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Kirov Ballet

Fokine Classics, including 'Chopiniana,' 'Scheherazade,' and 'The Firebird'

by Stephen Arnold

November 14 and 15 -- Wang Center for the Performing Arts, Boston, Massachusetts

In a sense, the three works choreographed by Michel Fokine presented by the Kirov Ballet at the Wang Center in Boston offered a montage on the subject of paradise lost and regained.

The softness of Chopiniana manifests, for example, in its carefully measured pace, the rounded elegance of spare movement choices, the transparency of nine orchestrated Chopin piano pieces and its angelic population of wing-born ladies costumed in white, which blend with its pastoral setting to fashion a picture of the world before the Fall. Scheherazade, on the other hand, combined flesh exposing costumes, heavily draped and vivid décor, the sensuousness of Rimsky-Korsakov’s score, a corrupted population of humans living in a world of slavery, doubt, betrayal, and blood-lust with its ever building frenzy of effort to show a world trapped by an excess of sensation and desire. The character of the Firebird, however, made otherworldly, powerful, and lean by her musical signature of harp, celesta, seriating rhythmic figures, and Stravinsky’s unsweetened harmonies freed the world of its monstrous evil. Once liberated from the calcifying effects brought by the evil Kastchei’s spells -- he liked to turn his male victims to stone -- Fokine demonstrated the world’s return to the grace of Chopiniana by the simplicity of Firebird’s ending. Rather than offering a spectacle of Imperial grandeur, the apotheosis that joined Ivan Tsarevich to the Princess, reunited the twelve couples, and discovered the radiant city behind the ruins of Kastchei’s realm entailed steps no more complicated than a walk.

The ending of Firebird, however, also showed that returning to the grace of the timeless Chopiniana was incomplete, if not impossible. In addition to the political revolution implied by the Firebird’s defeat of the tyrannical Kastchei, the release of the Princesses from Kastchei’s enchantment and the Princes from their tenure as monuments literally re-started time. Change, the Firebird’s altered thermal mode, now informs the world, and Kastchei, his costume and character marking a familiar figure of Death -- skeletal, violent, and male -- fills change with mutability. The Firebird and Kastchei indeed vanished as the libretto stated, but from sight not from influence. In contrast, the innocents of Chopiniana held, for example, in the bourrees, the curvilinear chains or continuity of the corps sculptural poses, and the encapsulating arms also built its insularity. One alas cannot go home again. Nevertheless, by definition the ideal world of Chopiniana somehow touches the material world of its concert mates with form. If this is so, then the lone male in the crowd of Chopiniana’s Sylphs is the model for Scherehrazade’s Shah Shahryar and his harem.

Although weathered by familiarity and cracked by enlightened moral values, the Kirov nevertheless brightened to a high polish the dance, if not the production and rhetorical aspects, of both Firebird and Scherehazade. One of those highly polished moments was the pleasure of viewing Irma Nioradze perform the role of Firebird on Friday evening and Fobeide in Scherehazade on Saturday. The contrasting roles showcased Nioradze’s dramatic abilities. Consistent with the fidgety and often piercing sounds of her music, Nioradze’s Firebird was as wild, intense, and as fiercely jealous of her independence as a hawk. In fact, if the characters of the Firebird and the Golden Slave in Scherehazade mean to embody an élan vital, a force of nature that refuses domestication, then the “bright power” (to borrow a description of hawks from poet Robinson Jeffers) of Nioradze’s Firebird was unequivocally convincing. As Fobeide, the Shah’s favorite wife, Nioradze also found in the rich colors of Rimsky’s harmony and orchestration the motivation for her character’s emotional and thoughtful conflicts. Whether as sweet and pliant as a violin solo or as courageous in will as a brass fanfare or as rapturous as the liquid reach of arpeggiated chords Nioradze’s ability made her character believable in an otherwise doubtful story. And, in a flight of synaesthetic fancy inspired by Nioradze’s musicality, one mused that if she were asked to dance the harmonics -- the whistling sound produced by the strings heard, for example, within the opening measures of Firebird -- of a particular combination of steps she would convincingly do so.

In spite of Chopiniana’s vision of simplicity, the vigor and near impossible flexibility of Fokine’s choreography neatly represented, for example, by the sudden and frequent backbreaking backward bends of Sherehazade’s three Odalisk Girls challenged that vision. On the other hand, given the wildness of the title character’s “bright power” along with the simplicity and emphasis on coupling manifest in its apotheosis, Firebird expanded that vision of paradise to accommodates both simplicity and vigor.

Edited by Catherine Pawlick.

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