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Vasily Tkachenko as the Humpbacked Horse, Vladimir Shklyarov as Ivan the Fool, Viktoria Tereshkina as Tsar Maiden, Andrei Ivanov as Tsar, and Yuri Smekalov as Gentleman of the Bedchamber in the Mariinsky Ballet's production of Alexei Ratmansky's "The Humpbacked Horse." Photo copyright 2011 Stephanie Berger and courtesy Lincoln Center Festival.

Copyright 2011 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- For 24 hours after the Mariinsky Ballet opened its week-long visit to the Metropolitan Opera House with Alexei Ratmansky's 2010 production of "Anna Karenina" this summer, its reputation as one of the world's great companies was seriously in doubt. The production was so dispiriting it left the impression that Ratmansky and most particularly veteran composer Rodion Shchedrin had decided their fellow Russians were so familiar with the novel that its incidents and characters could be merely sketched in. Throughout the evening, the stage seemed to be thronged with dancers, the great Diana Vishneva among them, who had been asked to give less than 100%. There was little that was "festive" about the Mariinsky's contribution to Lincoln Center Festival 2011.

The company's artistic director Valery Gergiev was in town to conduct the first two performances of 'Anna' and the July 12 New York premiere of Shchedrin and Ratmansky's "The Little Humpbacked Horse." The Mariinsky orchestra responded splendidly to his demands but there was only so much that even Gergiev could do. Had he been an alchemist instead of a mere conductor, he could have transformed leaden music into golden themes worthy of Tolstoy. Shchedrin seemed to be about to dip into Tchaikovsky's Second ("Little Russian") Symphony a couple of times in 'Anna,' but he often settled instead for something loud, predictable and insistent. When Anna walked towards an approaching locomotive and and to her death, the orchestra merely droned. Like almost every dramatic moment, her suicide was staged with a minimum of imagination: The stage was obscured by clouds of dry-ice fog through which a rather undersized, low-lying "headlight" slowly approached. Curtain.

A sumptuous production worthy of the 19th century never appeared. Mikael Melbye's stark unit setting often suggested the rounded walls of a rotunda's interior. (If a projection of bookshelves materialized and a desk slid in from the wings, you were supposed to be in Karenin's library.) The exception to this stylization was the utterly mad scene in which the back wall opened up and a railroad car was brought forward for a spin on a turntable, then sent right back upstage, never to be seen again. Was this ponderous pirouette intended to prepare us for that "locomotive"?

Give Ratmansky credit for approximating the horse race in which Vronsky (Yuri Smekalov) was almost killed: a spirited, if forgettable, ensemble dance for corps men was performed before a huge projection of galloping hooves. Shchedrin is good at calling up galloping hooves without having the percussion resort to using to coconut shells. (It was also gratifying to see the Mariinsky corps at full strength after over half the troupe had been left in St. Petersburg for the company's disappointing 2008 City Center visit.)

All too often staging consisted of stating the obvious. Anna the Fallen Mother was separated from her little son twice when once would have been enough. Choreography was so sketchy when Anna the Fallen Woman entered in a tomato red gown that the corps, formally dressed in white or beige, simply turned their backs on her. A similar confrontation for Bette Davis in William Wyler's 1938 "Jezebel" had more impact and it was filmed in black-and-white.

Diana Vishneva, Konstantin Zverev, and Islom Baimuradov in the Mariinsky Ballet's production of Alexei Ratmansky's "Anna Karenina." Natasha Razina courtesy Lincoln Center.

Ratmansky can be so good at sketching in a character -- Yevgenia Obraztsova's Kitty was a brilliant cameo -- but it was mystifying how infrequent and generic the lovers' pas de deux were. (Granted, Smekalov's indulgence in high kicks had already made Vronsky not only monotonous but a little goofy.) For the first time, I saw a Vishneva performance that didn't leave me thinking no one else could have danced it better. Anna was within the reach of any beautiful ballerina. I second Alastair Macaulay's suggestion in the New York Times that luminous close-ups of Garbo in Clarence Brown's 1935 "Anna Karinina" should have been included among the projections. I would have even settled for Vivien Leigh in Julien Duvivier's 1948 remake.

"The Little Humpbacked Horse" proved a merry gallop after this funk. The Mariinsky's marvelous corps devoured the demanding, high-caloric fare Ratmansky had set before them, and half a dozen excellent dancers in major roles feasted on the opportunity to act as well as move in hilarious ways. Andrei Ivanov as a four-foot high Tsar and Smekalov as a Gentleman of the Bed Chamber with weird revolving wrists were particularly droll.

'Horse' is based on a 19th-century satirical folk tale by Pyotr Yershov that had gone through two composers and four choreographers before Ratmansky took it on in 2009; his chief mistake was agreeing to work with the unavoidable Shchedrin. (I trust the reader knows that this hack's marriage to Bolshoi assoluta Maya Plisetskaya may have opened a few doors for him.) Another score would take some time to compose, but a better production wouldn't be hard to come by; designer Maxim Isayev obviously believed that substituting drab slabs for settings and keeping corps costumes monotonously ugly were just what a fairy tale needed in the 21st century. One throng of men in green looked like Mad Hatters. Red predictably dominated the costumes of a flock of firebirds uniformly topped by fiery spiky wigs.

