It was such a treat when the Mariinsky Ballet breezed through northern California at Berkeley’s Cal Performances a few weeks ago. There were many pleasures to be had in their brief stay, and adjectives such as “traditional” and “old world” come to mind with the feeling that perhaps this is a little closer to what the original Swan Lake was intended to be like. But who knows, right? More than that, this production made me realize how “stylized” my ballet-watching eyes were, and how it had been shaped by the flashy (perhaps Balanchinean?) styles of American dance companies in modern ballet companies today.
One big difference – American dance companies appear to favor soloists over the corps. Say what you will about possible political influences of American individualism and freedom vs. Russian communism, but there is more flash and individuality in the dancers I’m used to seeing on the North American stage, with big personalities. In the Mariinsky Ballet’s Swan Lake, the corps were impeccable and beautiful, the heart of the show. They didn’t dance to announce, “see, we can dance together”, but the corps breathed together in a collective and powerful tour de force. The corps dancing was more instinctive, rather than intentional, with incredible awareness of the placement of the other dancers. The effect was in short, breathtaking.
On the flip side however, there were a few characters who could use a bigger personality. The role of the jester was rather lackluster, without humor or joyful buoyancy, appearing to merely perform the steps. I could think of more than a few dancers who could have danced that role better for laughs and in general be more “jester-like”.
Not to say that there weren’t amazing soloists. Ekaterina Kondaurova showed us how much fun it is to be Odile, with a look that could kill and a fierce sexuality. She tore up the stage as Odile, and it was obvious that she loving every minute of it. Her Odette was characterized by sensual back bends that arched forever, a strong portrayal filled more with tragedy rather than fragility. She imbued cool elegance and glamour in her long extensions, but I couldn’t help but to feel that there was a detached cold quality to her dancing particularly in her Odette. Systematic yet ultimately still it was lovely – it was a quality I couldn’t quite put my finger on. She was partnered by Danila Koruntsev, who danced the role of Prince Siegfried. He was a deft partner, but unfortunately this role is not a good showcase of his skills as a soloist, but he performed ably and nobly. Another standout dancer was Xander Parish in the male lead in the peasant trio, looking anything but peasant-like. His long extensions were noble and graceful, with a regal elegance that really stood out. He is definitely a dancer to watch, with an arresting stage presence and perfect body proportions for ballet.
Another huge asset to this production was the Mariinsky Orchestra. Not only is live music becoming more rare these days, but the emotive power of this famous orchestra surged and propelled the story in its wake. Unfortunately the music surged towards the tragic ending, but the Mariinsky chose a happy ending where Von Rothbart is killed in a semi-ridiculous and half hearted dance-fight and Prince Siegfried and Odette are united in love forever. The most discordant part about this happy ending was the music sustained tragedy in gorgeous phrases, but a short and quickened happy ending was an unexpected twist that I hadn’t been expecting.
Overall, it was a glimpse of old world charm on a classic, Swan Lake. This production is the reason why this production still stands today, and the Mariinsky Ballet breathed life into this production with an emphasis on all the right things. We can quibble about details, but most likely this is secondary to my taste – I could not get used to the bows after every movement of the pas de deux, and I think my jaw dropped when the music actually stopped and Kondaurova took a bow after her fouettes in the Odile variation – but this really is the reason why this ballet has stayed so long in our repertoire as well as our hearts.
Many thanks to Gene Schiavone for letting me use his gorgeous photos. Check out his Facebook page for many more photos of this production as well as others.