Kirov Ballet

'La Bayadere'

by Victor Lucas and Elsa Johnson

November 9, 2003 - Cleveland, Ohio

Cleveland is a city that once upon a time had a pretty good ballet company of its own, known for its ability to put on polished productions of extravaganza story ballets; so, thanks to Dennis Nahat, we're comfortable with mime and understand the genre. We like story ballets, and miss them. So how could we refuse the opportunity to see the Kirov Ballet's La Bayadere not just once but twice? But for the record, our exposure to this particular ballet is limited to these two Kirov Ballet performances.

In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russians immigrants have moved to Cleveland, so Cleveland has a sizable Russian contingent. Since this influx we have noticed a few idiosyncracies about these immigres. They often seem to prefer to walk in the street. When they do this they look as though if you ran into them you'd dent the bumper of your car. And they adore Russian ballet. We expected they would come out in droves for the Kirov. We expected to be surrounded by a parallel universe of Russians: dancers, musicians, and much of the packed house.

And so it proved to be.
Our first Bayadere was opening night, Thursday, Nov. 6; our second, Saturday Nov. 8. Both performances offered a different cast for the major roles of Nikiya, Gamzatti, and Solor. Initially we were a bit confused by some of the wordings in our press kit and by the posters we saw advertising the performance as consisting of "three acts and five scenes". Our confusion existed at least partly because we knew that the 1900 version of this Petipa ballet consisted of four acts, and that some previous incarnations of the ballet have tacked a scene on the end of the third act to complete the ballet's original fourth act intention of providing concluding retribution - the wrath of the god's - for Nikiya's betrayal and death.
We weren't the only ones taking things so literally. It took a thorough reading of the program notes and one viewing to understand that "three acts and five scenes" really means five scenes in three acts. Five scenes, total, any way you count it. We're sorry to miss that destruction of the temple scene, but not disappointed to miss the additional time it takes to perform it. This production of La Bayadere is a three hour long ballet even without that scene, which stretches it closer to four hours. However, this version does retain the third act's famous "descent of the shades", the most frequently excerpted segment of this hot ticket.
It also helped our understanding of the complex history and origins of this production to briefly interview Producer Sergei Danilian during the second intermission on Saturday night. We had read several accounts about the Kirov's La Bayadere at New York's Metropolitan Opera House in 2002, reporting scenery, costumes and choreography largely restored to Petipa's last staging of the ballet in 1900. Danilian explained that while the choreography was from the 1941 Soviet production, the sets and costumes were the very same restored versions presented at the Metropolitan in 2002. Some parts of the sets, Danilian volunteered, the stage right side of the temple, for instance, are not reconstructions but actual originals from the 1900 production. 
Imagine: Sets over 100 years old! These are what New York times critic Clive Barnes pronounced "quaint" (both sets and costumes). We didn't find the sets quaint, even before knowing that this Bayadere is, at least in some respects, an archival reconstruction. As for the costumes; strange how some of these too quaint costumes expose bare midriffs in a very contemporary way. What does seem a bit quaint however (perhaps this is what Barnes meant?), is how this production takes this contemporary approach to revealing the body and mixes it up with stylized nods to 19th century India - saris and jhodpurs - and then abruptly abandons all that to give way to traditional European ballet tutus and skirts, at least for the women. Again, it recreates much of the form and look of the 1900 production, but with nods to contemporary tastes. The reconstruction, thankfully, is not literal. 
At the Thursday night performance we sat next to a ballet maven friend with very sharp eyes. We heard muffled little snorts at the gaffs of the supers, and suppressed gasps at every hitch in the dancing, like when Daria Pavlenko as Nikiya, in an otherwise lovely performance, mistepped and nearly turned her ankle in the first act, and later slightly slipped in the second. It seemed to us that Pavlenko was having a slightly off night, perhaps because her scheduled Solor, Igor Zelinsky, was out with an injury.
Act III in particular looked difficult in places; the pirouettes ending in arabesque en face, for instance; or the arabesque turns on pointe without preparation, and with support offered only through a long scarf. Neither Pavlenko nor Saturday's Nikia, Sofia Gumerova, were able to offer a especially satisfying execution of those, though Gumerova's seemed more secure. But on Saturday Gumerova had one partnered turn so off balance she executed it at a slant. Those negatives aside, what was there to complain about? Almost nothing in either dancer's performance (or anyone else's, either): Both are remarkable dancers with deliciously supple backs. This is the Kirov, everyone is beautiful, and even an off night is pretty amazing.

