Kirov Ballet

'La Bayadere'

by Jeff Kuo

October 15, 17, and 19, 2003 -- Kodak Theater, Hollywood, CA

The grand Kirov Ballet brought that old Mariinsky warhorse, "La Bayadere," to a well heeled crowd at the Kodak. Is it possible for southern California to have become jaded by the veritable parade of "Bayaderes" these past years -- Paris Opera Ballet, the Bolshoi, and Universal Ballet? Judging from this production, I doubt it.

The design credited to Adelph Knapp, Konstantin Ivanov, Pyotr Lambin and Orest Allegri are tasteful and evocative -- in everyway a great improvement over the virtually proletarian sets the Bolshoi sported last year though not anywhere in the same class as the Frigerio sets of the Paris Opera Ballet. Likewise, the costumes by Ponomarev looked appropriately expensive.

I'll paraphrase a critic (don't recall which) who had said of opera -- "opera is about a soprano and tenor who wish to make love but are prevented by a mezzo and a baritone." This little formula which has served well the world of Verdi, Puccini, and Teatro La Scala speaks at times to ballet as well: "La Bayadere" is about a principal ballerina and a danseur noble who wish to make love but are prevented by a soloist and a character dancer.

In this ballet, the soloist, Gamzatti, and the character dancer – or, strictly speaking, dancers – High Brahmin and Rajah, pose formidable obstacles. Deliberately, the romantic and moral structure of the ballet places the characters of pure dance - Nikiya and Solor - against the characters of narrative - High Brahmin and Rajah (more about the soloist in just a few lines). It's as if the ballet would like to show that dancing is the only virtue in a world otherwise dominated by verbal language: an opposition between the beauty and passion of Nikiya and Solor's Act I pas de deux and the (mimed) death threats which become so often repeated as to court parody (Brahmin: 'I'll destroy Solor"; Rajah: "I'll destroy Nikiya"; Gamzatti: "I'll destroy Nikiya" and so forth).

Dancing -- or lack of it -- constitutes the severe trial of Act I: precious little can withstand such a narrative burden. The mind quickly begins to wander: the illicit love of holy men for their acolytes, the pomp and circumstance of religion, the revolutionary threat to the state's welfare of such love -- soon one begins to pray for ambitious re-stagings. Could Act I be re-staged in the wake of scandals of Church pederasty -- priests for Brahmins, youths for bayaderes, cardinals for condoning Rajahs? Perhaps a job for Matthew Bourne and Adventures in Moving Pictures. Enough said ...

The dancing in the betrothal divertissement of Act II rescues us from such reflections. The promenade of foot soldiers, priest novitiates, dancers with parrots, dancers with fans, the Rajah on a VW Bug sized palanquin, Solor (Leonid Sarafanov (10/17, 10/19) looking like a Gen-X demi-god) on a SUV-sized elephant, etc., is in every way an improvement on last year's Bolshoi Ballet bargain basement parade of pedestrians. The Golden Idol, danced by Ruben Bobovnikov (10/15, 10/19) and Andrey Ivanov (10/17), seemed to grow over the course of the run -- perhaps because his dance was set off by little black face munchkins (child dancers) on Friday and Sunday rather than the corps fan dancers who pinch-hitted on opening night.

As enjoyable was Tatiana Tkachenko (10/15) and Elvira Tarasova (10/17) as Gamzatti, compared to a wondrous Irina Golub (10/19) they seemed to lack that necessary little hissy charisma: Gamzatti should be the Bad Girl we love to hate, not the Bad Girl we love to ignore. Golub's Spoiled Rich Girl with her sultry, pouty lips and solid technique made the dramatically necessary counterweight to Diana Vishneva's tough cookie Nikiya. Arlene Croce, I think, suggested an interpretation where the Nikiya and Gamzatti roles recapitulated the familiar dualities of ballerina iconography -- repeated down the ages: Taglioni/Elssler, the "Christian" dancer/ the "Pagan" dancer, Gelsey Kirkland/Suzanne Farrell, adagio/allegro, Paloma Herrera/Amanda McKerrow -- fill in your own, please.

Friday evening's (10/17) Act II "grand pas classique" was a marvel of the melding of upper crust romance and imperial prerogative -- the romantic union as state spectacle. But when (like Odile) Elvira Tarasova's (10/17) obedient Gamzatti seduces the hapless Solor with her fouettes, you see that's it's much more evil than just mere 'state spectacle' -- it's state conspiracy. In this way, the ballet refers to an entire symbology of state vixens: Princess Caroline, former gubernatorial Girlfriend, Linda Ronstadt, Sydney Bristow of "Alias," and an entire gallery of Bond girls. In any case, Tarasova's dancing was fairly spectacular -- her fouettes featured single turns and double turns accomplished with aplomb.

Among the character roles were many treats. As the carnally fallen holy man, Vladimir Ponomarev's High Brahmin was icky to the proper degree. Pyotr Stasiunas's Rajah definitely had down pat the whole yakuza/tong Kingpin character. Manu the Pitcher Girl was danced with great charm by Elena Yushkovskaya with 2 children -- bayaderettes, I suppose (unnamed as far as I can tell from the program). Drum Dance still puzzles me. No doubt it will remain a kind of critical quandary like the fate of the Fool in "King Lear" or the residual significance of the line, "Exit, chased by a bear" from "The Winter's Tale."

Despite certain varying fortunes in Act I and Act II, the final act was consistently spectacular. It requires a corps of superlative caliber to pull off that dreamlike/trancelike effect of an infinity of spirits emerging from Hadean recesses. Congratulations are due the company for using the slower tempo to accentuate the adagio effect. My only complaint is the bayadere's anachronistic circa 1940s hair do's -- shouldn't the Kingdom of the Shades be populated with an infinity of Nikiya's and not Mrs. Cleaver's? As with all ballet blancs reaching back to the "Dance of the Fallen Nuns" from Meyerbeer's "Robert l'Diable," the Act III "Kingdom of the Shades" revealed the dans d'Ecole in all its purity: bayaderes were in pristine, virginal white tutus. Magnificent.

The Solors of the performances reported here were Igor Zelensky (10/15) and Leonid Sarafanov (10/17 and 10/19). Or so that was how they were listed in the program. The Kirov men seem to need more partnering practice. Once or twice I was worried by the place in the Act I pas de deux where Solor lifts Nikiya from his right arm to his left. Perhaps the varied fortunes in the partnering department explain the consistently excellent male solo variations, especially in the Act III.

It was really only on Sunday's (10/19) performance when Vishneva's Nikiya was properly set off by Golub's princessy Gamzatti, that Nikiya really did shine in Act III. On Friday (10/17), Irma Nioradze as Nikiya conquered space and time. The veil or scarf dance was tender and nostalgic as it should be. Vishneva strove for an impressively controlled passion throughout. The Three Shades (variously Irina Golub, Irina Zhelonkina, Tatiana Amosova, Ekaterina Osmolkina) revealed the pleasures of virtuosity -- something of a chore given the clunkiness of Minkus' less than inspiring beergarten melodies. Mikhail Sinkevich conducted.

It has already been discussed elsewhere the reasons why the Kirov Ballet did not bring their new production (complete with a full Act IV). During this production, though I was at times enthralled, listless, bored, magnetized, I was never disappointed. If and when the new production gets toured to southern California, I will be there.

Edited by Catherine Pawlick.

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