The Mariinsky Ballet
“Gala programme”, “Don Quixote”
May 15-17, 2008
by Marc Haegeman
copyright 2008 by Marc Haegeman
Has there ever been a time when the Mariinsky Ballet on tour didn’t look like a company under pressure? That must be ages ago. For years observers have been excusing the absence of truly memorable company performances with the explanation that the dancers are jetlagged, tired and overworked, or covering their disappointment with references to the good old schooling, tradition, and style. But nonetheless, as we know, the Mariinsky is still the Mariinsky, and as in every great company there is always a hidden gem to be found, a flash of brilliance, a second breath, even when the general impression left by these tours is often one of sad artistic neglect.
The five-day engagement at the Lowry in Salford/Manchester, part of yet another rat-race European tour which followed almost immediately after the taxing New York season, was in any case a very low-key event, with embarrassingly empty shows – what did they expect with ticket prices up to £95? – and a company that looked neither particularly inspired nor much inclined to inspire. In spite of a great photo of Uliana Lopatkina on the cover of the souvenir programme, she was never seen anywhere near the quays, nor were many of the other big names. And no matter how impressive the list of biographies, it was essentially a handful of soloists and corps artists who kept the week going. After “Jewels” (which I didn’t see) they brought a gala programme and three performances of “Don Quixote”.
The promised “box of delights for ballet lovers”, as the gala programme was hyped, remained tightly closed for most of the evening. The opening “Chopiniana” was a sour teaser. This is as traditional Mariinsky repertory as you can get. Why didn’t it work then? True, the corps de ballet emits a unique, beguiling quality, but it’s also a fact that this seems to stem more from plasticity than from musicality, while the beauty resides more in the moments of stillness than in movement – or joy of dancing. It looked the ballet “Chopiniana” alright, and brightly lit it was, but on this occasion it remained lifeless as a gallery of statues in a museum. In this respect the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre under Pavel Bubelnikov immediately struck as a killjoy - and in fact would continue to be so for the remainder of the week. Remembering the days of Viktor Fedotov - not even ten years ago - where almost every performance was a gem in that it contributed to shape the dance and provided genuine listening pleasure to the audience on top of that, I suppose this orchestra can still be great. Yet for that it needs a conductor who can keep it together. Maestro Bubelnikov audibly cannot, or he just doesn’t care. The orchestra sounded dull and flat for most of the run and there were countless problems of orchestral balance and harmony. In “Chopiniana” the woodwinds were all over the place, while Bubelnikov drew out some impossibly sluggish tempi enough to defeat any attempt there might have been at natural phrasing on stage.
The soloists in “Chopiniana” were uneven and definitely not your dream cast fit for a gala. Yana Selina was by far the most remarkable of the quartet. She is still listed as coryphée but has been a reliable pillar in the corps de ballet for more than ten years. She danced the ballet countless times as a member of the corps (which is where the other two female soloists of tonight should have been at this point) and her Waltz Girl stood out as a sole lighthouse of understanding and delicious musicality. On the other hand, first soloist Anastasia Kolegova as the Mazurka Girl still seemed locked in the phase of discovering the ballet and any sense of moonlight atmosphere was reduced to the well-known poses, accompanied by a broad smile. All very pretty and nice, but in view of this company’s reputation, quite undistinguished. Evgeny Ivanchenko has been dancing the central role of the Poet for something like ten years now, and bizarrely he still dances it the exact same way as ten years ago. Stiff, cold, mechanical, with a reluctance to let himself go and drift with the music, Ivanchenko is not a romantic dreamer, he is a disconnected sleepwalker. And he is careless as well; in the opening moments of the ballet when the corps is moving downwards, he didn’t even bother to stand in position. Yulia Bolshakova is a young second soloist of whom many seem to think the best. As Prelude Girl she as yet lacked strength and poise, but there is plenty of freshness in her manner and she definitely has charm to boast.
The divertissement section was generally not much to write home about either, unless you wanted to report the weak casting and the indifferent programming. This turned out to be one of those haphazard Mariinsky collections of four pas de deux, hastily prepared and undercast (but then again nearly everybody involved was covering for somebody), and apparently shuffled to create the least possible effect. A routine “Harlequinade” pas de deux, given by a charmless pair Elena Sheshina and Anton Korsakov; an incomplete “Talisman” pas de deux with an off-form Tatiana Tkachenko and Mikhail Lobukhin trying very hard to prove he can pull off the bravura; an outstanding “Grand Pas Classique” with Viktoria Tereshkina and Leonid Sarafanov, both managing to resurrect something of the old glory and style; unfortunately followed by what must be the gothic version of Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” by Alina Somova and again Korsakov (who made his own choreography), liable to erase everything you may ever have loved about the Kirov.
The closing “Kingdom of the Shades” featured Ekaterina Kondaurova (replacing the scheduled Lopatkina), one of the hardest-working youngsters of the moment. Her Nikiya was an exercise in hard-edged physicality, with some strong positions, but with very little to connect them. Having never danced a full-length “La Bayadère” as Nikiya, she needs to discover the character and above all polish her style. A sense of poetry might even come with time, although as with many of the current youngsters in this company there is a jarring roughness in the way she attacks the choreography. Dynamics of dance are interpreted as aggressiveness, and Kondaurova appears to be one of the first Mariinsky soloists who actually look more at home in Forsythe than in the traditional classics. Although less obviously quirky than Somova, Kondaurova is also one of those gothic maidens who seem bent on reducing movement to vertical lines. Accents are placed differently and it stutters rather than it sings. A performance supposed to be the climax of the evening, it was not.
