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Kirov Ballet's Saison Russe: A Window Into Ballet History

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 2 December 2002 - The Russian season at the Théâtre du Châtelet began enjoyably with the Kirov Ballet and their Nijinsky-Fokine programme, which included several of the very works created there by the legendary Ballets Russes, with soloists Pavlova, Karsavina, and Nijinsky, nearly one hundred years ago. There was colour, bold and brash, sensuous melodrama, beautiful women, and above all the wonderful, glorious music of the Russian composers including Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Borodine, magnificently played by the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre under its various conductors. Sheer entertainment, a combined product of all the arts; so had been the wish of impresario Serge Diaghilev as early as 1909. However, no matter how sublime the music, not all on stage could be praised. Much depended on which cast one saw.

Petrushka, the first ballet on the programme was a disappointing adaptation of the 1911 work lacking style, animation, and soul. Oddly enough, it was not very Slav. Adrian Fadeyev in the title role did little to dissipate memories of Rudolf Nureyev whose poignant interpretation here in the 1970's still haunts the scene.

Petrouchka
Petrouchka
Photo: Marie-Noelle Robert

Spectre de la Rose, staged by Isabelle Fokine, the choreographer's granddaughter, was devoid of that very special atmosphere so intrinsic to it. Set in a bed-room with pink-flowered wallpaper, it was interpreted by Viacheslav Samodourov, miscast as the spirit of the rose, as he was quite unable to convey the essence of the dreamlike sequence. The Young Girl, beautifully danced and interpreted by Zhanna Ayoupova, was unfortunately wearing shiny, tight -fitting gown; was it really a copy of the original design by Léon Bakst? Where was her cape?

Happily, the rest of the programme was more what the public had been expecting. Shéhérazade, Les Danses Polovsiennes, and L'Oiseau de Feu, works which have rarely been seen in the French capital in recent years were a great success, even though I had to return another evening to get the cast I wanted.

Shéhérazade, first time round, had Youlia Makhalina as Zobeide, the Shah's favourite concubine, consorting with the masterful, eternally glamorous Faroukh Rouzimatov as the golden slave, inciting the rest of the harem to an orgy while her master's back is turned. It all ends in a massacre, since the Shah himself had laid the trap, and Zoebide stabs herself to death to the delight of those watching. Much of the audience's good humour, it should be said, was due to the lushness of the oriental costumes and setting, and to the richness and grandeur of Rimski-Korsakov's score. The orchestra was applauded accordingly.


But while Makhalina is beautiful, ravishingly so, she was also totally unconvincing, and what should have been exhilarating melodrama, became faintly ludicrous, particularly to the intellectually orientated French spectator.


Two days later I saw Svetlana Zakharova as the favourite. Partnered by the charismatic Rouzimatov, in great form, for who but he could get away with such an impossible role , she not only danced superbly but transformed the ballet by her interpretative skills. From slave-girl to Queen, she was sultry, impatient, lascivious and totally double-dealing at the end when she tried to save her own skin. She brought Zoebeide to life, and even though you could not be moved, you nevertheless believed in the Arabian Night's story. And left the theatre humming the melody.


While Les danses Polovtsiennes, taken from Borodine's Prince Igor, full-throated and colourful, with the swirling, twirling masses on stage led by the viril Islom Baimouradov and accompanied by a full-scale choir was nothing less than sensational, the undisputed jewel of the evening was Stravinsky's L'Oiseau de Feu. These two works alone give a glimpse of what the impact must have been like at the time.

Based on Russian folk-tales, Firebird tells the story of Prince Ivan who catches the magical bird of fire while out hunting , but gives her her freedom back in exchange for a feather. In gratitude, the firebird returns to save the prince who is about to be turned into stone, and at the same time frees the girl Ivan is in love with from the clutches of the fearful monster, Kostchei, who holds her prisoner.

L'Oiseau de Feu
L'Oiseau de Feu
Photo: Marie-Noelle Robert

This staging, credited to Isabelle Fokine and Andris Liepa, was on my second visit, an absolute enchantment. Spoiled the first time I went by the grimaces of Irma Nioradze, almost like a caricature despite her brilliant dancing, I much preferred Diana Vishneva who became the Firebird. Each glimpse of the ballet was like turning the pages of a Russian picture -book for children. Vladimir Ponomarev as Kastchei l'Immortel , made to resemble a cadaverous giant vulture was utterly frightening. At over fifty now, he is a superlative artist. There was, however, excellent dancing from all the troupe, which left a desire to see them at their true value in a full-length classical production, which after all is what they are famous for.

