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Tchaikovsky Perm Ballet Theatre

"The Sleeping Beauty"

by Catherine Pawlick

April 11, 2003 -- Flint Center, Cupertino, CA

Tchaikovsky's score to "The Sleeping Beauty" never fails to revitalize the imagination and soothe the soul. As an accompaniment to the ballet of the same name, the work becomes even higher art. That was exactly what the Tchaikovsky Perm Ballet Theatre, with their full symphony orchestra, offered during their Bay Area debut Thursday night: an impressive performance steeped in cultural and artistic tradition. For any balletomane seeking a reprise from the season's less traditional local fanfare, or for a curious supporter of the arts, the Perm Ballet is clearly one of Russia's jewels: rarely seen in America, but amazingly brilliant and not to be missed.

There is something about a Russian orchestra playing one of its own composers' scores to the backdrop of a homegrown Russian ballet company, that oozes tradition. It's something we lack in America, and an element of Russian culture that is worthy of national pride. It was this deep tradition that visited Flint Center Thursday night for the opening of Perm Ballet's four-day Bay Area run. The company of 125 dancers presented their full-length, three-act "Sleeping Beauty" ballet with levels of style and technical proficiency from which even the Maryinsky dancers might take heed.

When the curtain opens in the Prologue, we're given a glimpse of the infant Sleeping Beauty's palace. Members of the court enter dressed in rich chocolate-brown velvet gowns and waistcoats, making way for the King and Queen, parents of the newborn Beauty. The scene sets the tone, time-frame and story line perfectly. From there, the five Fairies enter with the corps members, all in exquisite tutus and perfectly synchronized, stepping together, pausing in fifth position on demi pointe (in pointe shoes, mind you) and then lowering into their designated tendu positions. This is detail to a degree that most major ballet companies don't have. It's a minor point in overall training that makes a big difference.

The Fairies bestow their gifts on the baby Aurora, one by one. These variations were by-the-book classical, true to Petipa's choreography and, on dancers with such finely tuned physiques, very pleasing to watch.

Unfortunately it was difficult to discern who danced what, based only on the program. Thursday night's Candide, Elena Levine, danced the hops on pointe to tendu, followed by a temps de flêche with impressive flexibility and strength; likewise the Canari qui chante, or the yellow fairy, danced by Nadezhda Vasilkova, brought smiles to the audience.

The Fairy variations were followed by the Lilac Fairy, danced by Yulia Machkino, a strong, regal, but smooth dancer with an approachable, kind aura fitting for the lead fairy role. The piqué arabesques in her solo variation were perfectly placed, and the series of sissones into double pirouettes flawless. She danced with a consistent thick fluidity and grace that matched her role well. Of note as well were the simple sauté arabesques done by all of the Fairies at one point: every standing leg leaves the floor, foot fully pointed and on the music. The benefits of sharing similar training are evident -- and even more stunning -- at moments like these.

Indeed, at the Perm Ballet, uniformity isn't reserved for the corps de ballet. True to Kirov form -- or perhaps one should say, Perm style -- the entire company is exquisite. There is something about watching a ballet company with members that have followed the same training that makes for a much more pleasant visual experience than those companies with the mix-match of dancer backgrounds. It is refreshing, because it is so rare. The soloists dance together, mirroring the same lines and attention to physical detail in one another. The corps de ballet continues this pattern: not a head is out of place, not an arm misaligned, no leg less than fully turned out. And during movement, no leg higher is or lower than the next. This was consistent throughout the evening. Coming from the fanfare and variety produced by so many American companies, Perm Ballet is Russian dancing at its best, and the troupe has much to be proud of.

Several other scenes cannot pass unmentioned. Despite a lighting team that was slow to its feet Thursday night, Carabosse, danced by Oleg Posokhin with an entourage of evil bats, was dark enough to be despised, but visible enough to still be seen. There were moments however when it was hard to view other members of the cast during the Carabosse visits, and one hopes the Flint Center lighting team can correct that for the rest of the Perm's performances.

Before Act One begins, we're given a brief mime sequence somewhere within the palace walls that suggests the repercussions of Carabosse's curse upon the palace. Four chatty chambermaids are knitting with the forbidden spindles, and caught by the King's magistrate. King and Queen enter and are given the evidence. In a moment of regal anger, the King sentences them to be hanged, but the Queen implores him to spare the maids, and he does. This reviewer doesn't recall seeing this scene in other versions of the ballet, but it added a continuity of story line that was helpful.

When the curtain did open on Act One, we were greeted with a garland scene that recalled visions of the same scene in Grace Kelly's documentary, "The Children of Theatre Street." Twelve waltzing couples in pale pink skirts waltz to the music of one of Tchaikovsky's most memorable sections. The choreography may seem slow here to those who haven't seen it before, but there is ample time to watch the design formation of garlands overhead, and to revel again at Perm technical precision.

