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Moscow Ballet's "The Great Russian Swan Lake"

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I saw this afternoon's performance by the Moscow Ballet's "Great Russian Swan Lake" in Portland. It did make me wonder to read the following quote by Mikhail Lavrosky in the program intro: "[choreographer Anatoli] Emelianov is indeed talented with his modern vision of art and his contemporary way of thinking. His ballet is built on a classical basis but at the same time it is free of dogma and is non-traditional." Oy, visions of a "contemporary" ballet went through my head, and when my accompanying friend asked me how this would be different from Christopher Stowell's version for OBT in June, I was a bit afraid to answer. I think this quote means different things from a Russian point of view. What I saw was a production that had been scaled for a smallish company with not a huge number of men -- there was no company roster, but I wouldn't be surprised if the percentage was 1/3 -- touring in small to medium venues across the world, and short enough to perform twice in one day without killing the dancers. Not all of the Ivanov choreography was there, and the Act IV pas de deux was, sadly, cut. But the original choreography, including a non-traditional ending, fit seamlessly into the old. If that's what "free of dogma" means, I'm all for it.

First the visuals. The sets were a few curtains and a few drops, with several places to sit in Act III. (So very easy to tour with.) The costumes were very detailed and beautiful, but they were scaled for smaller theaters, using fabric and trim that looked opulent from close up and never gaudy. The tutus were lovely, and Odile's was particularly fabulous, with a fluted edging that was suggestive of feathers, and multi-colored sequins patterned to suggest two peacock feathers on the plate.

The music was recorded, which made some of the cueing awkward. There was bit of visible checking back and forth in the group scenes; this would have been unnecessary had there been a conductor. Since this was sponsored by Clear Channel, the recorded announcements were too chipper and canned.

It's probably a very good all-around proposition to use local children -- over 30 in each performance -- in the production. A small group were in the back of the Act I court scene, they were small swans adorning Act II -- they were out of the way during the serious dancing -- and a group of older dancers accompanied Benno in his Act III solo in lines on either side of him. Not only does the Company forge relationships with local teachers and the community, but judging from the number of bouquets in the audience, those kids generate ticket sales. The house was packed, and the kids in the audience, at least in the Orchestra, were incredibly well-behaved. In fact, it was one of the best-behaved audiences I've been in for quite a long time.

The program listed multiple dancers for most of the roles -- more than the number of performances in Portland -- and I have no idea which dancers performed most of the roles. I'll try for descriptions.

The ballet opened with Siegfried onstage. I guessed it was he, because he was wearing white, except for the black trim on his top. The reason this was a guess was because he was the sunniest, happiest Siegfried I've ever seen. He is a blond with long, slender legs, very young-looking, and beaming. His Benno, by contrast, looked older and incredibly grim. (He did crack a kind of half smile on the right side of his face during Act III, after doing a rather magnificent split turning jump to end his solo, but that's all he gave us, and, of the men, only Siegfried and von Rothbart got curtain calls at the end. Perhaps he was Maxim Klekovkin, who's also listed as a Siegfried; there was an evening performance at 7pm.)

In this interpretation of Siegfried, he was a happy Prince, perhaps a bit coddled. In Act I, when the Queen tells him to marry, he says no, but he doesn't brood for very long. Even in his solo, in with von Rothbart shadows him, wearing a black version of his costume, he wasn't terribly troubled or curious. Siegfried wasn't really seeking anything, but when he saw Odette in Act II, his life was transformed and had purpose. In Act III, unlike the Princes who have to be let kicking and screaming to be nice to the Princesses and who are perfunctory in their duties, this Siegfried was so happy to be in love, and so unaware that this was a marriage set up, that he was very gracious to them because everyone should be as happy as he. While they had their own short solos one at a time, he would walk downstage and indicate that he was thinking of Odette, but on the whole, he was so charming that when he refused to marry any of them, it was almost a shock. During his scenes with Odile, he didn't have a lot of doubts, and he was appropriately crushed when he realized he made a mess of it. Because the Act IV pas de deux was cut, he didn't have a lot of chance to mourn with Odette.

According to the introduction in the program, this version was created "especially for U.S. audiences." I wonder if this influenced the Company's direction of the Siegfried character. Having seen Prime the night before, I was struck by the resemblance between the young, childlike male lead, whose horizons are widened when he falls for Uma Thurman, and for whom he wants to be a prince. A simpler character, and certainly not one with existential angst.