The lesser role of Gamzatti was danced on the two nights we attended by Tatiana Tkachenko (Nov. 6), and Tatiana Amosova (Nov. 8).  Both were on, and executed the roles technical demands flawlessly, but Amosova's Gamzatti added a glittering authority that threatened to upstage Nikiya.

The men: When the curtain went up on the temple scene in Act One, Solor's entrance on Thursday showed us Igor Kolb, tall and slim, with plenty of stage presence, elegant lines, and powerful, hyper mobile hips and legs. He looked more than a match for any tiger. His technical abilities were revealed as the ballet progressed: solid partnering, a big jump, and arabesques higher than the women's - and he made it all look so easy. We were careful not to act overly enthusiastic. After all, this is the Kirov; probably all the male principals are like this, we thought. 

When we saw Danila Korsuntsev as Solor on Saturday, we realized what an exceptional ballet body Kolb has, even among Kirov men. For, handsome and dashing as Korsuntsev is, he must look a mere mortal next to Kolb. However our impression was that he went for a higher level of technical difficulty and as a result sometimes had to struggle for some of his achievements. One of his variations took jete/coupe jete/coupe/double saute de basque/double saute de basque in a circle. He did all the saute de basques as doubles but went off the vertical and so lost time getting the repeat going. The audience overlooked his difficulties and applauded his achievements, as did we.
We must point out that whoever dances Solor, this production presents him with some uphill moments, not all of them technical. When Solor enters for the Act Two wedding celebration, he waves to the audience. But he is greeted by chuckles, for the elephant he rides in on has a decidedly square ass. Soon afterwards, Solor bounds in from stage left, but, again, who can notice him when the supers have just smacked a big, stuffed tiger down in the middle of the stage behind him? Whether these animals were designed ineptly or playfully, or just pragmatically, the timing of their presentation is problematic - or perhaps just more proof of the old vaudeville dictum: never perform with animals or children.
Mention should also be made of the too brief performance of Andrey Ivanov, the soloist who performed the Golden Idol. Ivanov represents a stockier body type then either Kolb or Korsuntsev. The gold paint he wears emphasizes this. His muscular thighs could belong to a strength athlete. The abrupt stylized double saut de basques and sudden stops of his variation elicited well deserved gasps from the audience.
And speaking of children, local kids got to perform some enjoyable roles in this production. During the Golden Idol's dance in Act II, for instance, eight little slaves danced by local children have much to do, providing a frame for his variation. Also in Act Two, when a dancer with pitcher of water balanced on her head is joined by two little girls on pointe, begging her for a drink of water, she refuses them. They pull mischieviously at her red and white striped sarong. They were relentless little scene-stealers both nights. On Thursday they were danced by local girls. On Saturday we were told that the girls were from Japan.
Music: Minkus gets no respect. But his melodies have a clear bass line that makes them easy to dance to and predictable repetition that's perfect for Petipa's three and a break patterns. In the Descent of the Shades, predictable repetition is a big part of the hypnotic effect. 
At last, safe at home, well past our bedtime thanks to a rather too literal evocation of eternity, we muse on yet another ballet about a woman wronged, whose guilty lover visits her in the afterlife: "Oh Boo Hoo! You're dead! Now here's a third act ballet blanc, and everything's all right." What is it about this lame-sounding formula that still resonates?
Seeing the dead, we have learned, with or without the aid of hookahs and snake charmers, is not particularly problematic. But how to look at them once we see them - and what to say, and what to do, now that they are gone?

Edited by Catherine Pawlick.

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