Importing a Native Son: Honoring Balanchine in Russia

To see program after program of Balanchine at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg is to be exposed to every kind of nostalgia and fantasy. This is the theater where, at the age of ten in 1914, he made his debut as a tiny cupid in The Sleeping Beauty . It’s also a theater where, through most of the 20th century, his work went unseen. Except for brief tours by the New York City Ballet-in 1962 and 1972-the Russians cut themselves off from the greatest choreographer of our time, a native son they first repudiated as a traitor and now claim as their own, at least in part. Beginning in the late 1980’s, with the collapse of the Evil Empire, Balanchine began to be absorbed into the mainstream of Russian ballet-and none too soon: Russia had already missed 70 years in the development of this fragile art form, and had nothing to offer beyond restagings of 19th-century classics, trumpery Soviet dance-dramas and superbly trained dancers, the finest of whom did their best to emulate Balanchine’s flight to the West.

When the iron curtain finally came down and the inevitable rush to Balanchine began, the results were uneven. The spirit was willing (at least in some of the dancers), but the flesh was untrained in Balanchine style. Even so, the Maryinsky-still foolishly called the Kirov in the West-has persisted. During the recent white nights, it celebrated (together with the rest of the ballet world) Balanchine’s centenary, not only with a festival of his work but with a photographic exhibition at the State Hermitage Museum and by co-hosting, along with the George Balanchine Foundation, a symposium of Western and Russian critics, scholars, dancers and musicians brought together to discuss the future of his work. As the company’s official program book bluntly puts it, “The main development [of recent years] is connected with the Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine: today, the repertoire of the Mariinsky Theatre contains almost as many ballets by Balanchine as by Petipa. So that ends that question.”

But not quite. The real question isn’t how many Balanchine ballets they’re doing, but how they’re doing them. And the answer is mixed. A case in point: Their current Prodigal Son has some very peculiar touches-at the beginning, for instance, the Father makes a series of irritating fussy gestures over his children’s heads as he’s blessing them. Was this the idea of Karin von Aroldingen and Paul Boos, who staged it? I doubt it. Or is it a bit of scene-stealing by the famous character dancer Vladimir Ponomarev? As for Mikhail Lobukhin, the Prodigal, who encouraged him to be so relentlessly randy? This wasn’t a naïve kid mesmerized by the Siren, or awed by her, or scared of her; he was just hot to trot. Well, maybe, but that’s not the way Jerome Robbins or Francisco Moncion or Edward Villella saw it-and from the photographic and written evidence, it’s certainly not what the original Prodigal, the somewhat epicene Serge Lifar, was all about. There are well-meaning and capable coaches at the Maryinsky responsible for monitoring the Balanchine repertory after the balletmasters sent by the Balanchine Trust to stage works have come and gone, but do they know enough about a ballet like Prodigal to intervene in such matters? And do they have the necessary authority?

Perhaps the Father’s blessing and the Prodigal’s libido are legitimate issues of interpretation. How steps are performed is another matter. The Maryinsky is aware that it has to achieve the speed and clarity Balanchine demands, but a recent company class conducted by the brilliant Balanchine ballerina and pedagogue Merrill Ashley revealed how much further the dancers have to go. Most of them seemed eager to learn (and embarrassed at their deficiencies)-it was touching to watch a ballerina as polished and self-assured as Diana Vishneva pushing herself to grasp what was wanted-but these are not lessons that can be learned in one session, in the middle of a frantic rehearsal and performance schedule.

Vishneva is an interesting case. She tears into roles, sometimes so fiercely that she overpowers them, but as we’ve seen on recent Kirov tours here, she’s the most effective “Rubies” girl since the original, Patricia McBride, who in this part she startlingly resembles-she has the right provocative gleam and idiosyncratic accents. The Maryinsky’s other leading ballerina, Ulyana Lopatkina, is a dominating and beautiful presence in “Diamonds,” but to its original, Suzanne Farrell, she bears no resemblance. Not for Lopatkina the daring excesses, the profoundly personal emphases: She’s more a conventional grand classical ballerina than, like Farrell, a revolutionary extension of what classical dancing can be. Farrell staked out new territory; Lopatkina reclaims the old. As for “Emeralds,” it has seemed until recently to be beyond the musical capacity of the Maryinsky dancers, but they have now begun to claim it. (Which means there’s no excuse today for their failure to perform the wonderful coda Balanchine added to it and without which “Emeralds” seems unconsummated. Please, Balanchine Trust, take action.)

Jewels is an important learning experience for the Russians, since it gives them Balanchine in three different modes, but their understanding of him is severely limited by the vast stretches of his repertory with which they’re unfamiliar. They’re gathering familiarity with his more dramatic works- Scotch Symphony came early, La Valse just now-and are bravely moving into “modern” repertory, Four Temperaments a first hesitant step. But the more they attempt, the greater the need for instilling basic principles of preparation and attack.

A lack of stylistic sophistication also manifested itself in the performances of the Perm Ballet, an important Russian company that took part in the recent festival. They are a very appealing, hard-working group, clearly thrilled to be dancing on the legendary stage of the Maryinsky, and thrilled to be dancing Balanchine. Their Serenade , however, was slightly off-key-somewhat stiff with nerves, and with certain things just wrong (including the off-putting greenish cast of the costumes). The dancers in Donizetti Variations were attractive, but they missed the jaunty high spirits of the piece-they were so concerned about correctness that instead of pouncing on it with Balanchinean relish, they came across as earnest. La Sonnambula fared better, partly because in Elena Kulagina they have a very experienced dramatic ballerina. Their Poet, however, seemed more involved in his flirtation with the Coquette than moonstruck by his fatal encounter with the Sleepwalker. Was it staged this way? We’ll never know.

The highly responsive and responsible leaders of the Perm company, like their counterparts at the Maryinsky, are eager, even desperate, to do justice to Balanchine, whose genius they obviously revere. But how are their dancers to learn? This emerged as an ongoing concern during the informal discussions among the symposium panelists, who included ex–City Ballet dancers Stephanie Saland and Lourdes Lopez, as well as Ashley; Francia Russell, co-artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet and one of the leading stagers of Balanchine ballets; and dance historians and critics Lynn Garafola, Nancy Reynolds, Beth Genné and Francis Mason. If we reached a conclusion-and it was a conclusion echoed by the Russian authorities-it was that quick visits by balletmasters are not the answer; that only extended stays by experienced Balanchine teachers can solidly inculcate his principles. But given the economic and cultural realities, is such a thing possible?

It’s hard to imagine an offshoot of the School of American Ballet in Perm, or Russian students and pedagogues spending significant time here-but stranger things have happened. In 1983, the year Balanchine died, the Soviet Union was still intact. Who could have imagined that only 20 years later he would be publicly celebrated and performed in St. Petersburg and Moscow-and Perm? That’s the historical miracle. The artistic miracle would be the absorption by the Russians of his approach to dance. It’s what they should be aiming at, and it should be achievable: After all, Balanchine didn’t turn away from his Russian training, he amplified and modernized it. They don’t have to totally reinvent themselves; they just need to catch up.

What the centenary celebrations are making clearer than ever is that even if New York City Ballet were keeping the flame more consistently than it is, Balanchine no longer belongs uniquely to our city. For the foreseeable future, he’s the basic fact of ballet everywhere. Companies throughout America and Europe have demonstrated their hunger for his work and are struggling with his demands. Here in America we have his school, his company, his disciples and apostles. As for Russia, it gave us Balanchine; the least we can do is help to give him back.