Kirov Ballet

Homage to Diaghilev: 'Chopiniana,' 'Les Noces,' 'Scheherazade'

by Lyndsey Winship

July 29, 2003 -- Royal Opera House, London, UK

Little girls want their ballerinas to be pretty and perfect, like twinkling music box fairies fixed in a timeless promenade. Send them to see the Kirov perform "Chopiniana" and they won't be disappointed.

In Fokine's homage to Romantic ballet, the Kirov's dancers have shed their earthly skins for fluttering wings and weightlessness. The dancers really do capture the essence of delicate sylphs, carried along by the breeze in their woodland idyll. Their stance is na•ve, with rounded shoulders and long necks reaching forward.

It's the corps that's most impressive, even though for a lot of the piece they don't move at all. Which is what is so enchanting. They are spellbound in perfect poses, frozen in time -- rather like this piece. When they do move, it is with a single breath as if every limb is connected to the next dancer. It's an ethereal experience.

But what about grown ups? Well they like their escapism too, but I'm pleased the Kirov saw fit to shut the music box and revive Bronislava Nijinska's "Les Noces." It's a piece that's new to the Kirov and that much is evident. Whereas in "Chopiniana" the dancers might have been guided by instinct, here they must be desperately counting Stravinsky's fiendish rhythms. There's some trouble with the timing but it doesn't really detract. The work may be more than the sum of its parts -- which is very much the message.

We are invited to a peasant wedding, but it's far from a joyous occasion. It is an arranged marriage for the collective good rather than individual happiness. In drab brown and grey, the sets are beautifully stark. Just one small window high up on a wall. For the taciturn bride there's clearly no escaping her duty. All she can do is let the momentum carry her on. It makes a nice contrast with "Chopiniana" where the corps are still for much of the piece while the principals dance. Here the main characters are frozen in their fate while the world spins around them. There is also a similar void of emotion in this work, but this time it is dark, gripping and quite ominous.

"Les Noces" has real clout. Stravinsky's compelling score for a start, four thundering pianos, four huge voices and over 40 dancers. Nijinska obviously recognised the power of Stravinsky's music and she doesn't fight it, she reinforces it -- the incessant rhythm and the chilling stasis.

In the course of the interval the dancers have ironed out their willowy curves into functional lines. They often dance in straight rows, men and women sharing repetitive steps. Their toes patter then pound the stage, all moving as one (mostly), in a proletarian surge. Bodies fold together to build shapes, like the female pyramid with its totem of heads, negating individuals for the outward design.

It sounds, and seems, so cold, but the urgency and desperation of the scene plunges right into your stomach with an impact that's vivid in contrast with the previous fairytale.

It's back to fantasy for the final work, "Scheherazade." This ballet was clearly very racy at the time of its creation with its exotic tale of sultans and shahs, harem girls and saucy slaves. And it has really dated. When the curtain goes up you might wonder if you'd walked in on a pantomime. There's a glittering set with lanterns and jewels, rich colours and skimpy costumes, full of Eastern promise. Only Aladdin in missing.

It's perfectly entertaining though, and the lengthy limbs and snake hips of the Kirov's female dancers slip seductively into the role of flirty temptresses. Svetlana Zakharova as the concubine Zobeide is spectacular, she lifts an ankle to her ear and we're transfixed. We're not the only ones. Igor Zelensky as the Golden Slave can't resist her charms and fantastic extensions. He in turn wows Zobeide with a nice line in leaps and turns. The two fall in lust, the sultan returns and isn't very happy about the liaison, the slave is slain and Zobeide kills herself in grief.

Which all seems a bit overblown considering she'd only known him half an hour. After all, if she's just after a man with a good grand allegro, there's no shortage here.

Edited by Catherine Pawlick.

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