The Mariinsky Ballet
The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
January 30, 2014
by George Jackson
copyright 2014 by George Jackson
Dancing sweeps through Konstantin Sergeyev’s stagings of the classics. When the curtain rises for Act 1 of his “Swan Lake”, what impinges on the eye are men’s legs, long ones that are ready. Action swells from incipient to urgent as a bright shaft of female figures permeates the stately colonnade of male forms. By the time the final curtain descends on a flock of women transforming from swan to human shape and on the lovers’ embrace, the pulse of the dancing has lodged itself in our memories and been assured a future. Between beginning and end, it was dance – classical, character and amalgams of all degrees – that crowded out much detailed story telling, pantomime, parading, posing. Sergeyev glosses over these diverse, distinct activities that used to make up ballet in the 19th Century when “Swan Lake” was first conceived. Likely, his 1950 setting of steps and stance is also less compartmentalized in time and space than were his predecessors’ productions. Sergeyev doesn’t avoid drama on a big scale – the evildoers’ glee and the hero’s despair as deception is revealed at the betrothal ball, or the ultimate hand-to-hand struggle in which evil expires painfully. Yet, such climactic moments are over almost instantly. They work effectively because of the moods, the feelings, the urges that dancers can bring to the dancing. For this third of the Mariinsky’s seven “Swan Lake” performances in Washington, the corps de ballet was at its most brilliant and the ballerina, Olga Esina, was a guest I’d welcome back repeatedly.
As the story’s heroine, Odette – part woman, part swan - Esina moved with clarity and supple continuity. No matter how finely wrought each of her steps, she built them into phrases that conveyed the character’s longing to be rid of her curse, her yearning to escape and be her true self. She sensed that the hunter who had almost sent his arrow into her heart was her hope for becoming human again. Although I missed the pantomiming about this that Sergeyev has omitted, Esina did much to convey its sense. Often the tempi of Tchaikovsky’s music for the Odette role’s great adagio are made monotonously slow. Esina and conductor Alexey Repnikov treated the timing aptly, it was as natural as breathing. To portray the story’s villainess, Odile - the Odette imposter – Esina danced also with her eyes. She relished being evil. The looks she shot her victim Siegfried – prince, hunter, deceived hero – could have hypnotized him as much as did her dancing. She was a sharp and precise Odile although she could have given her turns a more expansive freedom.
Timur Askerov, the Siegfried, started a bit shakily with the few pirouettes-in-attitude he’s given. The initially low-key dancing he is called on to do, his walking, his behavior, were those of a nice young man not necessarily of princely rank. As partner for Odette in the great adagio, Askerov was fully competent. Odile spurred him on to some fine, high leaps. Askerov, though, did not set the stage on fire.
The role of Joker, a Soviet era addition to the cast of characters, is helpful in moving the story along through its two party scenes. That he is involved in so many of the dances makes them seem a less haphazard sequence of divertissements. But his peskiness, his pranks throughout, become as predictably annoying as the signature conclusion to his solos - always sinking to kneel with a shrug and hands flippant. In this “third” cast, Alexy Nedviga, did much to make us tolerant of the Joker. His clown showed an underlying generosity of character, and by de-emphasizing his variations’ similar endings, Nedviga highlighted the variety of steps he actually dances. Most other roles were taken by the same dancers as on opening night, including Andrei Yermakov as the magician Rothbart. This evil doers’s dancing really challenges that of the prince. Sergeyev’s staging of the national dances – Spanish, Neapolitan, Hungarian, Polish mazurka – brings out their classical elegance while letting their distinctive spiciness show.
The sets (by Igor Ivanov) and costumes (by Galina Solovyova), which I suspect are of more recent design than 1950, have a spaciousness appropriate for this most Wagnerian of Russia’s historic ballets. An almost surreal luminosity emanates from the two lakeside scenes. Olga Esina is and isn’t a guest dancer with the Mariinsky. She’s a graduate of the company’s affiliated school, the Vaganova Academy, who became a company member but then went to Austria, where she now dances regularly with the Vienna Sate Ballet. Watching her (on the Internet’s YouTube) is particularly worthwhile in the 2012 telecast of the Vienna Opera Ball as she negotiates Pierre Lacotte choreography and is partnered by Kirill Kourlaev.