American Ballet Theatre, fatally convinced that its metropolitan Opera House audience craves multi-act storybook ballets with a major decorative element, has added The Snow Maiden to its repertory. This version is choreographed by the British-bred Ben Stevenson (watch for the Ashton quotes), who heads the Houston Ballet, which co-produced the production. Superficially pretty, and banal as soft ice cream, Stevenson’s Snow Maiden is the kind of facsimile of a ballet that people presume girl children might delight in. Serious dance watchers – to say nothing of youngsters with an instinct for real art – will be discouraged by the vacuity of the choreography, the slackness of the narrative structure, the shallowness of all but the title character (danced delectably by Nina Ananiashvili), and an egregious lack of musicality in response to John Lanchbery’s unfortunate assemblage of Tchaikovsky items, many of which offer no impulse for dancing.
The ballet, which has had myriad previous incarnations, some of them involving Tchaikovsky, is based on a Russian folk tale in which the title character, an emanation of wintry nature and its icy beauties, succumbs to a yearning for warmblooded human love, destroying herself, the object of her affections, and his bride-to-be in the process.
Clearly, Stevenson is trying to fashion a latter-day equivalent of grand nineteenth-century ballets like The Sleeping Beauty, but beyond failing to admit that times and tastes have changed (witness the disappearance of lesser works in the same genre that were contemporaneous with Petipa’s masterpiece), he ignores Petipa’s guidelines. Among these is making a clear separation – which provides stimulating contrast – of classical dancing, character dancing, and mime. Stevenson concocts an unholy blend of the first two and ignores the last, since most dancers today can’t do it and most viewers have no patience for it, essential as this mode is to telling a dramatic story in a traditional-style dance.
Besides learning little from Petipa, Stevenson is guilty of more general aesthetic crimes like uncertainty of tone (he aims at poetry while telling crass jokes) and uncertainty of psychology: By the third act, the fiancée (staunchly danced by Kathleen Moore) is assigned material so crystalline in its purity, she might be the Snow Maiden’s twin sister, not her lusty opposite. As the unfortunate hero, Angel Corella didn’t even pretend to know what he was about, and shone only in his second-act solo, where the choreography rings a few interesting changes on his handful of gasp-producing virtuoso feats. Victor Barbee, a resourceful dramatic dancer, deserves a medal for making something touching out of the foolishly grotesque Father Frost, our heroine’s dad. As the curtain fell on the final installment of Desmond Heeley’s spun-sugar scenery and I was allowed to flee the premises, I wondered if it was a mark of ABT’s desperation to please that it used one of its coaches, the celebrated former Kirov ballerina Irina Kolpakova, for a walk-on in the closing scene, so that her entrance could be applauded.