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The rose and the scimitar
The Kirov’s Fokine, plus Boston Conservatory

The first great choreographer of the 20th century, Mikhail Fokine, set out to reform Russian ballet. The classical edifice built by Petipa, Ivanov, and the Mariinsky school in St. Petersburg was suffering from decadence and over-familiarity, Fokine thought, and it needed to be scraped down to the essentials of training and dramaturgy. Away with virtuosity for its own sake, egomaniacal performances, characters who had nothing to do with the story, overblown productions, generic movement and mechanical mime conventions. In order to realize his choreographic innovations, Fokine had to flee the reactionary management at the Mariinsky. For the best four years of his career he worked as house choreographer for Serge Diaghilev, who imported Russian ballet to Europe with sensational success.

Fokine’s ballets were revolutionary. So revolutionary, in fact, that his prescription for a one-act story ballet or poetic evocation, with movement arranged to suit its period, locale, and theme, defined ballet choreography for decades. Calling Shéhérazade "classical" in the same breath with Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadère, as did the rhetoric for the Kirov Ballet’s four FleetBoston Celebrity Series performances in Boston last weekend, simplifies what is a much richer history and misinforms the very audience that could appreciate balletic diversity. The Kirov’s all-Fokine program at the Wang Theatre reflected this muddled and opportunistic thinking.

Of the three ballets and two bonuses presented opening night, only The Dying Swan was choreographed before Fokine left Russia, in 1909; it was a solo piece for Anna Pavlova. Chopiniana, which we know as Les Sylphides, did originate at the Mariinsky, as a series of period sketches, but it assumed its marvelous abstract form during Diaghilev’s first Ballets Russes season in Paris. Chopiniana looks back not to Swan Lake but to an earlier era, to Giselle and La Sylphide, and it distills Romanticism down to perfume: three æthereal ballerinas and their noble escort, with a corps of attendants in long white tutus.

Dance historian Lynn Garafola pointed out to me that Chopiniana (as revived in 1931 by Agrippina Vaganova) has remained in the Kirov’s repertory pretty steadily, and this may explain the lucid account of it we saw. Aside from a few modern ultra-high arabesques, the dancers preserved the otherworldly lightness you can see in lithographs of Marie Taglioni. I thought the corps was especially effective, wafting with a single impulse to the musical phrase.

Fokine’s ballets seem to feature the ensemble much more than any standout solo dancers. I’m aware, of course, that he created for great stars — Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, Adolph Bolm, Ida Rubinstein — but they all had the ability to transform themselves, subordinate themselves, to a choreographic idea. Few dancers today have the magnetism, or the mutability, of these legendary figures. But over-interpreting can throw Fokine’s stylistic unity out of whack. On opening night, Uliana Lopatkina made the Dying Swan into melodrama, as she caught her breath, flapped her arms frantically, clutched the air with a crooked wing.

Fokine paid more than one tribute to the romantic period. Le Spectre de la Rose (1910), for Nijinsky and Karsavina, was a vignette, but a tender one, like rose petals pressed in a diary. A girl comes home after a ball and falls into a reverie — she dreams not of this ball or that suitor but of an androgynous spirit, the idea of dancing itself. Irina Golub was delightful as the dreamy girl, but Igor Kolb seemed to be twining and snaking into the Spectre’s delicate shapes instead of floating through them.

It must be a challenge for contemporary dancers to embody these characters so unlike ourselves. Le Spectre is intimate, fragile. Nijinsky’s mighty leap at the end became legend, but the ballet says something more. For this performance, the Kirov omitted Léon Bakst’s charming set of a Victorian sitting room: Golub reclined uneasily in a chair draped with blue cloth, and the Spectre had to entice her across an empty stage.

When one of the components is missing, you see how thoroughly worked-out Fokine’s theories of taste and style were, and how perfectly Diaghilev put together his teams of collaborators for each ballet. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russo-Orientalist Sheherazade and Stravinsky’s Russian-modernist Firebird became staples in the musical repertory, and the Kirov Orchestra, under Mikhail Agrest, played with a gorgeous, truly symphonic sensitivity.

