After wrapping up their 10-day residence at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, the Mariinsky Ballet arrived in Washington for the company’s annual season at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
This time, instead of their usual full-length 19th-century ballet classics, the famed company from St. Petersburg brought a collection of four short dances: Le Sacre du Printemps, Le Spectre de la Rose, The Swan, and Paquita Grand Pas. As such, this selection paid tribute to the Mariinsky’s enduring creative forces, Marius Petipa, Michel Fokine and Vaslav Nijinsky.
Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), one of the most interesting relics of dance history, proved the most peculiar feature of the program. It’s not often that the Mariinsky dancers go stomping the stage in peasant-like cloth boots.
The original ballet was a product of the creative collaboration of three geniuses: a painter (Nicholas Roerich), a composer (Igor Stravinsky) and a choreographer (Vaslav Nijinsky). The work they created looked so novel and anti-classical, so provocative and brutally raw, that the audience who attended the famous premiere given by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris in 1913, was shocked to the core and erupted in pandemonium, for both the music and the choreography felt like a full-blown assault on their senses. After that fateful performance, Stravisnky’s seminal score took a prominent life of its own, redefining and shaping the performing arts of the 20th-century; Nijinsky’s choreography, on the other hand, was permanently lost.
The current incarnation of Le Sacre, with which the Mariinsky opened its program, is a result of meticulous investigative research by American dancer-scholar Millicent Hodson. It took her nearly 16 years to put together fragments of information and clues from the few surviving pieces of evidence (photographs, annotated scores, sketches and recollections of artists) and reconstruct Nijinsky’s choreography (or an approximation of it) for the Joffrey Ballet in 1987. The Mariinksy Ballet first performed this remake in 2003 (Millicent Hodson diary of working with the Mariinsky) and revived it in 2012.
Rooted in Slavic folklore, Le Sacre du Printemps depicts a pagan rite of prayer and worship in pre-Christian Russia. At the heart of the piece is a primeval ritual that celebrates the return of springtime and culminates in the self-sacrifice of a young maiden to appease the gods and ensure the fertility of the land.
From beginning to end, the stage is flooded with vibrant colors and frenetic movement as masses of dancers, dressed in bright stylized folkloric grab in white, red, brown and blue, move about the stage in circular clusters, their feet pounding the ground and hands punching the air in brutal excitement. Their angular and stabbing movements reflect the pulsating rhythms and wild outbursts of the music.
The dance has two distinctive acts. The first part takes place during daytime, with the tribe members cavorting, fighting and praying. The second starts when darkness covers the sky and a chorus of maidens in colorful dress, their hair arranged in long braids, enters the stage in a swirling vortex. They move in a vicious loop until one girl falls to the ground. When she gets up on her feet, her sisters push her to the center of the circle. She is the chosen one, both a victim and a star of their deadly ceremony. At first, she remains motionless, standing in a stone-like stillness; then she throws herself into a violent frenzy of a dance, jumping, whirling and spinning as if self-possessed, her body jerking from side to side, her hands flying in spasmodic salutes until it’s all over and her lifeless body hits the ground and is lifted to the night sky like a totem of triumph and death.
Nijinsky’s relentless movements posed a real challenge for the company’s dancers. The opening night cast struggled with rhythm and timing, never quite able to keep up with the staccato pulse of the music. Yet Daria Pavlenko, in the role of the Chosen One, was very effective in her unsettling solo, dancing with intensity and a sense of inevitability.
A few days of rehearsals definitely helped: the Friday night ensemble fared much better. Their flat-footed dance-macabre perfectly echoed the incessant sound and beat of Stravinsky’s blazing score and unleashed the ferocious energy of the piece. Anastasia Petushkova brought heart-stopping poignancy to her role as the prey.
The next two dances on the program, Le Spectre de la Rose and The Swan, paid homage to Michel Fokine, a famous Mariinsky alumnus and the foremost choreographer of his time.
Le Spectre is a perfect example of Fokine’s creative principle that choreography should convey emotions and translate theatrical meaning of dance in a direct and expressive manner, without extraneous embellishments and virtuosic tricks. Set to Carl Maria von Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance,” this fleeting ballet brims with lyricism and romantic feelings. (The inspired performance of Nijinsky in the title role sealed the ballet’s success in 1911; and his famous leap out of the open window in the final scene became the most celebrated moment of the work.)
