Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

The Kirov: How's the old girl looking?


Members of the Kirov Ballet in Don Quixote. Photo: Valentin Baranovsky
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The Kirov Ballet brought two all-Petipa programs to Zellerbach Hall this past week. The first  was a gala in which many things went wrong, and the second the three-act story ballet Don Quixote, which was the best thing of its kind I've ever seen.

The Kirov is the great ballet company of St Petersburg, Russia, the direct descendant of the Tsar's Imperial Ballet, which was, before the Russian Revolution, the greatest ballet company in the world: best-funded, best-directed, best-produced, best-costumed, best everything, and huge on a scale no American company can even imagine, with hundreds of extras, horses, dogs, birds, the largest stage in Europe, stage-machinery that could produce great stage-magic: blizzards and fog, but also gigantic fountains, shipwrecks at sea in short, with George-Lucas-scale effects. It was from this company that came Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and Pavlova, Karsavina, Nijinsky, Nijinska, Balanchine, and Danilova. The founder of San Francisco Ballet, Adolph Bolm, came from there, as did Schollar and Vilzak, who were major teachers later in the SFB School.

The Soviets found a propaganda use for ballet, and in that era, the company, renamed after the "martyred" Soviet hero Kirov, rose to new heights of technical purity. It was from this company that the second generation of famous Russian dancers defected during the Cold War: Nureyev, Makarova, and Baryshnikov, who were not only great dancers, they were front-page political news, the poster-kids of capitalism.

So a visit from the Kirov is a very big deal, like a visit from the Queen, and the question, as always, is, how's the old girl looking?

The Kirov is performing, as of this writing, in London, Berkeley, and St. Petersburg simultaneously. Two hundred of them (dancers, musicians, techies) are in Berkeley, though some of the stars we were promised are in fact in London, and Cal Performances director Robert Cole had to threaten to cancel altogether to guarantee that headliner Diana Vishneva would not get pulled for the London show.

This left them short of stars for the gala, and it suffered, badly, from miscasting. Irma Nioradze looked ghastly in the wedding scene from Raymonda. Perhaps out of gallantry, the rest of the dancers, even her splendid partner, pulled back so she wouldn't look weak, which just meant that everybody looked strained. Vishneva looked underpowered in La Bayadere, and the corps looked cramped on Zellerbach's shallow stage. Finally, the grand Pas from Paquita misfired. It requires six ballerina-level dancers or else it looks like tawdry finery. Only Valeria Martynyuk performed her solo with the wit, sparkle, accuracy, and ease that make these dances seem like miracles.

Right to choose

In Petipa's classical solos, the end of one step is the beginning of the next. But not all of his dances require such clarity it is a special effect reserved for high points in the action of a grand ballet and Petipa's are as grand as grand opera, grand as Aida. It was fascinating to see the famous grand pas from Don Quixote in the context of a boisterous romantic comedy, about a woman's right to choose whom she'll marry.

On Saturday night, Leonid Sarafanov was a first-class hero as the barber whom our girl really loves. Not only did he turn four consecutive double tours, and toss off the most intricate and beautiful rapid-fire pirouettes, he was also absolutely hilarious, a light-comic dreamboat. As our girl Kitri, Viktoria Tereshkina gets an A-. She did all her tricks, and did them great, and her light shone brightly all night, but she's kinda like Rise Stevens used to be as Carmen: a little too earnest.

The great thing was the contrapuntal storytelling, and the continuity at every level, including the background. Only Disney cares this much for getting the background right. The Kirov could make us watch a quarrel downstage between the great mime Vladimir Ponomarev (who played the Don) and the fop (Soslan Kulaev) while center-stage, Sancho Panza was getting tossed in a blanket to a lively polka. The scene was composed like the quartet from Rigoletto, so that all the lines are clear, and the complex parts fit together like parts of a car engine.

On Friday night, the decorative ballerina Alina Somova played Kitri, and had charming moments. But she's too light, a cross between Alicia Silverstone and Ginger Rogers, and lacks the earthiness that makes us want Kitri to win. Diana Vishneva, the biggest star of the run, was to dance Kitri on Sunday, after our deadline.

Thanks to Cal Performances for bringing them. With the Russian stock market crashing faster than ours, it may be a long time before ballet on this grand a scale will be seen here again.

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