U.S. audiences carry a lot of baggage to a Mariinsky Ballet Swan Lake performance at the Zellerbach Auditorium, and we’re not talking picnic baskets, here. A goodly number are Soviet ex-pats or descendants of them, who bear emotional and sentimental attachments or contradictory feelings of estrangement. Others in attendance may be dancers or former dancers who studied ballet and hold strong opinions about, or loyalties to the Vaganova style. Then there is that generation that gained its exposure to Russian and Soviet history via the toxic prick of McCarthyism. Some express the liberal view that “State-supported ballet is the best thing about the Soviet legacy.” Some embrace the conservative view that says “Give the devil his due: dictatorships forge good artists and athletes.”
As an unapologetic supporter of the Russian Revolution, and an opponent of the 1928 Stalin-consolidated counterrevolution, I too came packing my personalized sampler of expectations, along with my laptop. Instead of taking notes by hand in the dark theater, I was determined to make my own technological revolution on the occasion of the Mariinsky tour—and type them on my computer—its screen darkened to black, keystrokes politely muffled by a keyboard protector. From the performer side of the proscenium, this is a show that carries with it more than its dancers, sets, orchestra and costumes. It is fair to say that nearly everyone in the house held a substantial stake in what this special occasion had to offer. I report triumphantly that my notes were for the first time ever, entirely legible and a thrill to revisit!
Seeing two of the four casts on October 10 and 11 offered a chance at assessing not only single performances, but also the company compared with its former selves, and its sister-companies in the U.S. I reject any lens tailored to the jaundiced eye of State Department reconnaissance. I prefer instead to go with my conviction that companies no longer can lay claim to single-state provenance. Rather, they seem to live a in a wrinkle in time where today, dancers from many nations compose an international cast apportioned to companies throughout the world. We are approaching an era that nearly renders the dancer’s passport a curio. The Cuban National Ballet, commonly (and erroneously) considered mono-cultural, in its pre-embargo rosters has boasted dancers from the United States, Puerto Rico, Spain and England, as well as Latin American countries. The Leningrad Kirov or St. Petersburg Mariinsky (as it is now called), has been exclusively Soviet or Russian—until recently. According to general director Valery Gergiev, who fielded questions in the pressroom during intermission, a dancer each from the United States, Korea, England and Azerbaijan—which is not strictly speaking un-Russian—have now joined the company. In other confessions in the same vein, Gergiev revealed that modification of the time-honored Vaganova technique now have dancers rolling through the foot instead of going directly up or down, and showing a passé that conforms with the lifted version seen elsewhere.
The October 10 cast featured Ekaterina Kondaurova as Odette/Odile, and Danila Korsuntsev as Siegfried. Kondaurova’s Odile hit all the vixen-like poses and balances. She dispatched a labored 32 fouettés, singles and doubles, but her Odette was more troublesome. She has a lower body that is athletic and gives good attack, arms that are lithe and silken, but a back that can’t seem to place itself so as to reconcile the upper with the lower body. So, there are moments of visible strain and discordant movement. Korsuntsev is 38, but was chosen for the role of Siegfried because he is young looking. Yet, dramatically, there is a lack of commitment to the character of an indecisive prince being pushed out of the nest belatedly. Instead of choosing from a selection of lovely human aristocratic princess candidates, Siegfried sets his sights on a swan—or two. While the prince is indecisive, the dancer who plays him cannot afford to equivocate, let alone go agnostic.
There is in some versions and this is one of them, a court jester, who ought to be importing moments of comic relief into the otherwise gloomy story. Vasily Tkachenko, a young dancer who shows some promise, still has to find a comic persona—or the jester becomes more of an annoyance than an adornment. The Jester in the October 11 cast, Ilya Petrov, did not have a perfect line, but he nailed the comic moments with a sly grin and slight rakishness, squiring us along our way through the libretto.
Oksana Skoryk, who was put in at the last minute for a pregnant dancer, danced a beguiling Odette that same night, showing an unwavering fluidity and coherence throughout. Her Odile was more problematic: It looked as if she was not settled on the character she wanted to be, her arms failing to support Odile as well as they did Odette; her piqués and passés going a little mushy and disconnected, and so her sizzle tended to fizzle. Her safe choice of single fouettés worked well for her. But when she is once again Odette, bourrées back, and crosses her arms, she regains her earlier stature with high extensions and extreme penchées, and so one wonders if the culprit is choreography that has Rothbart and Siegfried sharing her equally instead of Rothbart hovering menacingly at a distance as he does in other versions.
