The Kirov Ballet opened its two-week run at the Met with a marvelous, grand-scale curiosity -- a new-old production of Marius Petipa's 1877 La Bayadère. The piece, set to rinky-dink music by Ludwig Minkus, is part travelogue (to the India of the rajahs), part inflamed melodrama; at its heart, oddly, lies a self-contained passage of the most refined and ravishing classicism imaginable. The stagers, led by Sergei Vikharev, made a thoroughgoing investigation of rich archival materials to restore much of the 1900 production (the last one supervised by the choreographer), including a fourth act that had been cannibalized and then jettisoned as well as extended mime passages that read like a heavenly silent movie. In turn, lots -- though not all -- of the Soviet-era insertions made to beef up the bravura-dance element were banished. The instinct for what should stay and what should go was fallible, and the results, overall, waver between the stuff of the library and the stuff of the theater. I loved the show anyway, all three and three quarters hours of it.
The Soviet-era aesthetic that the new-old Bayadère refutes was represented in the New York run by two productions, both deficient in artistic sensibility but clearly serviceable. The Alexander Gorsky revision of Petipa's Don Quixote, in its present state little more than a vehicle for kamikaze feats and outlandish local color, was rendered with disarming verve. The Konstantin Sergeyev version of the Petipa-Ivanov Swan Lake is a sturdy job, its most grievous flaws the insertion of a vulgar, intrusive Jester and the ridiculous imposition of a happy ending. Still, it's no more wrongheaded than the more recent updates our two leading American companies have contrived.
The biggest, brightest news of the engagement was the company's very fine rendition of Balanchine's Jewels. Though the twentieth century's most significant choreographer was Kirov-bred, his dance-for-its-own-sake choreography, which evolved fully in America, was anathema to the Soviet mind-set. It has belatedly been recognized and adopted wholesale by his alma mater, providing a language through which the Kirov is becoming contemporary. Ironically, the company does best with the middle segment of Jewels -- the "American" one, "Rubies," in which the jazzy, showbiz-inflected dancing responds in kind to the cheeky brilliance of its Stravinsky score. The opening, "French" section, "Emeralds," with its subtle musicality and a mood that is all suggestion, still eludes these dancers somewhat. They take naturally, of course, to the closing section, "Diamonds" -- the "Russian" one, to Tchaikovsky -- where emanations of soul alternate with aristocratic pageantry. Here they're to the manner born. But it's the venture as a whole that's so refreshing and so touching: the Kirov artists' leaving the safe turf they command with pride and glory to explore alien frontiers.
When it comes to the dancers, it can be said that the female corps de ballet is the Kirov's most remarkable star. In the elegiac lakeside scene that concludes Swan Lake, this ensemble becomes a living landscape evoking grief and resignation. In the Kingdom of the Shades scene from Bayadère, where, for an extraordinary extended passage, these nameless women are the whole show, they are transcendent. Pure, clear, and grand in scale, their dancing feels impelled by a communal vision.
The Kirov certainly has its vision of the ideal ballerina, and Svetlana Zakharova embodies it. Exquisitely proportioned, with a sweetly beautiful face, she's the sublime mistress of adagio work that carries to extremes certain principles of classical dancing -- notably suppleness; long, harmonious lines; and the illusion of defying gravity. Unfurling a lovely leg skyward while calmly poised in a preternatural balance, she's a fabulous creature -- and an unnerving one. The young Daria Pavlenko (innately more human and dramatic) and Sofia Gumerova (a glorious natural athlete, but deficient in focus, self-confidence, and poetry) are relentlessly being groomed in her image. The loveliest ballerina-in-the making is Natalia Sologub, the epitome of creamy perfection in legato work punctuated with fly-to-the-moon leaps. She possesses a calm that is not imposed but internal, as well as the mystery that lies at the heart of a ballerina's allure. Of the company's two spitfire virtuosas -- the soubrette types who can do every trick in the book and then some -- the lush, bubbly Irina Golub is more enjoyable than the dry, wiry daredevil Diana Vishneva, who wins on points.
The company's men aren't as impressive as its women. The danseur noble types (long-limbed, elegant, slated to play princes) have merely good, not dazzling, technique, and they lack dramatic presence. Danila Korsuntsev, for instance, bafflingly makes Swan Lake's Siegfried a Mr. Nice Guy, never seriously moved by either the pathos of the ill-fated Odette or the seductive power of the vampirish Odile. The shorter, chunkier set featured in frankly athletic assignments is more distinguished. Anton Korsakov is the most gratifying of them, his dancing marvelously correct and at the same time robust and textured. If he can learn to show pleasure in his superb work, maybe even risk a little abandon, he'll be perfect of his kind.
The Kirov's seriousness about preserving its heritage is evident in its cultivation of the mime and character dancing intrinsic to the nineteenth-century ballets. Vladimir Ponomarev gives an indelible performance in the mime role of Bayadère's High Brahmin, his gesture -- large, clear, and deliberately paced so that it "reads" at opera-house distance, yet refined enough to express psychological conflict -- is complemented by a signature stride that conveys the character's force and cunning. It's hard to believe this is the same man playing the eponymous Don Quixote -- hesitant and frail with age, ecstatic (to the point of madness) in spirit. Like all effective mimes, Ponomarev operates as if he believes in the melodrama or fantasy his character inhabits; this, in turn, persuades you to believe him.
Galina Rakhmanova is an emblem of the Kirov's fine character-dance tradition. In Swan Lake's Spanish Dance, with its extravagant backbends and fierce heel work, or in Bayadère's aptly named Infernal Dance, with its emphatic rhythms and go-for-broke self-display, she presents herself as a mature woman with an all-out commitment to her ballet subgenre. Though she's only a minute component of the mighty Kirov, she seems to know she's a vital one.
The Kirov Ballet
At the Metropolitan Opera House.