Swan Heaven - Mariinsky Arrives in BAM

There are certain things you expect when you see an Uliana Lopatkina performance. You expect extreme beauty of line -- those endless arms, the tapered fingers, the mile-long legs. You expect a stately dignity -- I saw Lopatkina as Nikya maybe 10 years ago, and she was as glacial and remote as the highest Himalaya peak. It was as if her body was a temple. I also saw her in Symphony in C where her line was so exquisite that you sort of forgot how she sort of pulled the Balanchine choreography into a molasses crawl. Of course there was the Dying Swan where she flapped her boneless arms and the applause lasted longer than the dancing.

So I went into tonight's Swan Lake (the Mariinsky Ballet is in town for a little over a week) expecting the same glacial, exquisite, but remote beauty. I did not expect that in at age 41, Lopatkina is dancing with the strength, stamina, and passion of a woman half her age. If anything, there's a newfound sturdiness to her -- her upper body is as tapered as ever, but her lower body has a more toned, muscular look. Her legs, calves, and feet seem re-inforced with thin, invisible steel.

I knew this was a new Lopatkina when she made her entrance. In the 2006 video she makes a slow, careful entrance and skips the traditional grande jete. Tonight she entered with skimming bourrées and a big, airy grande jete. Yes, the boneless flapping arms were there, yes that beautiful developpé a la seconde was as stunning as ever. But what was unexpected was Lopatkina's warm-blooded passion. This Odette was not just a mournful swan. In that beautiful moment when Odette wraps herself in Siegfried's arms Lopatkina also wrapped her free leg around Yevgeny Ivanchenko's torso in a rather extreme attitude, and lunged into his arms. She bade farewell to Siegfried with an extravagant arabesque penchee which ended with a big smooch. There was nothing remote about Lopatkina's Odette.

You also noticed how the slow, funereal tempi were discarded in favor of a brisker, more urgent style. In Odette's variation the small BAM stage meant she sort of ran out of room on the diagonal but she improvised a few steps backwards. In the coda there were lightning fast passe/relevé's and beats that again, were just surprising in a wonderful way. Lopatkina's always been famous for her adagio dancing. Tonight she proved that she can be just as adept at allegro.

Don't get me wrong -- everything that was special about Lopatkina was there. Those arms!!! The way she can flap her "wings" during those split leaps that simulate a wild bird flying out of Siegfried's reach. But she added this romantic urgency that made the White Swan act very human. In the adagio her final leg beats (that simulate a a fluttering heart) were just so exquisite that the packed house was pin-drop silent, and as she finished in a final arabesque pencheé the house erupted.

Lopatkina's Odile didn't have the whiz-bang triple fouettes of some of her contemporaries, but that strength and control were ever-present. When she rose on pointe she stayed there and you felt she could have stayed there forever. Her characterization is unorthodox -- she favored an icy film noir style rather than vampy grinning. But again, you noticed the unexpectedly crisp footwork -- in her variation she's one of the few ballerinas who does the beats before the big developpé in that pirouette/developpé sequence. Her fouettes were all singles, but they were fast and centered. No traveling, no wild kickiness. It was overall just a magnificent performance from a dancer who made no compromises due to age or habit.

Evgeny Ivanchenko (Siegfried) was not the most exciting dancer, but he was a wonderful partner for Lopatkina and he has great posture. He doesn't slouch or ignore turnout in order to pump out one more pirouette. With that being said he probably should find some alternate choreography for his variation -- the double tours looked so labored. Yaroslav Barodin was okay as the Jester. Not the best I've seen. I really dislike the Jester in Swan Lake productions -- it always seems like an excuse to give the shorter guys something to dance. And no one on stage ever looks amused by the Jester.

The peasant pas de trois offered the only down moment of the otherwise wonderful evening. Yekaterina Ivannikova, Xander Parish and Anastasia Nikitina were sailing through the pas de trois but at the start of the coda Nikitina took a sudden spill. It was so unexpected that the entire stage looked at her as she hobbled to the side. They waited a second to see if she could re-enter but she did not and just walked offstage, and Parish and Ivannikova improvised a rather deflated coda. Nikitina did not come out for the end of act bows. I hope the injury isn't serious.

Another sour note was the conducting of Valery Gergiev. I know he's responsible for relentlessly promoting the Mariinsky Opera and to many, he is Russian music. But he has remarkably little feel for Tchaikovsky. There was no sweep, no poetry. His approach to Tchaikovsky borders on the clinical.

I'm so happy the Mariinsky toured New York, but at the same time as wonderful as Lopatkina's performance was BAM was not the right venue for the Mariinsky Swan Lake. The shallow stage meant that a line of swans were cut, and some of the choreography in both the "color" acts were altered as you saw dancers constantly looking down to see if they'd reached the apron of the stage. The Act One waltz in particular looked rather improvised. Both the cygnets and the big swans also ran out of room and there was quite a traffic jam at the end of the White Swan act.

With that being said, there's simply no scene as magnificent as the Mariinsky Swans as they make their entrance. You see the proud necks, the tapered arms, the way their free leg often trails in an almost casual way, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for an army of girls to fly around the stage as a flock of swans. Other companies will often drill their swans with very specific positions and poses, and the corps can look stiff and mannered as a result. The Mariinsky swans have a freedom in both their upper and lower bodies that makes it all look so organic and natural.

The swans are perhaps the most beautiful in the last act. The black and white swans link arms the tilt of their faces suggest a sisterhood of sorrow. The way they circled around Lopatkina as their Swan Queen was so touching that the tacked-on happy ending didn't even bother me. Tchaikovsky's Apotheosis music definitely suggests hope for a new beginning, and I prefer the traditional new beginning in the Great Beyond, but the Soviet/Russian new beginning doesn't bother me either.

I was only able to take a few pictures. But here's one. I look at this and I think "This is ballet."



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