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Flash Review 1, 10-21: Bringing Petrouchka Home
Zakharova Shines, Accuracy Suffers in Maryinsky (Kirov) Nijinsky-Fokine Program

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- If technique is the greatest strength of dancing coming out of Russia, in recent years it has also become its greatest liability. A young body that is true to the choreography can bring an old story back from the dead. But too often a young body is deployed more to represent the strengths of that body than the artistry of the choreography. Svetlana Zakharova, one of a new generation of star dancers produced by the Ballet of the Maryinsky Theatre -- referred to as the Kirov in its U.S. tours -- initially seemed more concerned with reaching the six o'clock extension than finding the artistic intent behind the steps. But judging by her performance as Zobeide (inexplicably renamed "Sheherazade" in the Maryinsky's current production of the Michel Fokine ballet of the same name), Zakharova has now abandoned technique for its own sake, the propulsion in her legs only important insofar as it enables expressive gesture. All that kept this "Sheherazade," part of an all Nijinsky-Fokine evening seen Friday at the Theatre du Chatelet, from being perfect was Faroukh Rouzimatov, Zakharova's embarrassingly over-the-hill partner. And if the evening as a whole was marred by similarly sloppy scholarship in the program notes and credits, it was marked by a command performance by the Maryinsky Orchestra and Chorus, directed by Mikhail Agrest with choir chief Andrei Petrenko.

The Maryinsky's Paris run, part of Chatelet's ambitious Saison Russe, also includes its reconstruction of "La Bayadere" and, beginning tomorrow, last year's new production of "The Nutcracker," directed and designed by Mikhail Chemiakin and choreographed by Kirill Simonov. But it's the Nijinsky-Fokine program which should resonate the strongest in Chatelet, the birthplace of two of the ballets on the program, the 1911 "Petrouchka" and the 1909 "Danses Polovtsiennes."

While also created on Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and premiered in Paris, "Sheherazade" premiered at the Garnier. Oh but that this intricate staging, by Isabelle Fokine and Andris Liepa, could have replaced the soft-core pageant that Blanca Li turned in for her new "Sheherazade" on last season's Ballets Russes program at the Opera!

From the Odalisques to the corps -- the real star of this program, even if the powers that be didn't see fit to list their names in the program! -- what's recreated here is a series of friezes, evoking, at least, the early twentieth century Orientalist conception of this world of sultans and harems, if not the real thing. Even if Orientalism did over-simplify and exoticize the peoples of the Middle East, it wasn't a stereotype that stopped at shimmies. A frequent motif in this "Sheherazade," for example, involves groups of women dancing with their bodies positioned as the "less than" sign, torso and legs at slight angles from the waist, feet balancing on the balls, chins inclined slightly even as their heads tilt backwards with their faces toward the audience. Whether or not the stylized dancing for the corps accurately represents the Fokine original is hard to know, but it appears, at least, to be an improvement from the disintegration the choreography underwent in the years following its creation. Reviewing a Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo version in 1944, Edwin Denby (cited in Balanchine's "Complete Stories of the Great Ballets," edited by Francis Mason) wrote in the New York Herald Tribune:

"Nowadays the small orchestra, the clumsily executed decor, the earnest but overworked dancers can't create any sense of abandon. The trouble is that there is no dance form, nothing for them to do as dancers. There is only miming and hubbub, and that doesn't keep for thirty years. A dance ballet can keep fresh because of its form, because arms and legs stay arms and legs; but when the dancers have to pretend to be something they aren't, a ballet gradually disintegrates into a charade."

Besides the corps dancing, the 'frieze' aspect for which was set by Odalisques Galina Rakhmanova, Alexandra Iosifidi, and Yana Serebriakova, this "Sheherezade" is saved from becoming a charade by the lush playing of the Maryinsky Orchestra, which under Agrest's spirited direction breathes new life into the familiar Rimsky-Korsakov score, and by the devotion with which everyone but particularly Zakharova gives themselves over to responding to the music's overt sensuality. (The dancers are no doubt also inspired by Anna and Anatoly Nezhny's ornate designs, after the Leon Bakst originals.) Zakharova rides it, her pelvis softly contracting for her lover, Rouzimatov's Favorite Slave; this is a woman in heat, and the ballerina gives herself over to portray this. She lives up to the record of the interpretation of this role by Tamara Karsavina, who took over not long after Ida Rubinstein originated it. As Carl van Vechten wrote (op. cit.): "Karsavina's Zobeide is a suggestive picture of languorous lust." Zakharova conveyed that lust particularly in her active upper body, supine when calling the Favorite Slave, and arching achingly in death. But she got the small moments too: The horn that signals the ruse of a hunt for Prince Shahryear, whose favorite concubine she is, also signals, to her, the promise of an orgy with the male slaves, which we know by the way her alert torso stiffens when she hears it. After the prince and his conniving brother surprise the orgy party and massacre all its other participants and Zobeide stabs herself in the heart, we feel her death throes by the hyper-extended arch in her foot.

