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Kirov Ballet

Fokine Program - 'Chopiniana,' 'Scheherezade,' and 'The Firebird'

by Art Priromprintr

October 21, 2003 -- Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa, CA

The Kirov Ballet shimmered in its mixed bill of three "classic" works by Mikhail Fokine on Tuesday night. Seeing the Kirov Ballet perform "La Bayadere" and this program of Fokine pieces so close together offers a really interesting comparison of ballet and dance drama as it progresses through time. They present two similar ways of telling a story without words, but with grand spectacle and dancing: one old, one new. The new, however, is clearly more developed, sophisticated, and much more interesting in many ways.

Of course "Bayadere" has its merits. The Kingdom of the Shades and the classicism of the Grand Pas Classique are clearly treasures of ballet heritage. But when it comes down to storytelling and keeping a modern audience engaged, Fokine wins. By comparison, "Bayadere" is overlong, drawn out and trivial. Fokine's "Scheherazade" is trivial as well -- but there are plenty of other things to feast on during the proceedings. There is the visual spectacle: eye popping, detailed sets, alongside colorful and appealing costumes. The sets here made "La Bayadere's" new sets and costumes look muted and tame by comparison.

The one-act format also provides for a much more pleasing dramatic effect. Fokine can just tell a story and use dance much more simply. "Bayadere" draws the story out, and fluffs up the middle with random, unrelated divertissement dancing, which stretches the plot extremely thinly. But Fokine entertains by going ahead and telling the story right away -- there are pretty dances throughout, mind you, but it has a much more satisfying dramatic unity. Plus -- the audience is more engaged, never losing sight of the story amid the clutter.

Then, of course there is the great music in these three Fokine works, the use of which sets these ballets apart from most of the 19th century story ballets (Tchaikovsky's ballets excepted). Great music immeasurably adds to the atmosphere and increases the drama in a performance -- and the music here simply leaves Minkus' score for "Bayadere" in the dust.

"The Firebird" by Igor Stravinsky is a fantastic piece of music -- it has taken on a life outside of ballet theater and makes an astonishing effect on its own in the concert hall as well. Its unconventional rhythms and sheer drama make the audience sit up and take notice. "Scheherazade," by Nikolai Rimksy-Korsakav, has dramatic swells and sweet violin passages that set the mood for something exotic, while upping the emotion. (This staging, however, interpolates an odd piece of music that isn't from the original four-movement "Scheherazade" piece for an extended Slave-Zobeide pas de deux). All this fantastic music gives drive and energy to the ballets, especially when they were played as exceptionally as they were by the Mariinsky Theater orchestra -- under the baton of Mikhail Agrest -- on Tuesday. It gives the audience something more than what is simply on stage for the evening. Combined with the stage spectacle, the effect is rapturous. Minkus is merely functional by comparison.

Ballet is not ballet with out the dancing, of course. And each work in this program has dancing -- attractive and appealing dancing, to boot. But what makes it stand out is its relevance to the rest of the proceedings. In the story pieces, dancing drives the plot. In a symphonic mood piece like "Chopiniana," it creates the atmosphere and brings to life the Romantic ideal that Fokine was honoring in the piece. It all comes together when it binds itself to complex, quality music, leaving you with more than just a pretty dance.

And, oh yes: Tuesday night's dancing. It was uniformly great, especially from the corps de ballet.

"Chopiniana," Fokine's tribute to Romanticism, is one of the earliest instances of ballet symphonism -- that is, a full dance without a plot to strictly follow. There is just the music by Chopin, and choreography set to it. The dances "float" atop the music; the effect is dreamlike and beautiful. The Kirov corps was highly impressive here on Tuesday night -- the lingering arms, the perfect unity throughout. The performance was mesmerizing. The soloists, Irina Zhelonkina, Yana Selina, Irina Golub, and Danila Korsuntsev, were all solid and highly musical.

"Scheherazade," was a somewhat silly, story-book tale of illicit passion in an exotic locale, the spectacle reigned. Leon Bakst's sets and costumes were eye-catching and very colorful, while Fokine's dances are attractive and entertaining. Uliana Lopatkina was a beautiful and sexy Zobeide -- both in her physical appearance and her dancing. I loved when she unlocked the Golden Slave's doors, threw the keys aside and snapped into a pose to wait for him to come out -- it was passionate and it looked fantastic. Igor Zelensky was her virtuosic and intense Golden Slave. Both danced the pas de deux beautifully, though the dance itself was a bit long, and seemed out of place from the rest of the ballet's quick pace.

"The Firebird" was led by the orchestra's incredible playing of the score. Tatiana Amosava danced the Firebird competently, but relied mostly on the lighting effects to produce much stage oomph when she appeared on stage. Victor Baranov was Ivan -- his acting was good, but his partnering of Amosova in the first scene proved shaky in spots. Yana Serebriakova was a beautiful princess, and Vladimir Ponomarev a fantastically evil Katschei. Ponomarev played the role to the hilt, and the audience loved it. The corps de ballet was incredible throughout; their costumes were a bit absurd and over the top, but the dancing was fierce and powerful -- it made the already thunderous music have much more impact.

This program was a refreshing move away from "La Bayadere" and the seemingly endless parade of full-length classics showing that dance drama can be just as exciting in shorter form. Next in line for this ballet time-travel is Balanchine in the 1960s, with "Jewels."

Edited by Catherine Pawlick.

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