By Rory Winston
Spinning a yarn as though one’s life depended on it is the subtext of “Scheherazade.” It is also the essence of the Kirov Ballet, the historically-renowned company of tale-spinners, leapers, and contortionists that have put their respective cabrioles, triple tours and jetés entrelacés at the service of this ballet classic.
The well known Persian legend that recently marked the company’s premier at New York’s City Center (the season ends this coming Sunday) begins with a frame tale about a king who daily marries a new virgin only to behead her the following night as he decides to wed anew. To avoid such a fate, one harem slave known, as Scheherazade, diverts the king’s attentions with a yarn so exquisitely rendered that the monarch stays her execution. In an effort to hear her entire repertoire, the King — over the course of a thousand and one enthralling nights — converts from diehard misogynist to benevolent husband. As for the Kirov’s own repertoire, a three week engagement is enough to turn those who may have lost faith in classical ballet into born-again enthusiasts.
Of course, three weeks of watching balletomanes heap superlatives is also enough to unnerve many reviewers. Lest they become indistinguishable from the vociferous throngs who applaud the Kirov’s athletic prowess, critics have taken up arms, claiming that the Kirov has sacrificed joie de la danse and subtlety in expression on the altar of acrobatics and pyrotechnics. Perhaps, it’s time for these aficionados to reread their Persian myths.
It was Scheherazade’s ability as an entertaining raconteur, rather than her subtle plotlines, that spared her from decapitation. In contrast, members of the New York intelligentsia often lose their heads just as entertainment kicks in. Irrespective of this, the tale is in the telling; in the medium of dance, it is in the movements themselves. The Mariinsky Ballet (the original name of the company now in use again in Russia; Kirov being a Soviet era moniker), proves capable of relating a thorough history of virtuoso movements in a brief two hours.
Breaking from Petipa’s more ornate choreographic tradition, Michel Fokine made technique subservient to expression. Like Rimsky-Korsakov for whose composition he created Scheherazade, Fokine knew how to build an entire piece’s worth of variations around a single motif. In “Chopiniana,” (the original title for “Les Sylphides” and yes, the music is by Chopin) a young man indulges in a reverie populated by sylphs. Enlisting the most exemplary artists of the time — Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky — the non-narrative ballet broke from Imperial tradition and indulged in an art form that brought nuances to the music around which it revolved. Even today, this poem of rapture elicits musing, warranting both our emotional and intellectual attention. Though Kirov dancer Anton Korsakov clearly lacks Nijinksy’s purported ability in mime, Ekaterina Kondaurova’s solo Mazurka evokes spontaneity and exceptional polish. Deploying the corps de ballet to form a floral tableau, the dancers create an image of fluid motion that would have shamed Busby Berkeley into early retirement.
Of course, when it comes to a young girl’s nocturnal dream, little compares with Fokine’s other short masterpiece, “Spectre de la Rose.” Since its inception, the ballet has been restaged in an iffier version by Fokine’s granddaughter Isabella. Limitations notwithstanding, Leonid Sarafanov brings a swift and steady integrity to the role. He is alternately a sharp sword lodging itself into the air, and a frozen-frame of fire descending on the back of an invisible helium balloon. Vaulting through the window, Sarafanov’s departure is convincing. But as the magnetic and carnivorous sprite that fuels a young girl’s imagination? Well, let’s just say that this talented waif should make room for the animal (be it à la Nijinsky or Nureyev) to grow inside him.
Another jewel in the Fokine oeuvre is “The Dying Swan.” Based on a poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson, the piece was originally created in collaboration with Anna Pavlova as a solo work intended to display both her virtuosity and her personal artistry. Diana Vishneva is a diaphanous form that evinces the art of plastique. With an uncanny ability to hold a pause at the seemingly perfect but physically improbable moment, her body is flowing water held by a gravitational force lodged somewhere in her back. Though the ethereal realm of this impressionistic choreography could make one irreverently recall Woody Allen’s stand-up riff about bookies betting on the swan to live, it does not take much to lose oneself in the ephemeral vision being evoked. Admittedly, Pavlova had danced this with far less technique and far more personality. Today that level of intimacy would have proved embarrassingly trite and fatal. It would have broken the spell and inevitably provoked laughter. Not so with prima ballerina Vishneva. The death of this mythological creature will have us feeding birds by the lake for months.
As for Uliana Lopatkina who appeared in Scheherazade, she is a vision of the future — an elongated line created in a graphic arts laboratory with the intention of passing for a human. Remote but lachrymose, she is a peculiar seductress. Then again, she is enchanting enough to keep our eyes trained on her form. Which in this case is a good thing since Danila Korsuntsev is less golden slave than platinum cuckold. Again, Nijinsky’s name pops to mind. Of course, at this point so does Nureyev while even the more anemic Edward Villela seems poignant. And this is not because Kirov doesn’t have finer premier danseurs. They do. But aside from Sarafanov, half its cast stayed at home. As for their retired trump card Baryshnikov, he loyally sat just a row ahead of me marveling at the amount of discipline that still goes into making what can be said to be the world’s most solid and spectacular corps de ballet.
Mariinsky is and remains a breeding ground for precision and superhuman feats: Petipa, Fokine, Pavlova, Nijinsky, Karsavina, Balanchine, Nureyev, Makarova, Baryshnikov. Let’s face it; the company has earned its reputation. Even today, there is a growing list of individual superstars to keep an eye out for. Besides Vishneva, the company boasts a strange cross between runway model and manic rockette girl, in Alina Somova. Another singular talent is found in the impeccably forceful and vivacious Victoria Tereshkina.
In the world of dance, few if any subjects evoke as much controversy as visiting Russian companies. Whether classical or contemporary, there’s always an element of circus, always gossip in the air, and always anecdotes circulating. Something exciting and unsettling informs each arrival. And whether you admire them or not, you've gotta admit: they do dance as though their very life depended on it.