The Kirov Dances the Classics, Thrills Balanchine Lovers

It’s easy-and fun-to drop in on the Kirov Ballet these days: interesting productions, first-rate dancers, and the fascination of watching a major ballet company reinvent itself. It’s hard, though, to figure out exactly what the company is, because what we get to see is only a modest part of its repertory, and so many of its major dancers are left behind in St. Petersburg. Management has obviously decided to put its new stars forward here at the expense of the old: Of the senior ballerinas, only Zhanna Ayupova was on hand this season.

As for repertory, it’s big splashy classics, plus Balanchine. (Well, it’s not easy to fill the Met.) On view were Swan Lake , Don Quixote , La Bayadère and Jewels . But the company has in its repertory at home, among other standards, seven Fokine ballets, MacMillan’s Manon , the Lavrovsky Romeo and Juliet , La Sylphide , plus its idea of “modern”: John Neumeier and Roland Petit (that’s what happens when you spend most of a century behind an iron curtain), an apparently glitzy new Nutcracker and three ballets by a home-grown choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky. And wouldn’t you like to get a look at something called Lulu, Dream of an Anti-star , music by Berg, Weill, Zemlinksy and Korngold? There’s a picture in the official program book of a piece by one of the Kirov’s Young Choreographers showing Natalia Sologub shaking her booty in lace-up shoes and a cute little dress. But we only know her as an immaculate classicist-that is, we don’t know her in full context. And what do the big stars-Svetlana Zakharova, Diana Vishneva-look like in Fokine, say? Or in Ratmansky? We’ll never know, unless we spend a season or two in Petersburg.

Even so, I’m unreservedly grateful for what we’ve been given. The Bayadère , which led off the season, was a fascination-as well as something of an exhaustion, clocking in at three and three-quarter hours. It’s the latest of the Kirov’s “authentic” productions, a careful reconstruction-musically, scenically, choreographically-of the 1900 version of Petipa’s famous four-acter. (He used this version to propel Pavlova to stardom.) Until the Kirov brought us the great “Kingdom of the Shades” act in 1961, Bayadère was only a name in the West. When we first saw those 32 (or was it 48?) visions in white slowly descending their ramp in slow time, arabesque after hypnotic arabesque, it was a thrill and a revelation. But let’s face it: La Bayadère in its entirety is a crucial piece of history, but hardly an unqualified masterpiece. Apart from the Shades scene, there’s the divertissement and the pas d’action -the spirit of the murdered Nikiya darting between the hero, Solor, and his royal bride, Gamzatti, as they prepare to tie the knot. The rest is-this can’t be an original thought- Aida without Verdi. (Instead of Verdi, there’s Minkus; not a step in the right direction.) Bayadère is set in India, not Egypt, so the Pharaoh is now a Rajah and Nikiya is a temple dancer, not a slave. We get Solor riding in on a mechanical elephant, a dead tiger (looking like a big stuffed Tigger), undulating bare midriffs, a lustful Brahmin priest, a bunch of whirling fakirs in rags and a deadly snake. You get the idea-it could have been made in Hollywood in the 40′s, with María Montez, at half the length.

Zakharova, the company’s amazing star, was first-cast as Nikiya, and she’s so wonderful to look at, with her gloriously arched feet, her superb legs and body and carriage, her enchanting face, her strong, controlled dancing, that she carried the ballet; you can’t wrench your eyes away from her. But she doesn’t wrench your (my) heart. Vishneva, an even more polished technician, was also highly effective, and then there was Daria Pavlenko, the most musical-and affecting-of them all. The corps was magnificent, the character roles thoughtfully accomplished, the last-act Destruction of the Palace (the gods get sore) a blast. But now that Bayadère has been restored and authenticated, could we let it rest for a little while?

If the corps was beautiful in Bayadère , it stole the show in Swan Lake . These girls know that swans mean business-they’re powerful, possessed, dangerous. (I remember reading somewhere that one blow from a swan’s wing can break a man’s leg, and now I’m prepared to believe it.) This is a far-from-authentic Swan Lake ; it’s the 1950 Konstantin Sergeyev production, in which-in true Soviet style-the hero must defeat the oppressor, so Siegfried rips off one of Rothbart’s batwings and Rothbart expires in convulsions. In his determined rejection of mime, Sergeyev actually omitted the Queen’s command to the Prince in Act I to get married, so that his subsequent pledge to Odette loses half its resonance. We do get the standard pas de trois, the gift of the crossbow, the tipsy Tutor and endless carryings-on from the Jester. (One night’s Jester was slight and pesky, another night’s solid and emphatic; I wanted to swat them both.) Again, Zakharova was both ravishing and commanding-more at home as Odette than as Odile, although she made a game try at seeming vicious. Sofia Gumerova was a washout in both roles. It’s maddening, incidentally, the way Russian ballerinas completely halt the action of the Black Swan pas de deux after the notorious 32 fouettés in order to come forward and take extend bows-it’s like having a station break in the middle of a Chopin étude.

