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Flash Review 1, 7-16: It's the Dance, Stupid
Kirov Delivers its "Swan" Drama in the Choreography -- and its Thrilling Execution

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2002 Alicia Mosier

NEW YORK -- When one thinks of "Swan Lake," one usually thinks of passion, color, and drama: the crisis of Prince Siegfried, torn between lovers and searching for himself; the plight of the swans, trapped in an alien form by the evil sorcerer Rothbart; the rich array of the court scenes, draped in velvet and gleaming gold; the sizzle of Odile, the Swan Queen Odette's temptress-double, as she seduces Siegfried in Act III; the heart-wrenching final meeting of the lovers. The Kirov Ballet's production of "Swan Lake," seen Saturday afternoon at the Metropolitan Opera House as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, is as far from such juicy melodrama as could be imagined. It is as dry as an ice storm in moonlight. It is not an appealing "Swan Lake" in any conventional sense, but in its very dryness is great beauty.

The production, that of Konstantin Sergeyev, premiered in 1950 when Sergeyev was the Kirov's artistic director; it hasn't been seen in New York since 1964. The original Sergeyev production was famous for doing away with long mime passages and solos and characters (like the Prince's friend Benno) the ballet had accumulated over the years, focusing more on Dance than on Dance-Drama. In the version the Kirov brings to New York this year, under the directorship of Makharbek Vaziev, storytelling-through-dance is pushed as far toward the abstract as is possible in a 19th-century story ballet. Instead of being grounded in and moved forward by flashy characterizations (as in, for example, American Ballet Theatre's production), this version skims from one dance passage to the next, with the narrative flickering in the background. And even in its virtuoso passages, it has no physical fireworks to speak of, but rather a heat that builds and builds through that great Kirov trademark: a sophisticated, deeply internalized, company-wide classical style, which has the feel of centuries about it. To some, this might look like a skeletal "Swan Lake," but I found the production's purity exhilarating.

The decor adds to this elegantly unadorned effect. Igor Ivanov's sets are spacious and airy, colored with tints of gold and red, and Galina Solovieva's costumes are the epitome of delicacy. In their pristine white tights, the men in Act I look like Lippizaner stallions, while the women, in rose and pale blue, could be court ladies in the age of Van Eyck.

The Kirov's Act I is subdued, even boring, without the "chatter" of the mime and the dramatic intrigue of Siegfried's position in society (between his mother and his tutor, between the court and the world). The regal Danila Korsuntsev, Saturday afternoon's Prince, did little in the way of straightforward acting. Meaning came through movement, and Korsuntsev's movement -- in smooth arabesque turns and soft-as-a-tiger's-paw tours en l'air -- purred like the engine of a Jaguar, impetuous and sensual but never unrefined. The corps had the bulk of the dancing in Act I, most of it in hoppy circles and promenades. The main point of interest was the famous Pas de Trois, performed Saturday by Natalia Sologub, Ekaterina Osmolkina, and Vasili Scherbakov, all of whom distinguished themselves in bold, high jumps, delicate spins, and sterling musicality. It's become a cliche to call the Jester "intrusive," but so he was in the person of Kiril Simonov, a spindly, blank-eyed fellow who looked no older than thirteen.

If the corps's role in Act I was pleasantly nondescript, its part in Act III could not have been more exciting. Usually the national dances -- Spanish, Neapolitan, Hungarian, and Polish -- that precede the Black Swan pas de deux are corny, interminable, tambourine-slapping numbers that do nothing but delay the entrance of Siegfried and Odile. The Kirov, with its long tradition of excellent character dancing, takes these dances seriously and shows them off in glorious fashion. The performers take them at rip-roaring speeds, arms and ribbons flashing, and there is not an ounce of kitsch or embarrassment in their interpretations. Of special note: Galina Rakhmanova and Natalia Tsyplakova, whose floor-sweeping backbends in the Spanish dance sent shivers up my spine.

The true depth of the Kirov corps could be seen best of all, of course, in the "white" Acts II and IV. From the littlest Cygnets (whose pas de quatre was clean as a whistle) to the two big swans (Xenia Ostreikovskaya and the bold Daria Pavlenko), there were variations of scale and color, but all within the same elegant, unhurried style. In these acts, the corps and the magnificent Kirov orchestra, conducted by Boris Gruzin, achieved unanimity of phrasing that was at once crisp and subtle. The dancers flurried and came to rest again, their port de bras serene and expressive, supported in every shading by Gruzin's extreme but effective variations in tempo. That, for example, there were no bobbles as the dancers stood long in first arabesque did not seem a great accomplishment; it was only a moment in the eternity that their presence together summoned.

The melodramatic conclusion of this "Swan Lake" (an often-derided happy ending, complete with the ripping off of one of Rothbart's brown striped wings and his writhing on the floor before the riding-into-the-sunset lovers) is absurdly out of step with the rest of the production, especially with the haunting dance of white and black Swans that immediately precedes it, in which a whole world seems to fade before our eyes. The final scene is moving, in a tearjerker sort of way, but it cannot compare in intensity and beauty with even the simplest tendu croise that has gone before. In a production so uninterested in conventional drama -- but which nonetheless contains intensely heightened strains of emotion -- such an ending is worse than an anticlimax.

Saturday afternoon's Odette/Odile was Svetlana Zakharova. She is one of the Hyperextended Few, who every chance she's got has hurled her leg up in a grand battement that goes far past her shoulder. I expected to see a preening queen of technique; what I saw instead was a maturing dancer, very beautiful and still in love with her tricks but discovering that dance means more than that. The battements are still there, and they are awful indeed; the torso contorts to the side to make room for the leg and any semblance of line is obliterated. Zakharova could easily have filled her performance with such schlock -- could have made it the whole performance -- but she did not. Her Odile was a flashing, impudent girl, a Scarlett O'Hara, whose rock-solid fouettes -- the free leg piercing the air, driving to the brutal heart of the music -- were not a parlor game but a feature of her personality. She wrapped her leg in strong, high attitude around Korsuntsev as if she were a cobra. Her Odette was even more. With a deeply curving back, she pulled us between two worlds, her slim legs folding and unfolding in restless heartache. At the beginning of Act IV, after Siegfried's betrayal, she moved as if drained of life, then life swelled in her heart -- her whole upper body seemed to expand -- as Rothbart's spell was broken. Zakharova is by nature a glamorous, high-strung dancer. Here that energy was captive, transformed with every developpe into a sigh.

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