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Dramatic Cogency: The Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet
by Karen Webb


Sometime between last weekend, when all the big dailies in the area carried the previews, and Saturday afternoon, the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet cancelled its Saturday matinee of Don Quixote.

How effectively was this little tidbit of information circulated to those who already held tickets to that performance? Let me just say that when I showed up prepared to review not only the previous night's performance but the Saturday matinee and found the doors to the Capitol Theatre locked, I was not alone. With ticket sales so slow that two-thirds of the company's performances had to be cancelled, someone should have at least instructed the box office staff to offer an apology to patrons in this position; what they got was a string of excuses. I've read similar horror stories from other venues, including the Los Angeles audience being locked out till five minutes to curtain because the company was using the stage till then.

So if they come to your neighborhood, be prepared for a few irregularities. But also be prepared for a great bill of fare. “Romantic Ballet Night,” the company's rep bill, underscores the dancers' sheer versatility. Its Chopiniana was brighter and more engaging than many productions seen in the West, its original work The Spirit Ball by director Dmitry Bryantsev had both choreographic and philosophical depth, and the “warhorse” excerpts were as thrilling as they were masterfully executed.

The Stanislavsky influence accounts for the dramatic cogency for which the company strives, and most reviewers in the West have noted this trait. What also stands out is the dancers' sheer musicality, that sometimes-elusive quality that results in movements perfectly fulfilled. They flow with the sense of silk draping a great sculpture: they seem to be in motion even when they are standing still.

The one big technical departure the dancers make with dancers in the West is in the placement of the working leg. In arabesque, for instance, the working leg is a bit off to the side rather than squarely behind the body, which alters the overall sense of line.

The selection of pas de deux for this evening apparently changes from tour to tour. One of the pieces that rescues the bill from being just a showy pas de deux evening is Bryantsev's piece. That it takes a moment to get into the curtain opens on five couples dancing like automotons, or like 10 people moving at odds with reality seems to be intentional. The work, in this sense, is like reading some of Stephen King's early horror stories: he establishes the normal, the tedious, from the outset only to create a better canvas upon which to splash his horrors.

So it is with Bryantsev's piece. From the lackluster opening sequence come splashes of wondrous color. Within the five pas de deux that comprise the main content of the piece, we see what could be love in all its facets, or a single relationship flowering, maturing, and imploding, once by passion destructive in its intensity and once by age. Bryantsev's take on his theme is a portrayal of the human condition in which we strive for perfection, then bungle it once perfection comes within our grasp. And these may simply be takes that are two sides of the same coin.

Perhaps most reflective of the company's dramatic and technical range was ballerina Natalia Ledovskaya, featured in The Spirit Ball as well Chopiniana (aka Les Sylphides) and the baccanalia-like Walpurgisnacht excerpt from Faust. In the first, she was half of a couple whose relationship is about to disintegrate; in the second, she portrayed the main sylph, lyrical and romantic; in the third, she was the most contented and confident of seductresses. And in each, she was perfectly believable.

Also in the spotlight was Oxana Kuzmenko as part of the couple experiencing passion almost self-destructive in its proportions in The Spirit Ball, then returning as Giselle in an excerpt from that ballet's second act. She combines her natural flexibility with astonishing strength and a sense of fluid musicality, making beautiful and important steps that many others simply throw away.

Natalia Krapivina and Georgy Smilevsky get my vote for most enjoyable couple. They portrayed lovers in the first flush of romance in The Spirit Ball, then turned around and shot off fireworks with Gsovsky's trick-filled Grand Pas Classique (in the bill as “Bid Classic Pa” and interpreted elsewhere as being part of a Giselle excerpt the program as written needs some work).

Krapavina holds her balances so well that she seems to have been briefly turned into a statue. Smilevsky's solo variation was a study in precision: even his small jumps like entrechats and brisés were huge, his legs and feet dagger-sharp, his beats perfectly clean. For both technical finesse and virtuosity, I hope one day to see them in Don Quixote.

As for the cast we got for Don Q, it was headed by Kuzmenko as an ebullient Kitri. Any of you who read my stuff know I'm more easily impressed by musicality and maturity by artistry than by pyrotechnics. But even I can admit there are times when you have to acknowledge technical brilliance. Kuzmenko has such brilliance; she also has dramatic and comedic depth, which make her an unusual artist.

What hooked my attention in the Giselle excerpt was her working hundred and eighty degree extension in second. In Don Q, she was able to hit and hold this position even in those big, one-armed overhead lifts that dot the first and last acts. More mind-boggling, though, was what she did with the fouettes in the third-act coda. I thought I had seen every trick in the book used to embellish the “big 32”, doubles, triples, turns with 3/4 or 1-1/8 revolutions so the spot changes on every turn.

Kuzmenko pulled out one I'd never even thought of: fouette, fouette, tour in second, fouette, fouette, tour in second. Sixteen counts of them. And they were flawless and they were beautiful. (She completed the series with a mere perfect 16 singles.) When I think of women dancing ballet, I think more about lower-body strength; strength across the pectoral girdle is something I associate with men. To have seen the two brought together so creatively (try doing sequential turns in second, then pulling into pirouette position if you don't know what I'm talking about) with such style: well, the only reason this memory will ever vacate my memory is if my brain one day seizes up and lets every other memory filed under “dance” filter away to dust.

 

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Edited by Malcolm Tay.

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