Vladimir Shklyarov as Ivan the Fool and Vasily Tkachenko as The Humpbacked Horsein the Mariinsky Ballet's production of Alexei Ratmansky's "The Humpbacked Horse." Photo copyright 2011 Stephanie Berger and courtesy Lincoln Center Festival.

At least the lead dancers never disappointed. Vladimir Shklyarov, our endearing peasant hero Ivan the Fool, was bare chested throughout much of Act I, looking as lithe and long-legged as an Olympic swimmer. He maintained a taut line as he moved like the wind; his side-straddle hops in the final scene were exemplary in height and number. Viktoria Tereshkina could have gotten by on her comic timing as the imperious Tsar Maiden, whom Ivan hopes to wed, but she went ahead to dance with an undulantly supple line and a sensational technique. Corps boy Vasily Tkachenko flaunted a principal's authority as he scampered through the title role, shouldering the responsibility of protecting Ivan during the predictably preposterous quests required to win Tsar Maiden. Whether Ivan had to dive beneath the sea or clamber into a vat of scalding water, he survived unscathed with the Horse's help. Frankly I never doubted he would.

More passages like the soothing ensemble for six wet nurses -- yes, wet nurses -- would have been welcome, but Shchedrin and the plot permitted few such respites. I remain in awe of Ratmansky's inexhaustible, sometimes overly generous ingenuity and the Mariinsky dancers' indefatigable response to it. American Ballet Theatre's artistic director Kevin McKenzie, spotted at intermission, had a decided gleam in his eye. I predict ABT will present 'Horse' within a few seasons. Herman Cornejo and Daniil Simkin will co-star. Tereshkina may guest.

Shchedrin could not be avoided in the double bill of Alberto Alonso's "Carmen Suite" and Balanchine's "Symphony in C." In 1967 he had torn into the great Bizet opera to reduce it to a debased arrangement for strings and percussion, dominated by woodblocks, for a highly stylized, unintentionally hilarious one-act ballet starring Plisetskaya. Alonso followed through with a brutal condensation of the libretto set in a bull ring in which five dancers come and go while corps members look on from above. It made sense only if you knew the opera and if you knew the opera, you would have hated every single minute of it (especially those cuckoo-like woodblocks). Ulyana Lopatkina as Carmen embodied sex with derrick-like 180-degree extensions on pointe, often pulling her knee toward her face when it was at eye level. Daniil Korsuntsev as Don Jose must have been aroused for he kept wiping his palms on his thighs.

Viktoria Tereshkina and Andrian Fadeyev in the Mariinsky Ballet's production of George Balanchine's "Symphony in C." Natasha Razina photo courtesy Lincoln Center.

Bizet fared much better under conductor Alexei Repnikov in "Symphony in C." The company was entirely costumed in white with the women in tutus that Irina Press, possibly in a desperate nod to Contemporary Taste, had made to resemble saucers when she designed this Mariinsky production in 1996. Although this rather domestic shape took some getting used to, the company rose as one to meet its relentless challenge. The dancers sometimes looked rather spread out to fill the huge Met stage, but the steps lost nothing in clarity, precision or musicality. All three leads from 'Horse' were back. In the first movement, Tereshkina was in total command opposite Andrian Fadeyev, and Tkachenko looked like the world's greatest demi-soloist, firmly centered but light as air.

Yekaterina Kondaurova brought an eloquent Maria Kowroski-like line and presence to the Adagio with Evgeny Ivanchenko, but I wish that Balanchine Trust stager Colleen Neary had made the two demi couples finish much closer to the principals at the hushed conclusion of this mesmerizing movement. The intimacy of this final grouping is as essential as its symmetry: the central couple brought forward at the center; the ballerina repeatedly, languidly falling into her partner's arms; the corps divided into two lines of three women behind them, each woman freezing into a lunge as the demi couples, the men reaching out over the corps' heads to their partners, pass on either side (a move I probably shouldn't think of as "threading the needle" but I do). For years at New York City Ballet, watching the Froman twins Kurt and Kyle and their demi partners advance at a stately pace to invariably finish on either side of the principal couple as the ballerina flowed downward into her ultimate, liquid pose in her partner's arms on the final beat, performance after performance, was positively beatific.

Shklyarov, our Ivan the Fool and already an audience favorite, earned a burst of applause at his entrance in the Scherzo and repaid the adulation in noble fashion. I followed him so closely with my glasses I fear I paid insufficient attention to his partner Obraztsova, that tiny charmer of great authority. Again a movement looked more spaced out at its conclusion than at NYCB. I was more bothered by the principals' rather perfunctory return upstage: They merely walked on without leaping into position to land on beat -- a major lack, Ms. Neary.

Maria Shirinkina and Alexei Timofeev got the finale off to a good start and the superbly disciplined, divinely long-legged corps did the rest. You've seen a great "Symphony in C" if your admiration for Balanchine's verdant musicality and formal invention and the teen-age Bizet's efflorescent genius are higher than ever at its conclusion, and if that happens, you've seen a great company as well, whatever its tutus look like.

Valery Gergiev directs the Mariinsky Orchestra in performances of the six Tchaikovsky symphonies in three concerts, October 14-16 at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley.

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