The Nutcracker - choreography: Kirill Simonov

Alas. The company was not shown to its advantage in this new / old production which fell between two stools, being neither a new interpretation of the traditional ballet, nor a radical re-thinking I failed to see Diana Vishneva as Clara, but finally, in this Disneyland setting, where show and mime took precedence over dance, casting was irrelevant.


The ballet opens in the kitchens where the cooks are busily preparing for Christmas. Great pink hams hang down, and cheese, chickens, fish and large fat sausages swing in garlands across the ceiling. Four generations of mice charge around on the backs of rabbits in a decor of wild pigs busily swallowing men, and when the snowflakes arrive, they are clad in sexy little black tutus with matching pointe shoes, the lot covered in white bobbles.

In Act 2, set in the land of sweets ,where pots of honey spill their contents for the swarms of bees and flies, and where Clara decides to stay for ever, the work fell apart. It was not so much that the staging was showy, gaudy, and garish, which it was, nor yet because of any incoherence in the story, but simply on account of the fact that there was little or no choreography.

Nutcracker
Nutcracker
Photo: Marie-Noelle Robert

This theatrically entertaining, but frustrating version was the brain-child of Russian artist Mikhail Chemiakin, responsible for both decor and costumes, in all the colours God and man gave us. Chemiakin, who has illustrated children's books since childhood, saw the opportunity to give free reign to everything that was grotesque, bizarre, nightmarish, and absurd in his desire to remain close to Hoffmann's world. What he forgot, as did choreographer Kiril Simonov, was that they were creating a ballet for one of the world's most beautiful classical companies. Let lesser troupes mess around with this kind of show. The Kirov should concentrate on preserving their Petipa heritage.

La Bayadère - choreography: Marius Petipa (1900)

So much had already been written on this "new" restoration / resurrection of an early, authentic 19th century version of La Bayadère, already performed earlier in the year in Russia and New York, that many people in France went to see it out of curiosity. Obviously they wanted to compare it to the Paris Opéra's sumptuous production staged by Rudolf Nureyev in 1992.

Inspired by the Kirov's traditional version which Nureyev danced in 1958, with such changes as considered necessary by the eminent Agrippina Vaganova (1932) and Vakhtang Tchaboukiani (1941), the Paris work, as indeed that danced in Saint-Petersburg for the last fifty years, is not so very different from the "original", yet worlds apart at the same time. The production the Russians brought to France is a window into ballet history; an outing to a museum, with as much to discard as admire.

La Bayadère
La Bayadère
Photo: Marie-Noelle Robert

Led by Serguei Vikharev, a team of at least eight people had worked on Petipa's 1900 version, restoring the fourth act set to the original music recently found in the Mariinsky Theatre Central Library. Not seen since 1919, the inclusion of the last act where the temple collapses as Solor breaks his vow to Nikiya and all are buried in the ruins produces a consistent, dramatically convincing work. Choreographically speaking, the complete work was indeed an interesting discovery. However, the decor, copied from the original and presumably authentic, was musty and outdated, reflecting the means at the time, while many of the costumes were cumbersome, ugly and virtually impossible to dance in. Technique has advanced, and costumes must be adapted. No wonder Rudolf Nureyev discarded the doubtful glories of half a tiger round his loins for one of his own design, but then, in the "authentic" version, the role of Solor was mimed. As was a good bit of the first part of this work. Since the ballet was created in 1877, when does "authenticity" start?

That said, La Bayadère did provide the opportunity to see a world-class company, with a magnificent corps de ballet, excellent soloists, and with Svetlana Zakharova shining at the centre.

La Bayadère
La Bayadère
Photo: Marie-Noelle Robert

Zakharova is visually exquisite with her purity of line, sublime arabesques resolutely of today, and her lyrical, ecstatic ports de bras. She touched by the beauty and refinement of her movements, for artistically she danced in a world of her own. Rare were the occasions she looked at Solor, excellent Igor Kolb, as she went from temple dancer to unearthly spirit with scarcely a change of expression. She is, as yet, just twenty-two. Maturity will follow, as no doubt for another of the evening's revelations, the lovely Ekaterina Osmolkina as Gamzatti, light and lyrical in her pas de deux, but less credible in the mimed passages.

However, the true stars of the evening were the thirty-two "Shades", gentle and feminine, in a breathtaking White Act, a demonstration of the meaning of style, of what the Kirov is about. The corps de ballet, so obviously all from the renowned Saint Petersburg school founded in 1738, remains legendary for the beauty of its arm movements, and for its musicality and discipline. The classical perfection of the company is beyond reproach. Not quite the same can be said of the production.


Related: Rudolf Nureyev: Three Years in the Kirov Theatre



Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.com.

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