The Jewels Thursday night were equally sparkling, though the Sapphire, danced by Tatiana Orlova, stood out from the foursome with her long graceful lines. The Diamond, Tatiana Bolshukhina, was sharp and quick in her darting jetés to plié arabesque.

Our Bluebird couple was danced by Sergei Mershin, a well-muscled smooth jumper, and Yaroslava Araptanova, a graceful, sure Florina with careful, super-clean steps. Their pas de deux and variations were impressive despite the audience's rather embarrassing lack-of-reaction throughout.

Natalia Moiseeva presented a calmly radiant Aurora, thrilled to be celebrating her 16th birthday, and with poise befitting a real princess. Exuding youth and happiness when faced with a line of suitors, she mimed to her parents that all she wanted to do was dance for them. Ms. Moiseeva has a strength and turning ability remniscent of the Kirov's Irina Tchistyakova (tight, clean and reliable), the flexibility and supple feet of Sylvie Guillem (but with better control), and an ebullience similar to Bolshoi ballerina Ekaterina Maximova's, but clearly all her own. Her split jetés were delivered with Bolshoi-like abandon, but tempered by Kirov-like control. Her dramatic interpretation of Aurora was well-approached and well-delivered. She is a mature ballerina with an endless array of talents, and is a sheer pleasure to watch.

Moiseeva's Prince Desire, both onstage and off, was real-life husband Vitaliy Poleschuk. Tall, slim, and also with regal bearing, his first variation in the second act hunting scene was incumbered only by his footwear, a pair of pale blue boots that matched his costume. His lines are long, jumps smooth, and acting ability strong. In his visit with the Lilac Fairy in the same scene, he clearly portrayed that despite his noble birth, something was missing: he sought a woman to love. Moiseeva in the same scene was a fleeting vision of youthful beauty as she crossed in and out of the rows of the corps de ballet.

Prince Desire's dream, of course, comes true -- although isn't until Act Three, the wedding scene, that we really get to see him dance with Aurora. And in this case the ballet seemed to save the best for last.

Moiseeva's piqué penchés were splits on pointe, showing off her beautiful lines and flexibility. Her turns were an essay in physics: unbelievably upright, one would imagine she was being spun from some invisible heaven-bound axis, the quantity of rotations limited only by the music, not by her balance.

Poleschuk partnered her with sureness and ease. All of their partnering was exquisite, certainly well-rehearsed, and flawless. Their presentation of the pas de deux suggests a deep foundation of trust and mutual understanding that only the best ballet partnerships manage to achieve. The couple sealed off the performance with a real kiss in her final piqué arabesque penchée, adding a sweet personal touch just before the curtain went down.

To those who might argue a three-hour ballet is too long, the counter arguments are plenty. First and foremost, "The Sleeping Beauty" is a classic, one that has been performed for over a century and no doubt will continue to be. Petipa's famous choreography has a timelessness that preserves the story's setting without sacrificing line or form. Added to all of this is ample room for Aurora to express her own personality. And this is where Perm, thanks to Moiseeva and Poleschuk, sets itself apart.

It is hard to believe how spoiled Bay Area fans of Russian Ballet were in the early '90s. It seemed as if every season brought us a visit from one of Russia's main companies to the San Francisco Opera House. Prior to the Perm's visit, our most recent Russian guests were the members of the Bolshoi Ballet last October in Berkeley. With this tour, the Perm Ballet proves its worthiness in sharing the ranks with both the Kirov and the Bolshoi as highly professional, technically superb classical ballet companies.

And with all of this culture, and more than a few glimpses at balletic perfection thrown their way, the American audience didn't know what to do. Whereas a performance in a Russian city would have found loud bravo's sprinkled throughout, applause at every pause (for the audiences know the ballets inside and out), and a slew of curtain calls, Thursday night's American audience lacked the sort of reaction that these performers deserved. It wasn't until the end of Act Three when a few whistles and a few standees started to appear. Thankfully, the Perm Ballet received the ovation they deserved, but it took quite a while for the audience to get to that point. And we're thus reminded why they're the performers ... ever giving, and then giving some more, often without receiving the level of appreciation they deserve.

In these times of economic downturn, political crises and the like, most of us can use some refreshment. Perm Ballet brings that in large quantities. For balletomanes tired of the less-than-impressive standards brought by the much lauded diversity in so many American companies, Perm Ballet is a relief. For everyone else, their performance will be one you will never forget. It is a shame that their tour to the Bay Area will be so short, but one can hope this means more frequent visits in the future.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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