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Flash Review 1, 7-18: Russians Give New York a Schooling
Grand Ballet as its Meant to be from the Kirov

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2002 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- The Kirov Ballet blew into the Metropolitan Opera House last week like an Arctic breeze, presenting "La Bayadere" and "Swan Lake" (seen the evenings of July 10 and 13, respectively), co-presented by the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Festival. New Yorkers are accustomed to regular seasons by two of the world's top ballet companies, and the periodic tour stop of some excellent international groups. We can sit smugly as the world's finest parade before us. But the Kirov is a reminder of our country's relative callowness, of the meaning behind culture in a tradition such as ballet -- as a barometer of civilization over the long haul, of resources, skills and commitment. We rarely get to see such epic, indulgent renditions of ballet rendered with care.

This "La Bayadere" is a reconstruction of the 1900 Petipa production set in India, to a score by Ludwig Minkus. It clocks nearly four hours, and in many respects feels more like big opera than a story ballet. Many early scenes hinge on gestural exposition to the point of approaching farce, yet they are primers -- by the end, certain learned gestures recur as a sort of Bayadere sign language. Other lengthy segments are more pageantry than dance, showing off the beautiful cascading drape of the hand-sewn costumes or the surprisingly cheesy animal props. (The tiger, in particular, resembled a well-used, discarded carnival prize of the type that once graced sanitation truck grills.) The Kirov's "Swan Lake" was done in 1950, based on the 1895 original production by Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Its structure is more recognizable to American audiences, accompanied by the reassuringly familiar score by Tchaikovsky.

The principal dancers for the most part delivered the expected high level of artistry and technical excellence. Both programs featured Sofia Gumerova and Igor Kolb, the latter of whom was capable, if a bit short, as a partner. Although both ballets emphasize women, Kolb was able to show off his lofty tour jetes and clean conservative line, enhanced especially in 'Bayadere' in slim-legged pants worn by other principals, including the women. He paced his tempo smartly in double tours en l'air, and consistently controlled the arabesque finishes. Gumerova was striking: long slender limbs and dramatically arched feet. As Odette, her arms could have been more fluid, her hand positions more subtle. In "Bayadere" as Nikiya, she displayed a moment of weakness in her solo holding a mandolin; after cushy, soft landings from tour jetes, she wobbled in penche and was not able to releve. However, directly following that, Gumerova demonstrated her unshakably solid -- and oft-repeated -- arabesque on pointe.

It was the women's corps that provided consistently magical moments, showcased in these two ballets which rely so heavily on the haunting apparitions of identical corps dancers, the Shades and the Swans. The second act ensemble scene of "Swan Lake" in particular demonstrated a remarkable uniform subtlety of positioning: at-rest with the leg tendued back, one arm up with a slight break in the elbow and wrist, head cocked just a few degrees, or with the wrists crossed atop tutus. Apart from the occasional modest display of prowess (the downstage dancers in a receding line lifting their arabesques just a bit higher than the rest) the corps performed with a pleasing unity and consistency of demeanor. Acts I and II of 'Bayadere' offered ample opportunities to show off delicate ensemble segments of simple steps and ports de bras, the dancers at times producing a soft percussion by running in their pointe shoes.

Soloists acquitted themselves well, particularly Elvira Tarasova in "Swan Lake" as a friend of the prince and as Gamzatti in 'Bayadere.' Tarasova unhinged her leg in back attitudes, displayed radiant epaulements, and projected her character in every onstage moment. Andrei Ivanov danced the role of the jester in "Swan Lake," his wild-card character permitting a dash of male bravura that was otherwise lacking. His powerful legs propelled him through jetes and tours en l'air. He prepared for turns in a wide second position: this was somewhat anomalous, and definitely less attractive than the conventional fourth position.

Today, even as top dancers are lured to companies in other countries, the Kirov continues to train its dancers at every level to identify the refined nuances of the language, not just the acrobatics, and not just as a means to a principal rank. While watching ABT, it's nearly impossible to remember ballet outside the escalating dominance of the power male; how it could possibly entertain or move us. Or how a ballet four hours long could sustain interest when the usual three hours max is more than enough. There's a whole other world out there.

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