by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2011 by Leigh Witchel
- “Coppelia” American Ballet Theatre (Osipova/Simkin)
- “Anna Karenina” Mariinsky Ballet (Lopatkina/Smekalov)
- “Carmen,” “Symphony in C” Mariinsky Ballet (Vishneva/Smekalov, et al.)
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
June 20, 2011
Natalia Osipova’s portrayal of Swanilda with American Ballet Theatre was the closest she’s come to self-caricature.
It was not a bad job. With Daniil Simkin as her Franz, she projected all the way to the back of the enormous opera house. But her full-throttle Swanilda was all fortissimo with no moderation. She’s also collected a trove of Osipovisms – an uplifted head and open-mouthed grin; a little hesitation before a full-tear run to her next position with her weight flirtatiously tilted forward – and they were all there.
Frederic Franklin’s staging, based on his recollections of the Ballets Russes’ version, is restrained choreographically, emphasizing the story over the steps. Osipova didn’t over-embellish, but was champing at the bit in every variation; every jump was at maximum elevation. A circle of jumps in Act 1 turned into a contest with Simkin. Osipova won, and she outjumped him in the third act as well.
Her Swanilda in Act 2 was self-centered and borderline cruel. She dropped out of her impersonation of Coppélia several times to comment on the situation to the audience. When Dr. Coppelius (Roman Zhurbin) first brought her out from the curtained alcove and turned his back; she didn’t even bother to check if Franz, drugged and unconscious a few feet away, was all right. Her only concern was enjoying her mischief – a cartoon Swanilda.
When all was set right in Act 3 the couple’s apology to Dr. Coppelius seemed by rote; at the same moment on opening night of the run, Xiomara Reyes and Ivan Vasiliev seemed honestly impelled by kindness.
Even if he lost the jumping competition to Osipova, Franz is a good role for Simkin. As in “The Bright Stream,” he’s an amiable, natural comedian. He’s also so young looking it’s easy to ascribe his unfaithfulness to inexperience, as well as mistaking the doll for a human.
We’ve had the luck this season of a procession of great ballerinas at Lincoln Center, and Osipova’s already earned her spot in the current pantheon. And each ballerina has her bag of shticks. It’s easy for Osipova to dance Swanilda on autopilot – it’s not indelibly owned by her as Kitri, yet it isn’t for her the artistic challenge that Giselle is. It’s up to her to remain more than the sum of her tropes.
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
July 13, 2011 evening
It’s a thrill for New York to get a rare glimpse of Ulyana Lopatkina. With autumn-colored hair aflame in chestnut, she’s tall, statuesque and authoritative even when she’s being driven off her leg in a mispartnered turn.
The most striking thing about the Mariinsky ballerina is how calm her body is – particularly the metaphoric center at the solar plexus – the area where dancers visualize all movement as initiating. She radiates security and stillness like an aura, even in the midst of the hysteria of Alexei Ratmansky’s boiled-down adaptation of Tolstoy’s domestic tragedy.
Lopatkina is in many ways the doppelganger to Diana Vishneva – the Mariinsky ballerina with whom New York is currently most familiar. Vishneva is an extrovert who projects outward; Lopatkina draws everything into her – a vortex where all of the emotions in the theater converge. In tragedies, Vishneva explodes. Lopatkina’s suffering is internal; she implodes.
One of her most subtle and powerful moments as Karenina happened when out of duty to her family she rejected Yuri Smekalov’s Vronsky from her sickbed. The smallest gesture from her outstretched palm was enough to stop him in his tracks and send him reeling.
Smekalov, a former Eifman dancer whose height and partnering ability landed him all over the repertory during the engagement, has similar long limbed proportions to Lopatkina, but how differently they move. He’s snakelike – his body moves in pieces as if from nodes rather than a center. Islom Baimuradov was effective as the remote Karenin. He was mismatched to Lopatkina physically – she seemed to tower over him – and his affection was limited to a proffered arm.
Ratmansky’s ballet, made last year, moves the narrative along in ways that recall Cranko or MacMillan; that could be either direct influence or similar sources. Karenina has a coup de foudre when she spies Vronsky at the ball – an echo of the Capulet ball in “Romeo and Juliet,” and the défilé of St. Petersburg society through the racetrack gates recalls the entry to the ball. Ratmansky adds depth by placing an intricate series of dancing quartets in the background behind the gates.
There is also a duel as in “Onegin,” but Cranko gives more variety to Tatiana and ballerinas have had several decades to add nuance. Tolstoy doesn’t give Karenina much respite either, but she is tortured from the moment we see her until her suicide. Lopatkina was magnetic and convincing, but there was little variation. Ratmansky has so many shadings of wit; but suffering only comes in black.
Shchedrin gave him less to work with than Tolstoy. If Anna suffered from beginning to end, so did the score, with no letup. There was no idyllic moment where she had even a taste of happiness. Ratmansky tried against the flowering trees and canals of Venice, but the music rumbled despairingly in the background.