Skoryk’s Siegfried, Vladimir Schklyarov, though more responsive than Korsuntsev to his mother, the Princess Regent, was at the outset a tepid prince, and not only dramatically. His raised leg lagged in en dehors jumps, and his tour jeté was balky, but unlike Korsuntsev, he had a pulse, and so you could follow his transformation, and by Act IV, he found his bravura and ended the show as awe-struck by Odile as he was moonstruck by Odette. It is disappointing that neither Siegfried followed Odile’s fouetté variation with the customary á la seconde turns. Instead, both Siegfrieds did a well-rendered manège. Asked why there were no secondes, the general director gave the curious response that “not everyone can do that step.” We scoured our memory to come up with a major company where that is the case—and couldn’t!
In both shows, the weak link in the pas de trois was its male dancer, though of the two casts, the October 11 dancer was the stronger; and the two women (Maria Shirinkina and Anastasia Nikitina—both nights) danced with a lackluster academic overlay.
Konstantin Sverev danced the Evil Sorcerer Rothbart on October 10. Andrey Solovyov did the honors on October 11. Both turned in the best performances overall of any male dancer on either night. Their entrances were dramatic and fiery, with behind-the-scenes chicanery woven deftly into their tangled webs.
The decision to roll what are conventionally Acts I and II into a single act undercut the drama of Odette’s entrance in Act II, the decisive moment upon which Odette interpretations are largely judged. Nonetheless, Skoryk had full command of her character and mesmerized the audience with long lovely and expressive arms in the opening pas de deux as she leaned back, folding into Schklyarov, though he adamantly remained more of a spectator than a true believer. As Odette, she uses her head and arms more persuasively than as Odile. When Rothbart enters, she lowers her body to port de bras, conceding deference to him, the hateful mastermind who must be defeated by love, or all is lost.
The swan corps de ballet is the star of the show, the collective prima ballerina whose exquisite timing, perfect bi-lateral v-formations, shaking of water off a loose-limbed leg in a rond de jamb en l’air, inclination of the head so it fits under a raised arm, or interpolation into a kind of duck blind as all dancers descend halfway to the floor on both sides of the stage, makes the evening a standout. All corps members contribute stunningly to the portrait that remains with us when the curtain goes down. Though there are so many very wonderful corps swans in companies I have seen, the Russians and the Cubans will always be the most memorable for their focus and collective charisma. Against the swans, Skoryk is suspended in an architecture that she creates out of movement and poses; there is none of the coltishness here that we saw in Kondaurova the evening before.
The Spanish, Neapolitan and Hungarian Dance and Mazurka Prince’s Ball divertissements were well executed with lighthearted renverses and chassés, low-to-the-floor pas de chevals, all to near funereal-tempo music. There is a spirited polish in the Cuban version that goes missing in this production.
We rarely get to see an Act IV in the U.S., and so it was a pleasure to observe how this version uses the black and white swans in a U formation to set the stage for the finale. The scene opens with a tableau that has white swans clustered on two sides of the stage and six of them burrowed into the floor with their tutu tails raised in the air so that all we see is tulle. Odette whirls through the swans stage left and right, and strikes a fourth position lunge and then, working from her shoulder blades, lowers her back until she finds the classic Swan Lake port de bras that settles floorward. Rothbart enters on a diagonal of razor-sharp jetés, disturbing the serene quiet of the lakeside tableau. Lightning strikes and reveals Odette so near and yet distant from his jealous reach. She appears, he lifts her and drops her to the floor. He then abandons the fallen swan and deserts. Siegfried enters and she rises. After defeating the reappeared Rothbart, Siegfried carries Odette downstage with a tenderness he has not shared until now. The corps swans are delicate, childlike witnesses, their steps softening to a lilt in response to Odette and Siegfried’s reconciliation. Soloists Lyudmila Chaikovskaya on violin, Alexander Ponomarev on cello and Bzhena Chornak on harp, and the orchestra under the direction Mikhail Agrest, provide dulcet accompaniment.
Decried by many, the Russian ending is a happy one, as the human prince and the swan embrace; but then, if it is true that both men and swans can swim, can’t hope float alongside them as a worthy and sporting chaperone?