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Flash Review 2, 7-23: Petersburg on the Hudson
With "Jewels," Kirov/Maryinsky Brings Balanchine Home

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2002 Alicia Mosier

NEW YORK -- George Balanchine's "Jewels" is a dream of history, a distillation of memories. A central part of that history, those memories, is the ballet of St. Petersburg, in which Balanchine grew up and to which he returned again and again even in his most modern, most radical works. It was a mesmerizing circling about of history last week at the Metropolitan Opera House as the Kirov Ballet -- the Maryinsky of Balanchine's youth -- closed its season at the Lincoln Center Festival with its New York debut in this ballet. The Kirov has been dancing "Jewels" for thirteen years; this city has not seen it since the New York City Ballet presented it three years ago. Last Thursday, the Kirov of 2002 performed this great work of 1967 in a way that brought us -- as through a jeweler's loupe -- breathtakingly close to the memories Balanchine summons up in "Jewels."

By "close," I mean that these dancers do not share the degree of remove from the ballet's sources that Balanchine's own dancers had. His dancers were Americans looking into a kaleidoscope, seeing where they themselves came from, the colors of centuries lighting up their eyes; these dancers look into the ballet and see their own reflections directly, which gives the work a fascinating (if somewhat less subtle) look. The French perfume of "Emeralds," the first section in this three-act work, set to music from Gabriel Faure's "Pelleas et Melisande" and "Shylock," has as its base note both the aesthetic of Mallarme and Debussy and its precursor, Romanticism -- the same Romanticism that inspired so much of nineteenth-century Russian ballet (think of the Wilis, those ladies of the forest). "Diamonds," the third act, is Petipa through and through; its music is Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 3 in D major (composed just before "Swan Lake"). In the middle is riotous "Rubies," to Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, in which classic ballet is flexed and jazzed and hotted up: the Russian court meets the Big Apple.

It was in "Rubies" that the Kirov put on its best show, tearing into Balanchine's inversions and jokes like birthday cake. This act can't but be a showstopper; it's one of Balanchine's most delectable concoctions, a reminder that he once choreographed for Broadway and Hollywood, a delicious brew of temptation and elation. Stravinsky's strict rhythms are those of the subway -- clack-clack, screech, and whoosh -- and the way the corps dancers stuck to them gave this performance a thrilling exactitude.

Diana Vishneva, in the role originated by Patricia McBride, looked startlingly "American" -- bold and bawdy, but sweetly so. With a sway in her back and her head tossed up, Vishneva pranced and bolted like a prize pony. She looked more at home in the part's punchy cakewalks than many American dancers do. And with her impeccable Russian training, she brought Balanchine's jokes into high relief, so that every flexed foot was precisely what it was not: a pointed foot. By the end of her brassy, seductive pas de deux with Viacheslav Samodurov, she had the audience screaming. In the second female lead, Sofia Gumerova was game, but not rangy enough to make the role's big strides look easy. Samodurov gave a hearty if somewhat clenched performance, full of high twisting jumps, of the street-tough male role created for Edward Villella.

With its wash of green and its gentle melodies, "Emeralds" is as different from "Rubies" as it could be, yet it shares with the second act something it also shares with "Diamonds": a heraldic dimension; a flicker of legends; an iconic pageantry. This ballet is often described as seeming to take place underwater, and indeed in the opening moments the arms of the corps wave like seaweed -- pale, floating, timeless. The women look like water maidens, mermaids singing out of the sea. Some have seen a forest, too; when a man and two women (on Thursday, Anton Korsakov, Xenia Ostreikovskaya, and the shining Yana Selina) enter for a jaunty pas de trois, it's like a fox-hunt in the time of the troubadours.

Then there is the ballerina's famous "bracelets" solo -- all bourees, piques, and port de bras, sparkling and soft as a necklace resting on a velvet cushion -- which, according to its originator, Violette Verdy, takes place "in a bedroom." In the Verdy role, the quiet Zhanna Ayupova -- one of the Kirov's more traditional dancers (no ear-kicking extensions for her) -- was sylphlike and flirtatious, with pillowy jumps and a mysterious smile. The second ballerina's role is more various, more searching. She traverses the stage in a waltz, tipping on and off her toes, then enters again with a partner, leaning on his arm, walking on pointe down a path that seems unknown to him. Veronika Part (who joins American Ballet Theatre as a soloist next week) seemed unsure of the music in this role on Thursday night; her phrasing was her own, not Faure's, and in her solo the floating off pointe was more like falling. But her amplitude and warmth made me want to see her in the part again.

"Diamonds" opens with a long polonaise in which the corps, in white tutus encrusted with jewels, arranges itself in ropes and strands and pendants. (There was a slightly beige hue to their tutus, the one mistake in the otherwise perfect recreation by Holly Hynes of Karinska's costumes.) This passage usually seems interminable; we know we're just waiting for the ballerina to arrive. In the Kirov's hands, its full Russian grandeur was revealed. The line to "Diamonds" from the company's "Swan Lake" a week before was very clear -- and thus the line from Petipa to Balanchine.

Like so many Balanchine works, "Jewels" is full of inscrutable women, but none is as much her own world as the ballerina in "Diamonds." In this act, unlike the others, the woman's role is not split between two dancers. There is only one woman here -- indeed, it's almost as if there is only one person, and all the others are the sparkles from her single perfect stone. She contains everything; what she reveals depends on how she chooses to turn in the light. Perhaps more than any other, this role is identified with Suzanne Farrell, for whom it was created. It has been difficult for other dancers to make an impression in it, but Svetlana Zakharova -- as different a dancer from Farrell as can be imagined -- had no difficulty.

Zakharova's body is chiseled, her bearing that of a princess, and in the pas de deux that is the heart of the entire evening she spoke (as it were) in full, clear sentences. She is not an introspective dancer; her movement is less "organic," more full of poses, than one might wish. But here, with her slightly hard edge, she unspooled Balanchine's steps like a fine silver thread, glinting and serene. She drew the audience very deep into her spell, growing ever more distilled, ever more remote in concentrated legato. When, at the end, a reverent Danila Korsuntsev knelt at her feet and kissed her hand, it could not have been a more natural gesture. Both of them overemphasized their solos after this, throwing themselves off balance, but the finale was a rush of joy, corps and principals in breathless union. This "Diamonds" was the completion of Zakharova's performance as Odette a week ago. In more ways than one, this "Jewels" was like a homecoming.

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