I was very fortunate to see the Mariinsky in their home theater(s) last week--three performances of the Sergeyev Swan Lake, one of Ratmansky's Cinderella and one of Alonso's Carmen which was part of a ballet-opera gala. I've commented on some aspects of these performances on other threads re Mariinsky and I'm aware too that these ballets have been toured a lot recently so many have seen them more than I, but I wanted to write a little about them anyway (if only for the sake of my own memory).
I know intellectually how great the Mariinsky corps is in Swan Lake, but though I have never doubted that greatness, it has been decades since I have seen the Mariinsky in Swan Lake--though I have seen them in other works--and I experienced the performances as a revelation--despite the absurd Sergeyev happy ending which even Lopatkina could not save for me. (The jester I could accept, partly because the role was well danced by both Popov and Tkachenko but mostly because everyone else in the ensemble was so ravishing and I had plenty to look at...)
The corps de ballet does not move with military precision--not every pinky finger is in exactly the same location. Much better, each dancer is a distinctive being and yet they all move, breathe, and dance with a unified or, better, shared being. And every single one appears to carry herself with Vaganova style--beautiful backs, arms, shoulders, neck and head. When they stretch into a position the energy just radiates throughout their bodies individually and throughout the one body of the whole corps. Some of the women are more exquisite than others, but all belong to this stunning totality that--together with the outstanding solo and ballerina performances I was lucky enough to see--makes clear how much Swan Lake is a ballet about freedom.
The corps/ensemble dancing is exquisite and expressive not just in Acts II and IV--though that is where one feels it the most powerfully. From the moment they enter in Act I, one is struck by the elegance of the women and men. Their arms and hands alone simply put them on another level than other companies. In this ballet, they show genuine greatness and all other companies I have seen recently in Swan Lake look lame by comparison. (I do remember being stunned by the Bolshoi Swan Lake ensemble decades ago: as with the Mariinsky, I have not had the chance to see them in Swan Lake for many, many years). Those who have seen the company's Swan Lake on tour in recent years may be laughing--of course! that's what they look like--but I hardly think it can be praised enough.
Soloists and demi-soloists were also quality. I saw the 3D broadcast cast twice (albeit with some camera movement/noise interference): In the pas de trois Batoeva was particularly airy and easy -- and really outstanding on Thursday. I also very much liked Ivanikova's dancing (at once sharp and light with wonderful, high entrechats) and Xander Parish as well. He, like Batoeva, got better on Thursday. The other cast I saw, though, was also very good and I will single out Yevseyeva in the pas de trois for the easy fearless dancing that I associate with the Kirov-Mariinsky at its best. Among other soloists I will only mention what I have said elsewhere, that Skorik (as one of two swans) was lovely. Whatever her weaknesses in ballerina roles, she made a very fine impression here with lyrical evocative dancing.
Perhaps it goes without saying that the character dancing in pretty much all top Russian productions of 19th-century ballets is of a quality far beyond Western--certainly far beyond American--character dancing. Even so, one can't help but mention the Mariinsky's extraordinary elegance and verve in the character dances in Act III. The dancing seemed to get even better every performance I attended. In the Spanish dance the woman in the white dress for the broadcast performance had an especially supple back: if someone can tell me whether she was Stepanova or Bazhenova, I would be happy to know. And it wasn't just 'gymnastic' ('hey, look at that back') -- it was gorgeous dancing as indeed it was from everyone. I would also single out the fabulous Mazurka: I thought Gergiev took it at a faster pace than I, at least, was used to and that when I was sitting close up (at the broadcast performance) it was both incredibly exciting and yet distinctively elegant -- very Mariinsky not just great Russian character dancing. I really felt as if I were at some aristocrat's ballroom watching from the sides.