On opening night, Kristina Shapran and Vladimir Shklyarov wonderfully re-created the ballet’s poetic atmosphere. A raven-haired belle, Shapran is an extraordinarily gifted young ballerina. Exquisitely built, with a slender, willowy physique and a doll-beautiful face, she possesses a glorious classical line, supple body and expressive limbs. Her technique is nearly flawless and she is a sensitive, genuine artist. There is a soft, delicate quality in her expressive style of movement, which captivates the audience from the first moment the ballerina enters the stage. She marvelously rendered her role of a young debutante who returns from a ball, overwhelmed with excitement and intoxicated with love. In her evanescent duet with the Spectre, she danced with delightful naturalness and grace.
Shklyarov is one of the brightest stars in the company’s male roster. A principal dancer since 2011, he is an immensely engaging dancer, with solid and effortless technique and handsome looks. As the Spectre, dressed in a red costume decorated with rose petals and wearing a matching headpiece, he was as light and spritely as a fleeting scent – a mystical apparition who visits the young girl in her dream. The plasticity of his body and his flower-like, fluid arm gestures were amazing, as were his soaring leaps and whirling pirouettes.
Shapran reprised her splendid performance on Friday night with young Korean-born dancer, Kimin Kim. Kim, unfortunately, was less than inspiring as the Spectre, his technique lacking polish and finesse.
The Mariinsky’s prima ballerina, the 42-year-old Uliana Lopatkina, is universally adored by Russian audiences. She is a ballet icon in St. Petersburg, where her dancing is the epitome of everything great about classical ballet. Watching her performance of The Swan (also known as The Dying Swan) – a celebrated solo which Fokine created as an improvisatory pièce d’occasion for Anna Pavlova in 1907 – was to witness a work of living art.
Lopatkina is very tall and slim, with amazingly long arms and legs. When she raises her endless arms to the sky or unfolds them in a space-hugging way, the shapes she creates with her beautifully expressive limbs are spellbinding. She is a highly intelligent dancer, inhabiting her roles to the fullest and taking her audiences on a journey filled with generous soul and heart.
Hers was a glorious Swan – a proud creature with strong, expansive wing-span and erect body, floating onstage without a trace of distress or impending doom. Lopatkina’s dancing was subtle, affecting and completely devoid of the sentimentality and over-the-top histrionics which too often mar the performances of this solo. At the end, after one spasmodic flutter of her arms, she slowly folded her body in a sorrowful heap, leaving the audience stunned and in awe of the emotional power of her dancing.
On Friday night, Yekaterina Kondaurova’s performance of the same solo brought the audience to their feet. Her dance was one of pure lyricism and melancholy, her movements artfully expressive and poignantly tragic. She created a poetic image of an expiring life force – a heartbreaking reflection on life and death.
The program’s concluding dance brought a welcome uplift and an exhilarating exclamation point to the evening. A confection by Marius Petipa, Paquita Grand Pas is a sparkling showcase of classical dancing accompanied by lilting melodies by Ludwig Minkus. It unfolds as a seemingly endless, yet endlessly enjoyable, cavalcade of bubbling solos, duets and ensembles. Like a tonic on a sunny day, this ballet lifts the spirit and makes hearts sing with joy.
On opening night Lopatkina was the ballet’s reigning queen, dancing the principal role with royal grandeur and wonderful élan. An assured partner and attractive dancer, Yevgeny Ivanchenko was her noble escort. Nadezhda Batoeva, Yana Selina and Filipp Stepin excelled in a vivacious pas de trois. Among the other soloists, Anastasia Matvienko made a particular impression in her variation.
Oxana Skorik’s performance of the leading part on Friday felt somewhat reserved and timid despite the assured support from Ivanchenko.
In all, this was a tremendously entertaining and well-received program; but at the same time it left an unsettling impression that the Russian company is holding on to its eminent past with all its might, relying heavily on well-worn staples – particularly in their programming for their Washington seasons – and demonstrating very little diversity of choreographic choices and styles. Granted, it’s always a pleasure to see the Mariinsky dancers showing off their trademark classical technique in the traditional repertory, but some variety in the future would not hurt.