crowd–pleaser.

Word of mouth suggested that the next piece was being danced by a member of the Hamburg Ballet. It was not tabled in either the Russian or English programmes. I am not quite sure how it was slotted in since the evening, which had begun at 7 pm, did not end until midnight and so hardly needed padding. It was, however, a welcome addition and yet another handsome bare-chested young man tantalised the audience with a piece by I do not know who, to Flight of the Bumble Bee. It sounds corny that he was being chased and tormented by the subject of the music score, but it worked, and perhaps the originality of this unexpected piece was mainly responsible for the great ovation.

Russian ballet dancers are national heroes. A whole queue of autograph hunters grew up around Uliana Lopatkina and Farukh Ruzimatov seated in the audience and not performing that evening. My guide, Irina, when showing me the cultural sites the next day, was positively in awe when she spotted Carlos Acosta in the Astoria, and shied away from the opportunity to snatch a word when he was posing, leg extended in an arabesque, for a photographer on the snow-covered steps of St Isaac’s Cathedral. In addition to being revered, the ballet stars are thought of affectionately. Principal Irma Nioradze was cheered when dancing with Jose Manuel Carreno of American Ballet Theatre in the virtuoso pas de deux of Le Corsaire. Nioradze not only faltered on the turns and didn’t attain the full 360 degrees each time, but she also looked on the point of collapse. Clearly she normally performs well, because the audience was sympathetic to her failure and sincerely believed that clapping would help get her round on time.

And so the evening continued, full of unannounced surprises: an excerpt from Don Quixote, the Bavarian Ballet performing a mystery piece, Hamburg Ballet dancing what was obviously an excerpt from Neumeier’s recent ballet, Nijinsky (premiered last year). The culmination was the Grand Pas from Paquita which had been announced and eagerly awaited as an obvious candidate for a finale by a now exhausted audience. It is finale material because it employs large numbers of the company, including the fresh faced, perky young students of the Vaganova Academy, and involves a great deal of general group smiling and jollity which is a good note on which to end a gala.

As far as I was concerned the gala would be continuing back at the Astoria Hotel with the Stars Gala dinner. The Astoria had made the dinner a big selling feature and although I thought it rather embarrassing to line up to meet members of the Kirov in such a contrived manner, it was nonetheless a fun thing to do. The Japanese guests were less embarrassed and the ladies had changed into full kimono especially for the dinner. I had bumped into Carlos Acosta the previous evening and so I knew that he was planning to be there (although only for half an hour because he quite fancied going off to the Havana Club to dance salsa). Yet when dinner was served, there were no stars. The Japanese boycotted the meal out of what appeared to be a mixture of protest about the non-appearance of their heroes and respect in not wanting to start without them. I felt rather envious that by this time Acosta must have been on his second Cuba Libre having bypassed this charade.

The eight days of performances had taken their toll on the Kirov dancers and the audience. The final offering, Swan Lake, was rather low-key and low energy. Sofya Gumerova as Odette/Odile was technically perfect and extremely beautiful but just did not have that factor that distinguishes a true dancer from merely a good performer. It may just have been for that evening – I haven’t seen her dance before and as a soloist she may yet flower – but she appeared expressionless rather than noble and probably felt some affection for Danila Korsuntev as Prince Siegfried, but definitely not love. There was the odd “bravo” from the audience particularly in appreciation of the one character with energy that night, Kirill Simonov as the court jester, but generally the audience was in sombre mood. Maybe they were thinking what I was thinking - “and to think we were promised Uliana Lopatkina and Igor Zelensky.

The Japanese ended up happier this final evening. As I passed by the hotel restaurant later in the evening, I saw a long table of Japanese still not eating (presumably out of politeness) staring intently at another long table of pale Russian faces consisting of director/conductor, Gergiev and his entourage, self-consciously eating in silence. The Astoria had obviously brought pressure to bear and I am sure will not allow the same mistakes to occur next year at the Second International Ballet Festival. I will certainly be there to check up and report back.


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Edited by Marie.



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