The surprise delight of the season was Petipa’s Don Quixote , another Minkus special, though this score is a lot more fun than Bayadère ‘s. We’ve all suffered through A.B.T.’s unconvincing production; this one was alive from the first moment. The story, such as it is, is the old one-girl and boy thwarted by father. Don’t worry: It all ends happily, with the help of Don Q. himself, who’s passing through Barcelona with trusty Sancho Panza, tilting at windmills and getting everything wrong except the important things.

Don Quixote is all flashing fans, clicking castanets, swirling capes, luscious backbends. The boys in particular are standouts (just a little while ago, the Kirov was pitifully weak in the boy department). There’s a street dancer, a toreador, a mincing moneybags, flower-sellers, gypsies and Spanishy extras by the dozen. The role of Kitri belongs to Vishneva-her electric classicism fits it perfectly, though second-cast Irina Golub was brilliant, too. The company as a whole not only rises to the occasion but flings itself into it with joyful enthusiasm-energy maintained throughout, details lovingly attended to. It’s been moving to see the Kirov so united in approach and collegiality. This is now a company , the way City Ballet used to be and A.B.T. is beginning to be.

And then came Jewels . It was daring of the Kirov to take on this unique three-part abstract ballet that Balanchine created in 1967, and daring of the Balanchine Trust to encourage them, dispatching four ballet masters to St. Petersburg to stage it. At the Kennedy Center five months ago, one could see that the gamble had paid off, but at the time the prime beneficiary appeared to be the Kirov itself, as Balanchine was obviously energizing and inspiring its dancers. At the Met, the chief beneficiaries were Balanchine lovers-in fact, all ballet lovers.

Not that this Jewels is perfect: “Emeralds” remains outside the company’s musical range. Ayupova, in the Violette Verdy role, is correct but small-she doesn’t project. Veronika Part (who’s defecting to A.B.T.) has a plush amplitude that’s appealing, but the witty musicality eludes her. Draggy tempi don’t help, and alas, no one has insisted that the Kirov restore the exquisite, plaintive coda Balanchine added in 1976, without which “Emeralds” looks maimed. It’s time the Trust put its foot down.

“Rubies” is another story. The company has thrown itself into this Stravinsky piece with total relish. “Rubies” is another perfect Vishneva vehicle-she’s got the modern thrust, the glee, the wicked timing-and another success, too, for Golub. The talented men who partnered these ballerinas-Vyacheslav Samodurov and Andrian Fadeyev-have toned down their excesses, but their dynamism still seems applied to the surface, not exploding from within.

As for “Diamonds,” this is distilled 19th-century Russian ballet-with a difference. For all its references to Swan Lake , “Diamonds” is a modern work, a Balanchine work, and though the corps strives with all its heart, they still look like Kirov dancers trying their damnedest to be Balanchine dancers. Does the problem lie in their lack of the trademark deep Balanchine plié that provides his dancers with their profound musical impulse? The Kirov now dances seven Balanchine works, with presumably more to come- Ballet Imperial ? La Sonnambula ? Raymonda Variations ? Perhaps they should import an expert for half a year to teach the company Balanchine.

Despite deficiencies, “Diamonds” was a triumph. The Kirov orchestra was completely at home here, and there’s no ballet orchestra of comparable quality and force in the world. And there were two extraordinary performances of the central Suzanne Farrell role. Zakharova was at her most gorgeous-she’s a natural phenomenon, like a spectacular sunrise. She doesn’t have all the details, she has turning problems (they’re endemic to the company), and she may not be deeply musical, but she’s a great ballerina in a great ballerina role, and she took one’s breath away. So too did Pavlenko-smaller in stature, but what an artist! Her instinctive phrasing, her grasp of the entire arc of the role, her command of gesture-if Zakharova made you gasp, Pavlenko made you cry.

All in all, this Jewels was a convincing demonstration of the Kirov’s passionate desire to adapt as well as a tantalizing clue to what may lie in store for Balanchine in this century. There were people in the Met audience who clearly had never seen the ballet before, although it’s been playing across the Plaza at the State Theater for 35 years; you could sense them coming alive to it, and to Balanchine, nearly 70 years after his arrival in America. What an irony-what a happy irony-if it turns out to be the beloved company of his youth that salvages Balanchine’s repertory and reconfirms his reputation here in his adopted city.