Ivanchenko was his usual numbingly competent self for one more showing. It’s always worthwhile to see the Mariinsky shades snaking down the slopes of the Himalayas. Even when not in their best form – as they weren’t here – the sheer beauty of the scene is unparalleled. Olesya Novikova and Nadezhda Gonchar were fine as soloist shades, although I couldn’t have cared less for Alina Somova’s skyscraping act.
The “Don Quixote” on the final night was overall the most enjoyable performance of this Salford gig I’ve seen, especially when an ill-at-ease Anton Korsakov became after the 2nd Act without warning Leonid Sarafanov, who had been watching the first half from the audience. In its present touring guise, with a heavily truncated 2nd Act and rather unappealing costumes (those tea cosy-shaped tutus in the last Act), it comes nowhere near the sense of integrity and exhilaration generated by the current Bolshoi production of the ballet, yet the company finally seemed to settle down after the first workouts, the dancers appeared more focused and found pleasure in performing. Some of the supporting cast, like Soslan Kulaev, obviously new to the role of Gamache and Konstantin Zverev, another promising debutant acting as a last-minute replacement for the injured Islom Baimuradov as Espada, improved with each performance. The cast also featured indestructible values like Vladimir Ponomarev as the don and Polina Rassadina as Mercedes. And the gypsy dance opening the 2nd Act is with artists like Rafael Musin and Alisa Sokolova still a highly exciting moment of Soviet character dancing. Yet the evening belonged to Olesya Novikova’s excellent Kitri. I remember Novikova’s remarkable debut in the role, five years ago, when she had to jump in at short notice, and the progress she made since then is considerable. She was a green corps member then, she is a ballerina now. Pretty, vivacious, she shaped the character with genuine affection as well as superb dancing (her variation showed some terrific staccato pointe-work and just about the right dose of abandon) and compared to some of her colleagues her performance remained relatively mannerism-free. In the Dream sequence she convincingly adapted her plasticity and even if the variation wasn’t without some rough edges here and there, the overall effect was one of classical grandeur and soft authority: Novikova invested the moment with ballerina quality, not with star quality. The final pas de deux with a brilliantly warmed-up Sarafanov was the appropriate festive conclusion of the show.
Viktoria Tereshkina, the most recently promoted principal of the troupe, may now be the most accomplished technician among the youngsters, but that doesn’t necessarily make her an interesting Kitri. Her 1st Act was indeed all about technique, solid and polished, but the character never really came alive, in spite of Sarafanov’s invitingly puckish Basilio. The Dream scene was grandly danced, although eventually it became a rather fierce statement and the different variation she had chosen, culminating in diagonals of grand jetés, seemed out of place in this context. Unlike Novikova, she remained more or less similar throughout the ballet and there is a noticeable lack of spontaneity which seems to pull her back in about everything she does. Even the final pas de deux, which in fact didn’t differ a lot from her “Grand Pas Classique” the night before, remained rather measured. Of course, she too made substantial progress compared to a few years back when she used to stumble through some of the ballets. Now she can do the steps alright, but much beyond them she seems as yet unable to go.
Basilio might be Leonid Sarafanov’s safest role of all the great classics. His lack of weight is less of an issue here and his infectious joy at performing can shine through every step, leap and gesture. Dramatically he improved a great deal and he knows how to make the most of the comedy scenes - the mock suicide is truly funny in his hands. Only for this he would deserve most plaudits of all the Mariinsky leading men seen during this stint. On top of that he is also a prodigious virtuoso, and more importantly, he seems to control his technique better, while as a partner he became a lot more reliable. He didn’t really succeed in breaking the ice with Tereshkina’s Kitri, but with Novikova he immediately created a rapport.
Alina Somova’s appearance as Queen of the Dryads brimmed with clutter and affectation. She derails with youthful confidence everything we value in Vaganova classicism and is one of those dancers who seem to bear their lack of musicality as a sign of star quality – and get cheered for it, too. Moving in unison with Kitri was beyond her care, but she gave new meaning to a jumping sack of bones and did win the contest of the ugliest grand jeté outside of Trocks territory. By comparison, Yulia Bolshakova who danced the last evening, looked a marvel of classical understatement and control, and of course someone like Somova places dancers like Tereshkina and Novikova in a completely different light. Valeria Martinyuk also noticeably improved since last year. She seems more relaxed and even if her dancing occasionally reveals some hard edges, mainly in an effort to kick up her legs, she made a delightfully naughty Cupid.
It’s often repeated what an amazing pool of talent the Mariinsky is. There is no denying it is. But it leads to incomprehensible situations, like casting a superb soloist like Vasily Scherbakov in a grotesque role for a mere two minutes as an innkeeper in “Don Quixote” (and not even Kitri’s father, but the second one appearing in the tavern scene). After all, the Mariinsky is still the Mariinsky.
Photo: Olesya Novikova and Leonid Sarafanov in "Don Quixote."