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A whole new world?
Reflections on As You Like It and the Kirov Ballet

There hasnít been much mystery about the Kirov Ballet in its most recent visits to this country, either its two-week Lincoln Center Festival appearance in July 2002 or the six-week tour that after touching down in California, Detroit, and Cleveland concluded this past weekend at the Wang Theatre. Just about everybody agrees on the companyís big, soft technique, delectable ensemble, and superb finish. Like its home town of St. Petersburg, the Kirov has as its ethos a cubic geometry, all logic, volume, and weight. The cityís geometer is its founder, Peter the Great, who in 1703 built what would become Russiaís new capital from scratch. The ballet companyís geometer is harder to identify.

The Swan Lake that the Kirov brought to Lincoln Center last year was prelapsarian-perfect but, at least in the performance I saw, had no passion: the first-act party guests didnít connect with one another, Veronica Partís Odette didnít connect with Danila Korsuntsevís Siegfried, and Partís Odile was merely Odetteís extroverted twin. George Balanchineís Jewels, on the other hand, stretched the company; Marcia Siegel in her Phoenix review wrote that "its members seemed to be learning a different way to dance." To what they already owned they added speed and attitude. It wasnít as fast as the Balanchinean ideal (or as hard-edged as New York City Ballet tends to do Mr. B these days), and the movements were displayed rather than breathed. But it was a revelation: if Jewels stretched the Kirov, the Kirov also stretched Jewels.

Boston has never seen Jewels (Boston Ballet has done the Rubies section under the title Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra), so itís too bad the Kirov didnít perform the piece here in its FleetBoston Celebrity Series appearance last weekend. But the Mikhail Fokine program we got instead likewise revealed a company moving from innocence to experience. Set in a fuzzy Corot glade, Chopiniana is the Kirovís Garden, a pastoral paradise where love and honor are undefined because their opposites do not exist. The Snake arrives in Shéhérazade in the form of Shah Zeman, who tells his brother Shah Shahryar that Shahryarís favorite wife, Zobeide, is unfaithful (as indeed she is); tragedy ensues. In Firebird, Evil, in the form of Kashchei, has turned the Garden to stone, but with the Firebirdís help Tsarevich Ivan restores it to sunshine and marries the Princess.

Last weekend it was Shéhérazade that stretched the company. The dancersí presentation of Chopiniana was as faultless as their Swan Lake, but the piece suffers from the treacly orchestration by Aleksandr Glazunov and Maurice Keller. At the Wang, moreover, the Kirov Orchestra was not on top form (itís hard to believe the recent Philips Firebird and Sheherazade recordings under Valery Gergiev, or the Chopiniana that Viktor Fedotov conducts on the 1991 Kirov DVD, are being played by the same group), and Mikhail Agrestís tempos ranged from saccharine to syrupy. Itís bad enough that the little A-major Prélude has to be repeated twice; Agrest erased both its mazurka pulse and its Mozartian wit. No ballerina could make this romantic, though Daria Pavlenko and Irina Golub managed to fill Agrestís inflated phrases. Yana Selina (in the G-flat Waltz), Daria Sukhorukova (in the Opus 67 No. 3 Mazurka and the C-sharp minor Waltz), and Irina Zhelonkina (in both parts) were also gratifying, though Zhelonkinaís arms tend to move into place rather than being moved by her body and the music. Igor Kolb, a fragrant Rose in the Thursday-night-only Le Spectre de la Rose, was a cadet-like Young Man, virile in attitude if not as buoyant as Danila Korsuntsev or as poetic as the DVDís Konstantin Zaklinsky. Chopinianaís ethos was created by the corps ladies, who made palpable the gravity that gives grace to human movement.

Fokineís Firebird suffers from the absence of dancing, and from its too easy resolution. All the conflict is packed into the first scene, where Ivan catches the Firebird and she flutters in distress ó itís like watching Siegfried and Odette. But instead of Black Swan Odile, thereís the blonde Princess; and rather than being torn between the two women, Ivan is rescued by one and marries the other. The section where he and the Princess do homage to the Tree with the Golden Apples looks more like Soviet realism than Fokine, and thereís no dancing to speak of for anyone but the Firebird. Tatiana Amosova, who performed Thursday and Saturday nights, was more woman than bird, brushing off Andrei Yakovlevís stolid Ivan as if he were an unwelcome suitor; on Friday, Irma Nioradze was all bird, taken with a boyish and attentive Viktor Baranov (the Prince on the companyís DVD Nutcracker) but unable to break the species barrier. Unlike Rothbart, whose power is destroyed by love, Kashchei (here Vladimir Ponomarev, preening but not overacting) is undone by the Firebirdís light, as if he were nothing but a winter god. And Stravinskyís kinetic score goes for naught in the finale, where the lines of princesses and their rescued-from-stone cavaliers bow to each other until Ivan and the Princess appear and Paradise is restored.