We have had debates on this website concerning "whither the Mariinsky": with this quality of corps/soloists/character dancing in Swan Lake, they have to be considered one of the great companies, whatever the vagaries of casting. (And whatever one thinks of the way they dance Balanchine.) The Ballerinas I saw were in different ways outstanding (Kondaurova, Pavlenko, and, for me, in a still different category, Lopatkina). The Siegfrieds were adequate/solid (Ivanchenko and Askerov). I actually thought Askerov is not only very presentable--tall, handsome, with a presence and smile that projects--but on Thursday night in particular came through with a very strong solo in the third act. However, overall, it was the male dancing (not the ballerinas) that pointed to weaknesses in the company. Neither Ivanchenko nor Askerov struck me as particularly interesting dancers. Askerov had notable weaknesses as a partner--in overhead lifts could not straighten his arms to really lift his ballerina, Kondaurova, in a strong position: she may not be easy to lift, but Andrey Yermakov as Rothbart did lift her way overhead, with arms straight up and she looked absolutely splendid. Yerkmakov's dancing was also excellent I thought--pretty much the most exciting male dancing I saw on my visit.
(A further side note on the men. Yermakov was rather less good as Don Jose in Carmen than as Rothbart, though I may give him a pass since it's such an absurd ballet. However, I actually found Ivanchenko slightly better as the Torero in Carmen than as Siegfried--more engaged--though I will say he made an excellent partner for Lopatkina in Swan Lake as well as Carmen. I saw Sergeyev as the Prince in Cinderella and he danced very well--it's a ballet designed to make its leads look good, but I have seen Sergeyev dance before and am confident he is a very fine dancer. But still, not quite a dancer one would rush to see and he was also a less than ideal partner for his Cinderella, Daria Pavlenko, as he is a bit short and slight for her. They actually botched one shoulder lift and she had to hold on with one hand as he carried her around. Shirinkina was originally scheduled and I think she is more petite than Pavlenko. All of which is to say that if I were to "worry" about the Mariinsky it might have as much to do with their leading men as with the occasional under-cast ballerina. Of course, I missed Shklyarov, but they should have more than one real male star. That said, their repertory is more ballerina-centric, and the men I saw were, in many ways, good, so...)
Ballerinas: Kondaurova in Swan Lake has been much discussed on the thread about the 3D film-cast. I will only underline that there were no mistakes at her performance the day before. However, a few nights earlier I saw Lopatkina--a performance of dreamlike, indeed, unspeakable beauty, certainly one of the greatest I have ever seen and I confess Kondaurova's qualities seem to me 'earthly' by comparison. I know the common criticisms of Lopatkina, but I did not find her "perfection" the least bit cold and I did not find her to be at all a diva. What I saw was unearthly beauty and transparent balletic form. She used her turn out far more than Kondaurova and altogether her dancing realized the Act II Ivanov choreography in particular in all its transcendent beauty.
She is not a "demonstrative" actress, but her dancing is not unexpressive: certainly not if one finds ballet expressive. I felt that I was seeing a pure distillation of Odette/Odile--as if the essence of the ballet were being set forth. I do not think I have ever seen an Act II that extraordinary (perhaps Makarova: I don't seem to have the sharp memory other ballet fans do, but I certainly reacted to Makarova similarly and I do recall her extraordinary legato qualities.).
I should say, too, no exaggerated extensions in sight. Indeed I would characterize her whole performance as modest, absolutely without special effects, just pure ballet, as if she was letting us see the choreography rather than her 'interpretation.' It was strangely transparent dancing. Actually I found Kondaurova a bit more diva-ish in her mannerisms, with quite a number of interpretive effects (most of which I liked), going slower and faster, moving her head in a notable way etc. and yet still sometimes Kondaurova was less modulated and certainly less subtle in the use of positions and legs than Lopatkina. In the first set of attitude poses Odette takes (in this version) as she initially runs from Siegfried, Lopatkina began lower and more tentatively, building each pose into greater urgency, as indeed the music becomes more urgent. Kondaurova seemed to hit every attitude with equal force.
I know comparisons can be odious, but seeing Kondaurova so soon after seeing Lopatkina could not help but lead me to ponder the difference precisely because Kondaurova is really a fantastic ballerina and yet Lopatkina seemed on a different level...Even parts of the choreography I thought the younger more powerful ballerina would, of course, dance more strongly, Lopatkina somehow made more effective--the retiré-passé-entrechats that Odette does in the "coda" part of Act II. Neither of these tall ballerinas did them very fast, but Lopatkina (to my surprise) was much clearer and cleaner, (more turned out too) and even seemed as fast as Kondaurova--so she was altogether much more effective, that is, more beautiful in the passage.
