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Back to the Future

Chucking a century's agglomeration of revisions, the Kirov looks to the original to inspire its astonishing new "Sleeping Beauty."

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Wide awake: The Kirov's Svetlana Zakharova and Denis Firsov in The Sleeping Beauty.  

"Go for broke" (literally and metaphorically) may have been the Kirov Ballet's slogan for its recension of the jewel in its crown: Marius Petipa's 1890 Sleeping Beauty, for which Tchaikovsky composed his most deliquescent score. Opening the venerable St. Petersburg company's two-week engagement at the Met, this radical and unthinkably costly production left its audiences astonished. Having decided that the marvels of its touchstone ballet had eroded gravely through latter-day revisions, the Kirov's new leader, Makhar Vaziev, marshaled a team of investigators and artists to go back to available evidence of the original production, which included early twentieth-century dance notation of the choreography and lavish pictorial information about the costumes and sets.

It sounds like a scenario for disaster -- trying to make the historical theatrically viable. Yet the result is enchantment. In spite of deviations from authenticity that would dismay scholars and thorny contradictions such as the imposition of present-day ballet technique on choreography more than a century old, this Beauty charms, persuades, and eventually triumphs. Its foremost assets are a sensitive response to the music, leisurely pacing (the performance lasts nearly four hours, and not a minute is dull), and a resemblance, in look and ambience, to an antique storybook. As in the fairy tales of old, this version offers visions of sublime loveliness that one can unabashedly aspire to, incarnations of ugliness and evil recognizable as such without being terrifying, and sheer delight dancing hand-in-hand with fundamental moral propositions. Ballets attempting to live happily ever after are best transformed slowly and gently as they're passed down from generation to generation; the Kirov's Beauty has undergone a rude reawakening, but she's radiant nonetheless.

The Russians brought two other program-length pieces to New York, both standards in its repertory. Giselle, the emblem of Romantic ballet, has gradually metamorphosed at the Kirov into a strict, frosty ritual, which I think is contrary to its nature. The second act, dominated by female spirits raised from the dead, has grown so over-refined in style, it looks fetishized, the ensemble a group of automatons, the ballerinas in the alternating casts aiming to outdo each other in cobwebby-ness. Most of the once-impassioned motivation of the main characters has been bleached away -- this in the country of Stanislavsky.

The Fountain of Bakhchisaray, an echt Soviet concoction of the thirties, was given its first American airing, though we know it a bit from the vintage film that records the pitting of the pure-of-soul Galina Ulanova against the extravagantly sexy and murderously jealous Maya Plisetskaya in the rival women's roles. Three acts long, with prologue, epilogue, and a working fountain, the ballet is all bombast: plaintive romance and action-hero villainy, aristocratic display and hokey exoticism. The Kirov played it sincerely and to the hilt, which is the only way it can work.

The boldest move in the company's visit was the presentation of an all-Balanchine program: Serenade, Apollo, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, and Symphony in C, the last staged by John Taras and Patricia Neary, the other three by Francia Russell. Balanchine was, of course, one of the Kirov's most illustrious alumni, but during much of the Soviet era, while his genius flowered in America, his progressive choreography was anathema in his motherland. Once the political climate thawed, the Russians had difficulty mastering his advanced inventions. Finally, this season, they gave the most glorious examples of Balanchine dancing that I've seen since the New York City Ballet's when the choreographer himself was here to shape them. Part of this had to do with the fact that the stagers' concept of Balanchine came from the grand old days, part, I believe, from the dancers' discovery that the man who fled Russia had worked wonders to which they wanted to commit themselves, body and soul. The stagings -- supported by the most compelling ballet orchestra New York has ever heard -- abounded in lush, sweeping energy, delicate precision, and an eager attentiveness to tone and texture. Being a member of the audience for this phenomenon meant reveling in the sheer aesthetic experience and moreover sensing that one was witnessing a significant moment in dance history.

A majority of the Kirov's current principals and soloists are quite young -- relatively recent graduates of the celebrated Vaganova Academy. And their dancing is very much in ballet's new vein -- brilliantly bold and clear. The physical effect is stunning, if verging dangerously on the gymnastic: sky-scraping leg extensions, leaps that lightly cleave huge expanses of space, turns too many and swift to count. In the narrative ballets, alas, emotional impact is often absent. The crop of featured young men is largely of middle height and compactly built, so a number of their female peers -- the Giacometti girls: tall, slim to the verge of emaciation -- lack compatible partners. The model for the Kirov's new female breed may be the more experienced Uliana Lopatkina, all thin, attenuated limbs and haughty sinuousness cultivated to the point of idiosyncrasy. For her a partner is minor accessory.

The sole woman able to combine the favored futuristic virtuosity with old-fashioned virtues is Svetlana Zakharova. With her air of sweet radiance tinged with melancholy and her beautifully open upper-body carriage (throat and breastbone in dialogue with the heavens), Zakharova meshes feeling with dancing. She's the only one of her sisters who seems to perform the traditional repertory from impulse rather than technical dictates, and thus the only one who makes convincing sense of the ballets' stories. The more mature Altynai Asylmuratova, formerly the company's darling, has conspicuously lost ground in physical and dramatic power, but her style blessedly retains the classical harmony embodied by her legendary predecessors.

The usefully tall Igor Zelensky has acquired coherence in his dancing, yet still lacks authority because acting and even simple self-projection bewilder him. The junior leading men, admirable technicians to whom the notion of charisma is alien, don't appear destined for stardom. My favorite guy was the mime Vladimir Ponomarev, fiercely concentrated and complex as the Tatar chief in Bakhchisaray, a role made up of stride, posture, and gargantuan gesture -- without a dance step in it.


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