A Very Mariinsky Weekend, Part One

Kolegova as Raymonda
The Mariinsky Ballet is without doubt one of the greatest companies (if not the greatest) in the world, but it can sometimes display a maddening arrogance. You love them and hate them at the same time. A case in point was their tour to Washington, D.C. and New York this week.

Washington, D.C. got one of the Mariinsky's treasures -- their full-length Raymonda. Western companies have tried to stage this ballet without much success, although Balanchine poached some of Glazunov's best tunes and Petipa's choreography for some of his "based on Raymonda" ballets. But there really is nothing as majestic as watching the Mariinsky company dance the whole thing. So that's why on a cold Saturday morning I took the Amtrak down to D.C. to catch a matinee Raymonda performance.

The performance wasn't perfect, but I felt like I got the true Mariinsky experience. The title character was played by the lovely Anastasia Kolegova, who's not even listed as a principal despite having danced principal parts for years. Kolegova was exquisite -- she's shorter and more compact than the "typical" Mariinsky ballerina, so she didn't have the endless legs and super-attenuated limbs of, say, Uliana Lopatkina. But this smaller stature and thicker musculature made her very adept at the par terre footwork of Raymonda's variations. Her scarf solo showed off her steady balance and strong pointes. In the second act she effortlessly completed a diagonal of forward entrechats and concluded the variation with a series of fast chaine turns. In the Hungarian grand classique her clapping variation was taken slowly but with enough contrast in speed to keep the tension and pulse alive. Her concluding passé/relevé sequence had the force of real character dancing. She's a very musical dancer -- she's not one of those Russian dancers (cough, Ivan Vasiliev, cough) who is completely oblivious to the music. You see her arms, wrists, fingers, neck, shoulders, and feet all responding to Glazunov's score.

Dramatically Kolegova struck the right notes too. Her Raymonda was sweet and dreamy in the first act (loved the way she delicately stepped around the flowers), fearful but a bit aroused in the act two pas de action with Abderakhman, and regal in the last act. One thing I've found Raymondas tend to overdo is their disgust with Abderakhman. I like it when there's more ambiguity -- when she's alternately intrigued and repulsed at the same time.

Saracen Dance
Her Jean de Brienne was the ever-reliable, ever-dull Evgeny Ivanchenko. But thankfully Jean de Brienne doesn't have to do much besides a bunch of difficult lifts. In his one variation Ivanchenko was his typical lugubrious self -- his philosophy seems to be "Why finish with a double pirouette when I can just do a single?" Konstantin Zverev was hilarious as Abderakhman. Real silent movie acting. But Abderakhman's act is by far the most entertaining segment of the ballet. The character dancing from the Saracens and the little kids brought much need vigor to an otherwise static, prim story. Even the near-fall by Alisa Petrenko and Oleg Demchenko in the Saracen pdd was somehow endearing.

The female variations were performed with panache and reflect the depth of the roster. Nadezhda Baoteva (Henrietta) performed the "allegro" variations with speed and fast footwork. Kristina Shapran (Clemence) did the "adagio" variations with grace and suppleness. And finally Sofia Ivanova-Skoblikova knocked the difficult wedding variation out of the park. The four males (Konstantin Ivkin, Yevgeny Konovalov, Ernest Latypov, and Vasily Tkacehnko) completed the double tours and entrechats of the pas de quatre perfectly in sync and without any stumbles. The corps de ballet had a few wobbly moments (one was the difficult sideways lifts in the Act Three grand pas classique where all the women are have to lift their legs at the exact same angle while perched on the shoulders of their partners) but overall maintained their reputation as the greatest corps in the world.

Olga Preobajeska
The beauty of this ballet is mostly in the score, which inspired Petipa to create some of his most greatest choreography. The storyline is wafer thin and could be considered offensive. But the music is unremittingly lovely. In fact, my favorite moments of Raymonda have no dancing at all. As Raymonda falls asleep and dreams of her knight in shining armor the curtain falls to one of the loveliest interludes in all of ballet. Thank you, Mariinsky, for bringing this beautiful ballet to the U.S. Here's a historical photo of Olga Preobajeska in that iconic Cortege Hongrois pose -- hands on waist, other arm behind head. I love the proud carriage and posture in this picture. And many of the Mariinsky dancers still have this posture and pride. That's tradition.

Loatkin's Dying Swan
But there's also another side to the Mariinsky, a certain arrogance that thinks it's okay to charge audiences the steepest prices for the flimsiest of programs. The dancers of these "stars of the Russian ballet"-like galas are usually veteran dancers of the company who are for whatever reason no longer favored by management. So they were sent to BAM in a four performance "Tribute to Maya Plisetskaya." Program A was apparently the 40 minute Carmen Suite + Dying Swan.

I caught "Program B" which was really a Ballet Russes-type gala. All the works were associated with Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina ... There was barely over an hour's worth of actual dancing, and the program looked haphazardly put together. Why, for instance, didn't they bother setting up a window in Spectre a la Rose so Vladimir Shklyarov could make his iconic Nijinsky jump? Spectre without the window is like Apollo without the lute. The Bluebird/Florine pas de deux between Valeria Martynuk and Alexander Sergeev seemed so poorly rehearsed that at one point Martynuk was semi-improvising steps. I don't have to tell you that the evening ended with "A Dying Swan."

Nijinsky and Karsavina with the window set

The good thing was that among all this cheap suitcase ballet was some exquisite dancing. Uliana Lopatkina was as majestic and diverse as ever -- a wild, feral creature in the Firebird pas de deux, a graceful Sylph in the 7th waltz of Chopiniana,  a reasonable "Anna Pavlova" in this filler classroom exercises ballet called Pavlova and Cecchetti, and finally, she danced A Dying Swan with so much grace and dignity you forgot that she's been trotting out this four minute vignette for, oh, over 20 years. Other highlights were Vladimir Shklyarov and his wife Maria Shirinkina dancing a sensitive, romantic Giselle pas de deux, and Ekaterina Osmolkina using that Vaganova-stamped jelly back to writhe in the Zobeide/Slave duet from Scheherazade. Her and her husband Maxim Zuzin made a decidedly odd pair onstage but Osmolkina created enough heat and kitsch for the both of them. These are beautiful dancers. I wish they were given better thought out programs to display their talents.

But this is only a small part of my incredible ballet adventures this weekend. Part Two will be written tomorrow.

ETA: I found this wonderful video of four different Raymonda's performing the "clapping" solo:


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