But the sense of shock these two ballets ignited in 1910 is hard to imagine today. Both were considered savage, sensual, and absolutely transporting in their foreignness. Shéhérazade, based on a tale from the Arabian Nights, tells of passion, jealousy, and intrigue. The Shah sets a trap for his favorite concubine, Zobeide, and when he catches her and the whole harem engaged in an orgy with the slaves, he orders his soldiers to slaughter them all.

Diana Vishneva as Zobeide and Farukh Ruzimatov as the Golden Slave writhed and twisted tensely, eyed each other obliquely. They and everyone else in the cast seethed with desire every moment. Léon Bakst’s original production, with its hangings in saturated greens, orange, and turquoise, looked a bit diffuse on the enormous Wang stage, and the costumes have been scaled down to suit some Las Vegas fantasy. The more Vishneva and Ruzimatov whirled ecstatically, the more I focused on their skin.

Firebird is a pageant of Old Russia, with all the elements of the classic fairy-tale ballets compressed into less than an hour. It has folk dances, cavorting monsters, a momentarily thwarted romance, a magic feather, a broken spell, and a stately wedding procession to seal the future of the kingdom. What a reassuring sight this must have been in 1910 Paris for an audience of æsthetes and expats fleeing the Bolsheviks’ dismantling of their world.

All the forces make their appearance in orderly succession and dance in formal patterns. The only "classical" dancing in the whole ballet is the pas de deux for the Tsarevich Ivan and the Firebird. She’s on pointe — but only because she’s a bird and has to express her freedom by leaping joyously. When Ivan catches her, she flutters and quivers to get loose. The duet looks at first like something a swan and a prince might do, except the danced relationship is one of conflict, not courtship.

One reason Fokine’s work is so hard to revive today is its duality. Probably like George Balanchine a generation later, he wanted to clean up and preserve the classical tradition, but to do it he had to turn it inside out. Even in his own time he was both a radical and a traditionalist. Diaghilev quickly turned to more experimental dancemakers.

The Kirov as an institution has come through two wars, a Revolution, and the failure of the Revolution. It has experienced affluence and poverty, the repression of the Stalinist years and the free fall of the post-collectivist era. It’s a bastion of conservative ballet culture; creative talents have grown restless there and found more receptive sponsorship abroad. Now, with its subsidies slashed, the company must make its mark more forcefully in the world outside Russia. It seems to be groping for a contemporary approach and at the same time trying to construct a new relationship to its past — both the artistic past and the political.

BOSTON CONSERVATORY is the main professional school for dancers here besides Boston Ballet, and its concerts always feature great music performed live by the music students. Last weekend, Laszlo Berdo’s neatly arranged pointe study, Opus 1, was accompanied by Josef Suk’s Piano Quartet in A minor, Opus 1; and we heard the wonderful Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 for Knowing We Can Never Know, by Diane Arvanites-Noya and Tommy Neblett. José Limón’s sweeping 1958 company work, Missa Brevis, to Zoltán Kodály’s Missa brevis in tempore belli, was too big to accommodate a live chorus and organ as well as the 20 dancers, so the music was played on tape.

Arvanites-Noya and Neblett, the directors of Prometheus Dance, make deeply gloomy and sad dances that unfold with gripping images. Knowing We Can Never Know began with a long procession of men and women walking, staring straight ahead. When they reached the end of their path, they’d lie down and begin rolling back the way they came, so the others would have to step over them. The whole dance seemed to be about the failure of contact.

Just when you thought these people had nothing in them but resignation, the music changed and they began to scurry and jump frantically, running up to one another but then turning away before they made contact. Even when people were lifted, they’d make the least possible adjustment or acknowledgment that someone was holding them in an intimate grasp.

Issue Date: November 21 - 27, 2003
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