The designer, Mikael Melbye, worked interestingly using lighter, translucent fabric as parts of period costumes to make them move expressively, but he threw in the towel at a climactic theater-going scene when Karenina showed up in bloody red as the proverbial scarlet woman amidst the pale gentry.
We all got the point. The train station is just a short distance down the road.
“Carmen Suite” “Symphony in C”
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
July 15, 2011
There’s a gulf between Russian taste and ours. If they consider “Carmen” dramatic and theatrical, it looks tasteless from here, but zesty enough to be fun.
The abstraction of Bizet’s opera was made by Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso in 1967 for Maya Plisetskaya at the Bolshoi. Her husband, Shchedrin, contributed the score from Bizet’s themes. The action takes place in an expressionistic bullring with high chairs perched atop the periphery.
The cast is seated above, dressed in parti-colored costumes. Right in the center of it all is Diana Vishneva, wearing a blood red leotard trimmed with lace and fringe, and vamping for all she’s worth.
Plisetskaya was 42 at the premiere and the part is an acting role more than a virtuoso one. Vishneva’s at home in a diva role. She’s strong, confident and completely assured in what she’s doing – knowing how to sell it – and herself.
Alonso’s ballet is even more abstracted and episodic than Ratmansky’s with dances for Carmen, Don Jose, Escamillo and Zuniga (the last two don’t have names, but are labeled the Torero and Corregidor) and a female fate figure in a black unitard who stands in for just about everything else.
The ballet uses a glitzy, effective theatricality. There’s a section that abandons the orchestra for the accompaniment of flamenco handclaps and both Vishneva and Smekalov as Don Jose are at home with opera-sized projections of artifice. As in “Karenina,” Smekalov is effective but crass – but in “The Little Humpbacked Horse,” he and Ratmansky were able to turn that quality into an asset in his unctuous, eely but gleeful performance as the Tsar’s major-domo.
Yevgeny Ivanchenko had an off night as the Torero, having trouble partnering and doing his solo awkwardly. Vishneva sat on a stool, watching him like Apollo judging the muses at pole-dancing.
“Carmen Suite” ain’t great art, and Vishneva is cashing in on her emotions rather than using them, but the ballet got more enjoyably crass as it went on. Smekalov reappeared in a hot pink abbreviated top with long dangly ties at the front and Shchedrin went Calypso, scoring Bizet to marimba.
What the heck. It could be your new favorite bad ballet.
“Symphony in C” was staged for the company in 1996 by Colleen Neary and current coaching is credited to Tatiana Terekhova – and it looks utterly Kirov-ized. The tutus, designed by Irina Press are more opulent with larger skirts and pale accents of brown or silver. The corps de ballet’s lines were impeccable and the music’s tempos were gummy, draining the attack out of the choreography and turning it into a lovely piece of moving sculpture.
The first movement was led by Andrian Fadeev and Alina Somova. Fadeev is too short for Somova, and though she’s weird enough to look paradoxically good in Balanchine, she’s weird in the wrong ways. This movement was at the most glacial tempo of the four, and she led every step with the back of her neck or her chin. Her hyperflexible body offered no resistance, so her extensions looked like the release of a broken spring.
In the second movement, Lopatkina was worth the ticket price alone. The slow tempos were more justifiable, and what stunned again was Lopatkina’s ability to fill and sculpt the phrases. More than “Karenina,” this used her beautiful port de bras and the amazing stillness at her center. During the great series of swoons and falls, her upper back curled to start the movement and it looked exactly as it might in an idealized fantasy – a slow descent where time stopped.
Still, there was plenty that was odd in her idiosyncratic reading. During her solo, Lopatkina didn’t speed up from the slow tempo, and even so seemed to be abbreviating the steps. She was too queenly and stoic as she suffered through the movement with a set jaw, and looked so monumental she might as well have been the Joan Sutherland of ballet.
Vladimir Shklyarov, whose boyish charm and strong technique were a hit in “Horse,” bounded in with Yevgenia Obraztsova in the third movement. She had a sunny disposition and the delicate beauty of Gelsey Kirkland; he was adorable when he wasn’t ignoring her to try and jump even higher – or walking leadenly to his position as if we couldn’t see him if his back was turned. And yet you forgave him, even in the reprise when he kicked his upraised hand on every extension.
In the final movement, Maria Shirinkina was lovely, but too weak and cowardly about the motif turn to à la seconde – but all the women were. Her partner, Alexei Timofeyev, was a jumper like Shklyarov – landing a sideways split within the movement without it seeming egregious, but it turned into a another jumping contest at the reprise, and Shklyarov won.
The reprise was also star-crossed. Lopatkina’s consort Daniil Korsuntsev – an impeccable partner – was unable to make it through a double pirouette.
All in all, a mostly odd, occasionally gorgeous “Symphony in C.” It’s fine to envision a Mariinsky accent to Balanchine, but at minimum you need to bring to the table as much as you take away. As un-Balanchine as her interpretation was, at least Lopatkina did.
copyright © 2011 by Leigh Witchel