The first time the Kirov ballet was seen in America was on Sept. 11, 1961. The ballet was Swan Lake. The ballerina was Inna Zubkovskaya. The place was the old Met, on what must have been one of the hottest nights of the year, and there was no air-conditioning. As I remember it, our secretary of state and the Russian ambassador were sitting in the center box with their dinner jackets off, trying to look dignified as they melted, and the curtain was extremely late—Zubkovskaya, we later heard, was fainting from the heat backstage.
When at last she appeared, she was dark, heavyish, deliberate—very old-fashioned-ballerina. (She was 38.) To get an idea of what so much Soviet ballet of the time was like, catch her on YouTube a few years later in the Grand Adagio from Spartacus. The role of Phrygia in that ghastly vehicle was created on her, and she manages to be both histrionic and matronly at the same time, a little like the silent film star Norma Talmadge. And that, I recall, is how she danced Odette-Odile. For me, the greatest thrill of the evening was encountering Martha Graham close up; she was wilting outside the theater after the performance, alone, waiting for her car.
So began New York’s on-again, off-again relationship with the Kirov. There were long stretches when the company stayed away; one had to go abroad to see them, as I did—to Paris—in 1982. Despite such occasional viewings, we knew the company best from its history—Petipa, Fokine, Balanchine; Pavlova, Karsavina, Nijinsky—and from its defectors: Nureyev, Makarova, Baryshnikov. But now the Iron Curtain is down, and the company pops up everywhere in different configurations, while its principals—Diana Vishneva is the current leading example—dance regularly in the West. It’s a new world.
But it’s the old world, too, and some of the traditional virtues survive. (They’re on view until April 20 at the City Center.) The corps can be impeccable—the girls with their heads held high, chests forward and feet pointed, and of course in unison. So even though there were a few wobblers, there was a sense of artistic cohesion during the great opening of the “Kingdom of the Shades” act from La Bayadère, when all those spirits in white come forward one at a time in an endless parade of arabesques (and this despite the accelerated tempo and the absence of the usual ramp).
Then there were the highly accomplished female soloists and demi-soloists in the Petipa ballets: real depth of execution through the ranks. But of the Kirov’s leading ballerinas, only Vishneva and Uliana Lopatkina are on hand. The others are back home with the other half of the company, performing in Petersburg. We never get the entire Kirov—it’s too big to tour. In fact, in recent years, both in Washington and Paris, I’ve definitely seen the B team.
THE COMPANY IS currently pushing an amazing creature named Alina Somova, whom you can think of as a radiant, atypical star, or as a vacant semi-freak: She’s very tall, very blond and very thin, and she flings herself into crazy extensions, her leg slamming up past her ear—she’s a combination of a gorgeous showgirl and Alice after she’s swallowed the “drink me” potion. When she relaxes her glazed look and a natural smile escapes her, you see she’s a nice girl with extraordinary facility who can actually dance. She wowed the audience in Paquita, but she was over-parted as the tragic, spiritual Nikiya in La Bayadère. I reported on her a couple of years ago, and she does seem slightly less bizarre though no less singular than she did then. (The company is also pushing Victoria Tereshkina, a totally different type. She’s all hard technique, confident, telling us at every moment what a star she is. She’s impressive, but I kept wanting to swat her.)
Alas, the level of the men is way below that of the women. They’re a peculiar assortment, from this year’s waiflike wunderkind, Leonid Sarafanov, to others built on the grand scale, all of them delivering the standard barrel jumps and double-air turns with sufficient dexterity, none of them very interesting.
“Interesting” is not the chief virtue of the ladies, either. They’re generally proficient, they’re occasionally impressive, but except for Vishneva, they don’t convey a profound musical impulse and they don’t convey much feeling. It’s all display, although Lopatkina has become less steely over the years, and her imperious chin has dropped by a few degrees. (An exception was Ekaterina Osmolkina, phrasing delicately in the Pavlova sections of Chopiniana.)
Lopatkina and Vishneva are listed above the other female principals, and they’re treated equally, though Lopatkina, being somewhat senior, is a little more equal than Vishneva: She was given three Dying Swans to Vishneva’s one. That was unfortunate, because Vishneva was infinitely finer. In the tradition of Ulanova—surely the greatest exemplar of this iconic role since Pavlova—her performance, exquisitely modulated, actually suggested approaching death. Lopatkina was more focused on strong and accurate dancing and her commanding look.