The Kirov at a Crossroads, Torn Between Then and Now

The Kirov-the world’s premier dance company, the company of

Petipa and Fokine, of Nijinsky and Pavlova, of Balanchine and Danilova and

Spessivtseva, of Nureyev and Makarova and Baryshnikov-is finally lurching into

the 20th century (forget the 21st). Having missed modernism and postmodernism,

and with the West now available both as inspiration and cash cow, it’s hurrying

to catch up. On the evidence of its recent season at the Kennedy Center,

though, the company is in a state of confusion, rushing pell-mell in two

different and opposite directions at once. In fact, the Washington program-Petipa’s

Sleeping Beauty paired with

Balanchine’s Jewels -can serve as an

exact metaphor for the Kirov today.

This Sleeping Beauty ,

first seen in New York a year and a half ago, is based scrupulously, and

sterilely, on the original version of 1890. It’s awash in authenticity:

costumes, sets, mime, dramatic incidents all reproduced almost

photographically. Only the style is missing-and the heart. No matter how fine

certain performances may be-and Svetlana Zakharova, the splendid young beauty

of the company, is a highly effective Aurora-the production is never more than

a nearly four-hour pictorial curiosity. This Aurora proceeds from her coming-of-age party to her awakening from the

100-year sleep to her wedding with no sign of growth-she’s a pretty girl who dances

well, not a distillation of the journey from girlhood to womanhood. The idea

that the world has been restored to harmony after the defeat of spite and

malice is lost in a welter of colorful specialty acts. The final pas de deux is

just another virtuoso exhibition, not a climax of healing and hope. The most

resonant of classical ballets has been reduced to spectacle. Who cares whether

the costumes are authentic? I’m reminded of those historical movies from the

Golden Age of Hollywood in which every swatch of fabric and every powdered

peruke is in impeccable period style, while the dialogue sounds like Ring

Lardner on a bad day.

To make matters worse, Tchaikovsky’s score-the greatest of all

ballet scores-was mauled by the Kennedy Center orchestra. Blaring horns, muffed

notes, moments when it seemed that different sections of the orchestra were

completely out of touch with each other-this was the coarsest rendition of this

glorious music that I’ve ever heard: a disgraceful contrast to the masterly

playing of the company’s own orchestra as heard in New York.

So much for the Kirov looking backward. Looking forward, at least

to 1967, they brought us their recent production of Jewels , and if Sleeping

Beauty looked fast asleep 112 years after its premiere, Balanchine managed

to kiss the company awake. For many years, Jewels

was performed only by City Ballet. Recently, other American companies-notably,

Miami City Ballet-have danced it, and indeed Miami’s version was a big success

at the Kennedy Center just last year. No wonder: Edward Villella, who runs

Miami, was the original male lead in the “Rubies” section of Jewels , and he’s had its three original

leading ballerinas-Violette Verdy, Patricia McBride and Suzanne Farrell-in to


The Kirov’s version was staged by four ex–City Ballet dancers,

and staged extremely well. But staging isn’t everything. Zhanna Ayupova and

Veronika Part are both lovely dancers, but neither of them has a clue about the

very special musicality and wit that is the essence of “Emeralds” and its

haunting Fauré score. The famous Verdy solo with its ingenious arm gestures,

the strikingly original walking duet made on the expressive Mimi Paul-the steps

were there, but the phrasing was tentative and bland. In fact, the most

successful part of “Emeralds” was the trio, more conventional than the solos

and duets, and so more comfortable for the Kirov dancers. And then the powers

that be chose to eliminate the plaintive and moving coda that Balanchine added

in 1976 for the three male and four female leads. For those of us who for 25

years have been watching “Emeralds” as Balanchine preferred it, seeing it

interruptus was very jarring. Interesting, though, to see Balanchine’s genius

for getting things right confirmed. Let’s hope that by the time Jewels turns up in the Kirov’s Met

season this coming July, this unique masterpiece will have been restored to its


The Kirov has also gone back to the splotchy look of the original

set that now seems oddly ugly compared with later treatments. Authenticity

again? Should the company take on The

Four Temperaments , will it feel compelled to restore the original 1946

costumes by Kurt Seligmann that were quickly discarded when it became clear

that the ballet was swamped by them?

If “Emeralds” was lacking its French perfume, the Kirov dancers

rose hungrily to the challenge of the jazz-accented “Rubies.” You could see

them biting into the music as if they’d been waiting all their lives to meet

Stravinsky and the 20th century. The very young Irina Golub and her partner,

Andrian Fadeyev, weren’t McBride and Villella, but they tore into “Rubies” with

understanding and energy, and pulled it off. And the second-cast Diana

Vishneva, pallid and unconvincing as the opening-night Aurora, was as good a

Ruby as we’ve seen since McBride. She has the flashing legs, the lithe body,

the wickedly humorous look, and she seemed happily at home in Balanchine. Talk

about a Sleeping Beauty awakened!

As for “Diamonds,” its quintessential Farrell role has had many

successful interpreters, most resoundingly Kyra Nichols and Darci Kistler, and

at the first Washington performance, Svetlana Zakharova was as imposing as

anyone since Farrell. This is Balanchine’s ultimate evocation of Russian

classicism, set to Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony (minus its first movement), and its style posed no problems for the Kirov.

The corps was energized, even through the long and somewhat pro forma opening

section; they may look stiff compared with Balanchine-trained dancers, but they

seemed thrilled to be coping with the demands Balanchine was making on them.

Indeed, at the curtain calls for both “Rubies” and “Diamonds,” as the audience

cheered and cheered, the dancers were grinning with excitement and pleasure.

And why not? After serving as mobile costume racks through most of the endless

length of Beauty , they were finally

out there dancing . Zakharova’s

success came as no surprise: She’s a magnificent, dominating performer. The

surprise came from second-cast Daria Pavlenko, even younger than Zakharova, less

imposing, but with a soft and appealing authority. Watching her and the other

leading Kirov women was a bitter reminder of the paucity of true ballerinas

here in America. City Ballet can field no women today in “Rubies” or “Diamonds”

to compare with the Kirov’s. (The situation is just the reverse with men.)

Have the Russians fully absorbed and conquered Jewels ? Not yet. However strong their

performances, they’re still cautious in phrasing and accent. Even the

triumphant “Diamonds” ballerinas were conventional in style, closer to Swan Lake than to the dangerous lunges

and risky off-balances with which Farrell amazed us. The great dancers of

Balanchine’s City Ballet have always been extreme, both in dance personality

and daring. At bottom, it’s a question of musicality: The Kirov dancers dance

on top of the music; they don’t live in it and play with it and expand in it

the way Balanchine dancers must.

But this is not to detract from the overall success of the

Kirov’s brave venture. Or to underplay the benefits that its dancers are

certain to take away from exposure to the vitality and demands of Balanchine. Sleeping Beauty pits the forces of

darkness (Carabosse) against the forces of light (the Lilac Fairy). The Kirov

today is pitted against itself, pulled between its fascination with retrograde faux-authenticity (we’re being

treated to an “authentic” 1900 Bayadère at the Met in July) and its courageous

steps toward a necessary awakening. Will the Lilac Fairy prevail? The Kirov at a Crossroads, Torn Between Then and Now