Kirov Ballet

"The Nutcracker "

by Dani

December 24, 2003
Kennedy Center, Washington D.C.

I was a bit worried going into last night’s performance at the Kennedy Center’s newly renovated Opera House, knowing full well I would be writing a review about two classics held on high and revered for all the ages – The Kirov Ballet and "The Nutcracker". My experience with "The Nutcracker" to date has not been a resounding success. Previous productions left me bored and nearly nodding off – I found them unimaginative and figured I just didn't get the charm and enchantment of the story. I was just not a fan of "The Nutcracker".

Turns out, however, that I need not have worried at all. The moment the curtain went up and I got a look at Mihael Chemiakin’s set, a smile lit my face and I sat up a bit taller in my seat. I was positively fascinated in the first five seconds of the show. Think Tim Burton's ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ -- very remininscent of that style, feel and flavor with its ghoulish but friendly, dark and twisted caricatures and set pieces, this design truly lent an air of excitement and anticipation. I felt sure this was not going to be the standard fare of Nutcrackers I’d come across before. Chemiakin, who designed the entire production, set, and costumes must have had some fun in devising this because one got the sense there would be mischievous goings on everywhere just by the look of things. I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the dancers as there was so much to see in the set design.

In Act I, which starts off at the StahlBaum’s house (Vladimir Ponomarev and Elena Bazhenova) everything is very caricature-like: comical but somewhat scary. For instance the disconcerting wild animal trophy heads on the walls – sort of mythical beasts which have been crossed with your home-grown garden variety – the stuff of silly nightmares. The Christmas tree was as tall as the set, made to look of metal and had the form of a coat rack with skeletal branches that sprung out madly at the bottom. The top of the tree was a face, but not of an angel - again I can only think of a Tim Burton rendering to describe it – wacky, weird and wonderful. The interior of the Stahlbaum’s home itself was a cross between The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and one of the really old versions of A Christmas Carol; it was a touch foreboding and haunting but with a sense of whim and humor.

This theme was carried out further in a scene towards the end of Act I where the Nutcracker (Kirill Simonov) and Masha (Natalya Sologub) find themselves in an old churchyard and cemetery, made spookier by unsettling cocoons which hang down everywhere. It is here that 'The Snowstorm' Pas d'Ensemble is danced (my favorite of the show). The Snow Flakes enter, dressed in black twirling skirts with hundreds of small white pom-poms dotting their costumes. As snow falls heavily onto the stage, the snowflake dancers swirl around with a vengeance and then at other times they just stand still with their hands fluttering beautifully, faster and faster, nearly flying away from their bodies. The Queen of the Snow Flakes (the magnificent Daria Pavlenko) makes her entrance and she has these mesmerizingly beautiful eyes which search out each audience member, making it impossible to focus anywhere but on her. Pavlenko’s Queen has an icy and commanding allure but one warms to her spell without hesitation.

Another wonderful character was the Drosselmeyer played by Anton Adassinsky. He looked exactly like Nosferatu – the one out of that original black and white movie. Hunched back, bald and oddly shaped head, spindly legs, dark circles under the eyes…he was deliciously fiendish and you never knew which way he was going to swing on things. He was creepy and cool and often one would be drawn to watch what he was up to even when he wasn’t the focal point. You wouldn’t want to turn your back on that one.

In Act II the set design for the Confiturenburg or Sweets Shop – was muted tones of teal blue, shades of greens, some pink but all very dusty shades – no bright Candy Land colors. The set for this scene reminded me of 'It’s A Small World' meets Munchkinland in the Wizard of Oz. It was lots of fun and again so much to gaze upon with wonder.

Chemiakin’s costumes fitted in nicely with the set colors, theme and moods throughout. All earth tone with a lovely duskiness and old European flare. The costumes for the ‘little rats’, the sweeties, flowers and such (all played by local children) were quite cute, and the Bees Pas de Trois was fun.

The best performance was by Daria Pavlenko in a second solo, the ‘Eastern Dance’. She danced a snake slithering up out of the woven basket of a snake charmer. In a shimmery, greenish, smoothly scaled unitard and a very small bejeweled serpent’s head as a headpiece, those amazing eyes of hers never seem to leave the audience no matter how her body twisted and contorted in boneless manner. Entrancing the audience, she seemed to slither closer to us, beckoning us with her sultry and fluid undulations yet she barely moved from her space. Her quiet intensity was matched by no one else in their performance that night. She stole the entire show in that one short solo. I would really love to see her dance something far more compelling as I can only imagine if she is so spellbinding in two short solos, she must be quite brilliant in a full evening’s work.

There were a few hiccups at this performance. Difficulty with a couple set pieces and during the pas de deux near the end of the programme, the Nutcracker Prince, danced by Andrey Merkuriev, appeared to drop Sologub. Nothing major but enough that some in the audience pulled in their breath. While there were several crowd pleasing leaps and spins, it wasn’t really a classic dance heavy production, so it’s hard to comment much on that aspect other than I enjoyed all the choreography (done by Kirill Simonov) and the company as a whole was a marvelous sight to behold. The dancing all very lovely, the Opera House Orchestra, as always, right on and of course, the magnificent score.

One last thing, and I hesitate to mention it because I have only seen the Kirov twice. The Kirov’s dancers have seemingly flawless technique and execution. They look powerful, commanding and beautiful. Their bodies are expressive and they do create a stunning visual experience. But I don’t see or feel any real emotion in their faces or even their bodies – expression yes, but not emotion. Again, I have only seen them twice, so maybe I need to see them a couple more times in more dramatic ballets. Or if that is their style, then perhaps I am being too monolithic. Perhaps it is my inexperience in watching dance or my personal preference that tremendous acting be coupled with dancing so that I too am pulled up and feel a part of the experience and not just sitting back, watching and enjoying. Not to say that it is not enough just to sit back and truly enjoy a performance. I just seem to enjoy it more when I feel the dancer's emotion.

No matter. I would go back to see The Kirov in a heartbeat. Prior to last night I think I might have preferred watching paint dry to watching another remake of "The Nutcracker". But I do believe The Kirov have made a believer out of me. And with Matthew Bourne’s "Nutcracker" in my future next week, who knows, I may actually become a fan of this holiday classic.

Edited by Catherine Pawlick.

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