There were interesting musical selections for Act I. The pas de trois was not the traditional one, with excerpts from the original Black Swan pas de deux (used by Balanchine in Tchaikovsky pas de Deux) -- another section was used for the rousing group dance towards the end of the act -- as well as other cuts and original choreography. Benno danced in the pas de trois -- I think he had more solo dancing than Siegfried -- and one of the women, who looked like a dark-haired version of Florence Fitzgerald, blew me away with the sweep and authority of her phrasing. She was one of the three tall swans in Valse Bluette and one of the black swans in Act IV -- each time, catching my eye immediately.

One of the very nice aspects of the production is that when von Rothbart was on stage, he was a force, not a creature. There was no cave dweller, swamp thing, birdman, flapping wings, stalking, etc. He got to do a good bit of classical dancing. One nice touch was that in Act III, at one point he "protects" Odile by wrapping her in his cape, which he wore as a piece of clothing, not as surrogate wings. He had the authority of an adult man, not a young Prince. VR was danced and portrayed wonderfully by Mikhail Filatov, and is listed in the program as "Von Rothbart, Evil Genius." :)

Act III was an inspiration; Emelianov made character dances -- in boots, character shoes, and ballet slippers -- out of the national dances, but still let the leads be Princesses. It was a thing of beauty to see perfect turnout and presentation of the foot in boots. Each one of the dancers was a gem, as differentiated as the fairies in Sleeping Beauty should be, and the choregraphy was provided the platinum settings. Julia Shamarova danced Spanish and opened by bending her back and twisting around in a way that I still think had to be an optical illusion -- not physically possible. (It was entirely in character.) Elena Vorbieva was a delightful, light Neopolitan. Unfortunately, I don't have enough information to be able to do the process of elimination on the other Princesses.

The corps was outstanding. If there is a perfect balance between energy and precision, and precision and individuality, this corps was it. They have a more diverse set of body types than the Kirov or POB's corps, yet they almost miraculously danced as one without losing their identities. They were ravishingly alive.

I don't know which dancer was Odette/Odile -- Tatiana Predina, Ekaterina Tikhonova, and Tatiana Suleymanova were listed in the program -- but she was a slender, perfectly proportioned brunette with extraodinarily articulate legs, long, supple arms, and an expressive back. She was also modern in a way that NYCB ballerinas are, using pure movement to speak phrases. When being partnered, she seemed most comfortable being supported by a hand on her wrist and less so when Siegfried came closer; her Odette was an unusually independent character as a result. Her Odile bypassed all of the snarky, witchy, seductive mannerisms. She won Siegfried by taking charge and radiating strength and confidence, and because he was so eager to let her. And she was very moving in the interpolated ending, where the violin solo from the White Swan pas de deux is replayed, and she dances a poignant solo, before being absorbed into the pack of her fellow swans. (Half in black and half in white.)

Whoever she was, my wish is that a West Coast company, and I don't even care which one, makes her and the tall swan from the pas de trois offers they can't refuse. (I'm only stopping with these two to avoid total greed.) Her Odette/Odile was not completely finished, but she is the real thing.

This Company doesn't have the size or the resources -- size of roster or orchestra -- that the Maryinski has, but having seen the Maryinski's Sleeping Beauty a few weeks ago, I think that overall, the women of this Swan Lake outdanced the Maryinski's women, and it provided, by far, the greater amount of pleasure for me.

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Thanks for the review, Helene. On the whole, it's wonderful that smaller cities are having the opportunity to see the classics via these touring companies. In West Palm Beach we've recently had a Swan Lake from Moscow Classical Ballet and a Sleeping Beauty from Russian National Ballet Theater. Both performances created and impession very close to that which you describe. One big difference was the lack of involvement with local ballet schools, so that what you saw on the stage was pretty much what came out of the bus the night before. I love the idea of enlisting local children. What a great opportunity for them, not to mention a guarantee of extra ticket sales from loyal families and friends. Incidentally, the performances I saw were both pretty much sold out, which shows that there is a demand for this sort of thing. (At least as far as the one-ballet-a-year crowd goes.) I'd love to see a slightly more adventurous choice of ballets, though.

Among the similarities between your experience and the two companies I've seen: simple design and staging, gorgeous and obviously expensive costumes, lousy sound system and occasional out-of-sync dancing, a preponderance of female dancers, the failure to identify which principal dancer was performing (very frustrating, and I would think quite insulting to the dancres).

One big difference: the corps we saw with both companies danced in a perfunctory and not-very-interested manner. It must be difficult to preserve excitement for such a repetitive performance schedule when you are doing limited and not very exciting choreography.

The soloists (Rothbart, Bluebird, etc.) were excellent. I know what you mean about wishing the local company would pick up a few of them. I wonder how many fine dancers take on this sort of gruelling work just in the hopes of that happening.

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