Thinking more about why Lopatkina seemed so extraordinary to me, I realized, too, that I felt that at every single nano-second her position was utterly graceful--with Kondaurova transitions sometimes looked less so (even awkward occasionally in Act III), however beautiful she was most of the time and in all her major "moments." It may have been an illusion, but it seemed as if a photographer could not possibly catch Lopatkina at any moment in less than an utterly ideal position even when she was in transition. Her Odile was less impressive altogether--but subtle in characterization, beautifully if not sensationally danced, and yet again I almost preferred it to Kondaurova's very deliberate vamping (especially at Kondaurova's first, non broadcast performance). When Kondaurova threw her leg up to the side in a super vulgar extension (as if to say, that's Odile) it was much of a muchness. I still can't decide if I liked it or not. And at the first performance I saw Kondaurova dance, she seemed positively unmusical in her opening variation however much one admired the execution of the steps. This was better on Thursday and I agree with Macaulay that she really blew through the first variation impressively. (We have discussed on another thread the filigree beating of the leg before the developé to the side in the variation--Lopatkina includes it and Kondaurova does not. Of course, Kondaurova does double turns and is much more powerful than Lopatkina who, at times, seemed almost too ethereal for Odile. But the essence of the character was there. I loved Lopatkina's performance--every bit of it.)
Lopatkina's arms and legs hardly need additional praise given how much has been written about them, but still...I have never seen an arm able to bend at shoulder, elbow and wrist and finger joint with such clarity and strength and yet look utterly boneless: again, unearthly, as a ballerina in a dream...Her legs are stunning--how she uses them even more so. And everything integrated--talking about arms and legs is misleading in a way: her body draws a single line.
I saw her a few nights later in Carmen and having admired her interpretation of this (in my opinion ridiculous) ballet in New York, at this performance I decided just to wallow in her stunning form. At one point she took an arabesque that I thought was simply the most beautiful arabesque I had ever seen. (It was just at or just below 90 degrees.) Trying to think of something similarly beautiful in the way of arabesques all I could come up with was Anthony Dowell! As Carmen, even the way she turns her wrist is remarkable: expressive of the character's will and allure, yet at once simply and utterly beautiful. Have I drunk the Lopatkina kool-aid then?I did not find her, as some think, a great Balanchine dancer when I saw her in New York in Symphony in C--though I certainly admired her port de bras--but I do think she is the complete expression of the greatness of the Mariinsky today and deserves every accolade.
This is too long, but I should say something about Kondaurova's wonderfully womanly, sensual qualities as Odette-Odile and the power of her legs in Act III--she wields them as weapons--as well as the rich, warm pathos of her Act IV as she seems barely able to rise and yet does rise and dances in such a way as to capture the full sorrow in the music. I see in her the qualities people seem to admire in Part, in particular the sculptural beauty of form that carries emotion with it. Whe I first saw her bourrees as she made her entrance in Act II I thought they contained the entire drama of desperate yearning in a single image.
I should also say something about Cinderella. I found the production/choreography interesting enough that I would like to see it again. The spare sets work for me in some scenes, especially Cinderella's home, but feel flat in others. I had questions too about certain details: pure pantomime with many 'invisible' props for much of the opening scene, but then actual glasses in the scene with the dancing masters: why the change? And why the oddly touching exit of the villainess with her daughters? Definitely would like to explore the ballet at least once or twice more. I was very impressed by Ratmansky's ability to showcase the leads and found much of the dancing for them just beautiful. The ballet seems to me rather a gift to a ballerina especially. Pavlenko definitely took advantage. She was effectively low-key on the pathos, beautifully radiant in her dancing. I found the ensemble a bit ragged in parts; for example, the three hairdressers weren't perfectly coordinated which undermined the caricature, cartoon image Ratmansky seemed to be creating. Other soloists seemed to me adequate but not entirely filling out the choreography. However I did admire Konstantin Ivkin's solo as Autumn.
One final note: Macaulay recently criticized the girlishness of many NYCB soloists, their "arrested development" as he called it. I don't know that that is entirely fair, but there is something to it as one sees when one compares even the leading NYCB ballerinas (whom I love) to the ballerinas I saw at the Mariinsky. I was especially struck by the fact that Lopatkina, Kondaurova, and Pavlenko are definitely grown ups on stage--real women who carry with them and into their dancing the air of strong three-dimensional lives. I loved that quality in all of them, as different as they are. Great ballerinas.