Shéhérazade is Fokineís salute to Shakespeare, with Shah Zeman standing in for Othelloís Iago, or Learís Edmund, or Much Adoís Don John, and Zobeide a more complex figure than Desdemona in that she shows affection for Shahryar but saves her passion for the Golden Slave. A casting reshuffle brought us hot property Diana Vishneva and veteran Faroukh Ruzimatov (Prince Désiré on the Kirovís Sleeping Beauty DVD), but they didnít ignite on Thursday: she undulated impersonally to the audience and he never looked at her. Fridayís pairing of Uliana Lopatkina and Daria Korsuntsev conflagrated. Lopatkina (so feelingly weighted in her portrayal of the Thursday-only Dying Swan) was sex made flesh, and Korsuntsev, hyperbolic in technique as always, was unrecognizable as the uncentered Siegfried of Swan Lake and Young Man of Chopiniana: crouching in pursuit of Lopatkina like a jaguar, all but flying off the stage in exultation. The Kirovís always volumetric geometry became human geometry. On Saturday, Irma Nioradze pressed herself against the wall in agonized ecstasy as Igor Zelensky (who danced Siegfried in Boston Balletís Swan Lake back in 1992 and is on the Kirov DVD) leapt through the doorway, but he proved an oddly contained partner, breaking out only in his manège.

Even when the real dancingís over, Shéhérazade goes on. Shocked by the execution of the Golden Slave, Zobeide nonetheless begs for her life (Nioradze made the transition from despair to desperation especially lucid). Shahryar seems to relent. Zeman, both concerned and jealous, rolls the Slaveís body over with his foot, whereupon Zobeide seizes a knife and lunges at him, then offers Shahryar the knife. Shahryar advances menacingly toward his brother, as if ignorance might have been bliss; Zobeide, meanwhile, realizes she has nothing to live for. The complexity of human feeling here makes light of the Golden Age that Firebird would return us to. Marry that complexity to the Kirovís technique and you have the worldís best dance company.

THE GOLDEN AGE is also a major theme of As You Like It, which Sir Peter Hall and the Theatre Royal Bath are putting on at the Wilbur Theatre. Although theyíre said to be living in the Forest of Arden like "the old Robin Hood of England," Duke Senior and his followers endure what Errol Flynn never felt, "the icy fang/and churlish chiding of the winterís wind." Shakespeare is reminding us that the pastoral convention is just that: in reality, those who take refuge from the cruelty of humankind (as represented here by Duke Frederickís court and Oliverís household) subject themselves to the cruelty of nature. Getting back to nature may recharge everyoneís batteries, and it gives Rosalind an opportunity to test Orlandoís love, but at the end of the day, itís time to go home.

The real Golden Age of As You Like It is Shakespeareís language, which creates a self-contained world of truth and beauty that no winter wind can touch, assuring us, even in the face of banished Duke Seniorís anguish, or banished Rosalindís, or mistreated Orlandoís, that we can find "good in everything." When I read As You Like It, or any of the Bardís plays, thatís the Shakespeare I hear. All the world is indeed a stage, and the geometer of the drama is the geometer of the world.

But you donít see that Shakespeare very often in theaters. As soon as the curtain went up at the Wilbur a week ago Wednesday, it was clear that Joseph Millsonís Orlando doesnít find the Bardís cadences sufficient recompense for the penury of his state. And thatís generally true of Hallís darker-than-usual interpretation, one in which Orlando and Rosalind are more giddy than glorified. Having been reminded that, by any real-life standard, Rosalindís testing of Orlando doesnít amount to much, weíre left to wonder whether Oliver and Celia wonít be just as happy, or Silvius and Phebe, or even Touchstone and Audrey.

Shakespeare was well aware that linguistic geometry is not human geometry. And his Elizabethan world was less of a Golden Age than our own; As You Like It alludes to the sudden (and controversial) death of his fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe in a tavern altercation six years earlier. Iíd like to think that his Orlandos werenít as angry as Joseph Millson, but perhaps thatís just wishing him into the world of Fokineís Chopiniana. He created a Garden out of words, just as Fokine created a Garden out of movement. But itís not complete until Adam and Eve and the Snake show up.

Issue Date: November 21 - 27, 2003
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