Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet

July 18, 2011

Metropolitan Opera House, NYC
Lincoln Center Festival

July 11–16, 2011

Alina Somova as Tsar Maiden and Roman Skripkin as Tsar in Ratmansky’s
The Little Humpbacked Horse. Photo by N. Razina, Courtesy LCF.

Three years ago the Mariinsky Ballet came to New York with a program ranging from Petipa to Forsythe. This time the famed Russian company did not bring anything as classic as Petipa or as radical as Forsythe. Instead it brought two new productions of old stories, both with choreography by Alexei Ratmansky and music by Rodion Shchedrin. These two full-lengths, both based on stories familiar to Russian audiences, are opposites: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a heavy drama, whereas The Little Humpbacked Horse is a delightful (if inane) fairy tale. A third program paired Balanchine’s Symphony in C with Alberto Alonso’s Carmen Suite from 1967. The Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra played live for all three programs.

Anna Karenina
is darkly extravagant but at the same time contemporary in its look. Wendall Harrington’s evocative video projections recreate a 19th-century feeling, with the falling snow particularly magical. A huge train lumbers onto the stage, representing both the beginning and the end of the tragic events.

The score is kind of a disaster because it’s so shrill. Time and again, a slow swarm-like sound builds to a crescendo, so every scene is dramatic in the same way. The music overstates, to its own detriment, as when Vronsky, the love object, enters a party to a huge, bombastic fanfare. Nothing subtle here. The only time there’s a hint of melody is during a lovely, sorrowful duet for Anna and Vronksy after she realizes she has lost custody of her son.

The glory of the company is still its women dancers. Diana Vishneva, spectacular in her beauty, made a ravishing Anna Karenina. In the last scene of the first act, she rushes toward Vronsky with such fever, and their impact of their bodies smashing together so head-on, that there is no question about their mutual sexual craving. These two can’t stay away from each other. Yekaterina Kondaurova, also gorgeous in the role, was less desirous, less sensual, but also less of a diva and more simpatico.

The problem was that the male dancers who played Vronksy (I saw both Andrei Yermakov and Kostantin Zverev) were bloodless. (I found myself wishing it were ABT’s Marcelo Gomes, just to get some real male passion into the mix.)

One of the few scenes where choreography and music combined to make an impact was the horse race, where about 12 male dancers portrayed jockeys. Their hurtling chassées, cabrioles, and shifting formations, along with the thickening music that includes accelerating clip clops, created a mounting excitement.

Another affecting scene was the dream sequence in which Anna cannot decide between her two men. She does a swan dive into both their arms. This scene ends in humiliation for her husband, Karenin. What follows is a brilliant use of video. Four projected faces loom over him, their eyes looking down on him, shaming him to the point that their gaze seems to push him over. Islom Baimuradov as Karenin had pride, stealth, and wit, and you felt his vulnerability in scenes like this.

Alberto Alonso made Carmen for Bolshoi star Maya Plisetskaya in 1967. (It was also danced by Alicia Alonso, the choreographer’s sister-in-law, in Cuba.) Shchedrin, Plisetskaya’s husband, arranged Bizet’s music for the occasion, and Boris Messerer designed a visually stunning set: a bullring, with 10 high-backed chairs above, looking down on the action.

Ulyana Lopatkina as Carmen has a certain pride and willfulness but nowhere near the power or sexual charisma of Plisetskaya. (Just look at this clip of Plisetskaya’s Carmen and see how she uses her hips.)

There are so many straight leg lifts in the choreography that the dancers appear rigid. It took a long time for Daniil Korsuntsev José to warm up to Lopatkina because the choreography for him is so upright (or, um, uptight). Even in his slow solo (to the heavenly Bizet Intermezzo) following their first duet, he doesn’t really soften or respond to this beautiful music; he’s too busy getting the pirouettes in. Lopatkina was also too conscious of her steps, and there’s no sense of pleasure in her own body. When she lifts a shoulder, it’s merely an isolation exercise, not a seduction. When she and the Torero get together, it’s slow and calculated, so you don’t get the feeling of an unstoppable, fatal attraction between them. When José stabs Carmen, she droops in his arms with a now-soft body, and it’s almost a relief because her body has been so rigid.

And talking about fate, Alonso’s concept is embodied by a woman dancer in a hooded black unitard who shadows Carmen. A bit hokey. His choreography has none of the rapture or daring, or outright sexual moves one see’s in Roland Petit’s 1949 version.

Sticking with Bizet, the Mariinsky paired Carmen with Balanchine’s Symphony in C. Those pancake tutus that the Russians favor, which are too wide, too stiff, and too revealing, almost ruined it for me. But the dancing was at times divine. Kondaurova in the slow movement was, simply put, spiritual. She filled out the time with her long arms and legs with a certain majesty. The way she lifted her arms so her partner could circle them was breathtaking. (It made me envision her in Mozartiana.) Yevgenia Obraztsova and Vladimir Shklyarov were sprightly and charming in the third, grand jeté movement. A very young dancer named Maria Shirinkina performed the last, fast section, which has stamping pointework, with a fresh energy.

The Little Humpbacked Horse
, dating back to 1864, has a convoluted plot that’s hard to follow. But at least it’s clear that Ivan the Fool is the hero, and the tsar is a fool. The set design is playfully modernist, with big blocks and circles of primary colors.

Ratmansky’s choreography thrice refers to Balanchine’s Prodigal Son: first, in its opening scene with the bearded father and three children; second, when the Tsar Maiden raises her fingers behind her head just as the Siren does; and third, when the sea creatures form a seated gallery just like the goons (drinking companions). Like them, skull-capped, they menacingly reach out to the protagonist. This wayward son, however, is more fortunate. He eventually wins a bride, a kingdom, and a happy reunion with his father.

Alexander Sergeyev was terrific as Ivan: appealingly skinny and brash, humble and spunky. At the end, so happy to have won the Tsar Maiden, he starts a bumbling solo (although with wonderful twisty steps), stops, thinks, and tries again. On the third round he hits it right: a series of à la second turns studded with attitude turns. But those befuddled moments were just as wonderful as the dazzling pirouettes.

Alina Somova as Tsar Maiden brought a charmed and charming presence. She had an endearing sweetness that went nicely with her filigree port de bras.

Of course, the abiding forte of the Mariinsky is the arms, in particular the upper arms of the women. When they go into high fifth, the upper arms are not just framing the face, but also opening up, as though the wind is pushing them.

This week of the Mariinsky at Lincoln Center Festival gave us a chance to see what Ratmansky cooks up when he’s out of our sight. As we already know from his Nutcracker and Bright Stream, he’s terrific with light-hearted ballets. He gives sharp, rhythmic detail to even the most buffoonish characters and makes us love them. Some of his group scenes—although nothing in either of these ballets for the Mariinsky rivals his fantastic snow blizzard in Nutcracker—are masterfully crafted. While Anna Karenina was not as stirring as it should have been, I think he was saddled with difficult music that replaced melody with texture. But in Humpbacked Horse, as in Bright Stream, the audience walks out of the theater happy—almost giddy— and that is a major accomplishment.

Although Ratmansky is known for doing wonders within the ballet vocabulary, some of my favorite moments happen when he diverges. In Humpbacked Horse, Ivan and the Tsar Maiden wedge into their ballet phrases a little jivin’ finger snapping—just a split second of indulging in an anachronistic jazzy beat together. This brief moment lets you know that the couple has a future together. They are on each other’s wavelength.