Of the dancer on whom Fokine created the role of the Favorite Slave, van Vechten wrote: "....Nijinsky, as the principal salve, alternates between surprising leaps into the air and the most lascivious gestures; like some animal, he paws the reclining Sultana." Alexandre Benois, the librettist -- the program for this current engagement incorrectly credits the book to Bakst and Fokine -- described Nijinsky's interpretation as "half-cat, half-snake, fiendishly agile, feminine and yet wholly terrifying." Perhaps Rouzimatov was agile at one point in his long career; now the only thing surprising about him in this role is that the Maryinsky would cast in this famously ferile part someone who carries his legs around like heavy logs. Rouzimatov brings little elevation or elocution to this role, making his interpretation a blight on the memory of the Nijinsky original, and damaging this production's credibility. The second aspect in which this production is not true to the original or, indeed, to its source, is the blithe renaming of Zobeide as Sheherazade (I'm using the French spelling) -- when, in fact, the tale Fokine choreographed is just one of the 1001 (albeit the first) that Sheherazade narrates in "Arabian Nights."

"Petrouchka" should have benefited from a reprisal in the theater which gave it birth, but, strangely, here the corps fell short of the infectious energy necessary to draw us in to the public square of St. Petersburg in which this ballet burlesque opens. Strangely because this corps, which hails from St. Petersburg, dances with less abandon than the cast of last season's Paris Opera Ballet production. (The latter was reconstructed by Nicholas Beriosoff and the former by Sergei Vikharev, after Leonid Leontiev, after Fokine. Both used similar reconstructions of Benois's designs.)

If Laurent Hilaire in the POB production evoked a puppet in his jerky movements, the Maryinsky's Andrian Fadeyev is more of a Raggedy Andy in his interpretation of the doomed puppet with a human heart. Less technically astute, Fadeyev's under-played approach was just as tragic. This tragedy was illuminated by Zhanna Ayoupova's Ballerina, who's sly dancing and overt flirting with the third puppet, the embarrassingly made up (in black-face) Moor, makes clear that Petrouchka's love for her is unrequited.

She may not be as charismatic as Zakharova, but the veteran Ayoupova is one of those ballerinas on whom directors like to build a solid company. Her technique is fine, but really she finds the characterization in and on the music, first Friday night in Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" and then pristinely in the fantasia that Fokine wove out of Berlioz's orchestration of Carl Maria von Weber's "Invitation to the Waltz" for his 1911 "Spectre de la Rose." She makes it clearer than it's ever been made to me that the young girl's dream here is a rhapsody on the music. She hears him before she sees him. As the Spectre, where other dancers (such as Vladimir Malakhov) have missed the mark by playing this spectre fey, Igor Kolb knows that you don't have to be a fop to play a rose....You just need to be a rose embodied as a man. From his first leap through the windows to his exit, Kolb freezes in his jetes ethereally. It was the first moment in the evening where I found myself thinking of Nijinsky, who was probably more androgynous than feminine in his dancing.

Just a few minutes after this morsel concluded, Maryinsky chorus, orchestra, and dancers burst out with a flaming "Danses Polovtsiennes." (You'd recognize the Borodine music even if you're not familiar with the music from the opera "Prince Igor" -- it includes the lyrics we know as "Stranger in Paradise.") Here the Kirov men came fully to life, particularly a corps of archers who pounded on the ground full body temper-tantrum like and moved across the stage at precarious angles while holding their bows. This was spectacle, a tour-de-force in which, dancewise, man, did that Vaganova Academy training show! I could also see, particularly in the pounding and stamping in this work which premiered in 1909, where Nijinsky could have found some inspiration for his revolutionary corps-work in creating his "Sacre du Printemps" four years later.

My eyes long ago glazed over at the mere word "Firebird," so I almost skipped out before the Isabelle Fokine-Andris Liepa reconstruction of Fokine's original (1910) which closed Friday's program. On the bright side, Anna and Anatoly Nezhny's costumes, "after" the originals of Alexandre Golovine and Leon Bakst, were the least silly of the three productions I've now seen, the others being Balanchine's and John Taras's. However, if "Sheherazade" was helped by Zakharova's utter investment in the lead role, "Firebird" was sunk by Diana Vishneva, a dancer who apparently can only animate one part of her body at a time. I for one would not be frightened of this twittering canary. Yana Serebriakova, as the Beautiful Princess, did her best to compensate, quite effectively never taking her eyes of Andrei G. Yakovlev's strudy and single-minded Prince from the moment she saw him.

Still, having now seen the original, I am convinced that any and all versions of this ballet should now go into what the New York City Ballet season brochures, describing ballets not currently in the repertoire, refer to as a "rest." A nice long one.

....The ballets, that is. We are still talking Stravinsky, here, and if the one clear (and significant) failure of the Maryinsky's Nijinsky-Fokine evening was in its scholarship, the one resounding success was in the vibrancy the Maryinsky Orchestra brought to this well-known and oft-performed music, from the violin solos in "Sheherazade" to the triangle ringing. There was a period where the best New York City Ballet audiences could hope for from the orchestra was that it didn't screw the dance up; well, imagine if the NYCB was accompanied by the New York City Philharmonic every night, and you get a sense of the double treat the Maryinsky, directed by Valery Gergiev (although he won't be performing at the rest of the ballet performances), has brought to Paris, and which continues Tuesday night with "The Nutcracker."

P.S. The Chatelet-produced program book also falls short in the area of scholarship, noting that Diaghilev "...changed the course of Ballet in 20th-century France by introducing the creations of Nijinsky, Massine, Balanchine, or Fokine during the first tour of the Ballets Russes, at Chatelet, in 1909." George Balanchine, boy wonder!

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