Kirov Ballet and Orchestra

'Chopiniana,' 'Scheherazade,' and 'The Firebird'

by Lisa Claybaugh

October 7 , 2003 -- Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

For many years I have counted the Kirov Ballet in the top five ballet companies in the world. This was purely on reputation, because I had never seen them in person. They were everything I was told they would be. This company, maybe more than any except the Paris Opera Ballet, has history. It's a long and colorful history that has often reflected the upheaval of Russian politics, but the Kirov has always danced at the highest possible level. With the present drama in Russian society and a devastating fire at home, Tuesday night's Fokine Program proved that the Kirov is still dancing at top form and still connected to their history.

"Chopiniana" was Fokine's homage to the romantic era. It premiered in 1908 at the Mariinsky Theater and is indicative of a style that was antiquated even at that time. It is one of the first plot-less ballets seen on the Mariinsky stage. Although the soloists and principals were very nice, especially Irina Zhelonkina, the real starts of this ballet were the corps de ballet. They moved as one: Every head and arm was at the precisely correct angle, every torso was pitched forward in an ideal romantic era slant. The bodies were gorgeous, the proportions identical, the feet supple, and the faces beautiful. This was a model corps de ballet, and hopefully the numerous young dancers in the audience took note.

The only man in the ballet, Danila Korsuntev, may have been disappointing artistically and possessed very little plie, but his facility was beautiful -- long and lean with well-defined muscles. Mr. Korsuntev stayed as earthbound as his female counterparts seemed to float six inches above the stage. His partnering was precise and attentive and he made his partner look every bit the Sylph.

"Scheherazade" is a bit of exotica with very little dancing but more than its share of color and atmosphere. When this ballet premiered in Paris in 1910, it caused a sensation that inspired a generation of artists and fashion designers like Erte and Pierrot: Paris became crazy for all things "oriental". The set and costume artists of the Mariinsky Theater have stunningly recreated the original Leon Bakst designs.

This ballet is a bit of a dinosaur. It is dated and could have been perfectly tedious if it hadn't been for the continued excellence of the corps de ballet (never have emboites been done with such height or enthusiasm), and the charisma of the two principals, Uliana Lopatkina as Zobeide and Igor Zelensky as the Golden Slave. Lopatkina is strikingly gorgeous in body and face and is quite the actress. At one point she lifted her head to Vladimir Ponomarev's Shah Shahyar, and it is amazing he didn't drop dead on the spot from the look of daggers she gave him. Zelensky commanded the stage with heartthrob appeal and a humongous jump. His time with New York City Ballet has served him well. The plot was straight out of the 1001 Arabian Nights stories: complete kitsch, but utterly enjoyable, and I could have looked at the sets forever.

This music, too, is magnificent. I spent countless hours as a child dancing around the living room to this famous music, and I was slightly disappointed by the way Fokine used it. I always imagined a ballet to this music would be grander in its scale. Maybe it is time for a present day choreographer to take on this music again.

"The Firebird" consisted of a lot of flapping of arms and little dancing. Only the bird herself was en pointe; the rest of the cast of thousands were dressed either as princesses in head-to-toe virginal white or as hideous creatures with costumes to be envied with Halloween so close. The music again, however, is glorious. This was one of Stravinsky's early compositions, having left Russia after his mentor's death (Rimsky-Korsakov, the composer of Scheherazade) to seek his fortune in Paris. There he was scooped up by Diaghilev, who allowed him to write whatever music suited him and who saw his genius as yet-undeveloped.

The rhythms and use of Russian folk music in "The Firebird" were a harbinger of what was to come just a few years later in "The Rite of Spring." "Firebird" looked the least rehearsed of the three on the program. Tatiana Amosova as the title character was a last minute replacement and looked as though she had very little time to rehearse with Victor Baranov, dancing Ivan Tsarevich. Amosova seemed to have spacing problems, needing to clip many of her steps to fit the stage in her first variation. The pas de deux was tentative; she looked insecure. At one point the tutu caught on his costume and ripped a bit. She seemed to settle in by her last triumphant defeat of the evil creatures of Kastchei the sorcerer. Here she commanded the stage and the role. Once again the sets and costumes were recreated from the original Bakst designs. The colors were dark and muted but attention to detail and craft was without equal.

A few words should be said about the orchestra. They were skillfully lead by Mikhail Agrest and Valery Gergiev, who is known to Bay Area audiences as a frequent guest conductor. This group of musicians was as precise and expressive as the corps de ballet. Particular consideration should go out to the un-credited solo violinist in Scheherazade and to the wind and brass soloists in The Firebird.

Edited by Catherine Pawlick.

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