St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre: Swan Lake at The Coliseum

Posted: August 28th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre: Swan Lake at The Coliseum

St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre, Swan Lake, The Coliseum, London, August 23

Irena Kolesnikova in St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake (photo: Vladimir Zenzinov)

George Balanchine was a great admirer of the music of Tchaikovsky; both were Petersburgers and Balanchine felt that to understand Tchaikovsky’s music you had to know St. Petersburg. In introducing the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre to its London audience, founding director Konstantin Tachkin has included in its program not only information on Tchaikovsky and the company but on the city from which the music arose, its Imperial history, its architecture and its rich ballet heritage. It is the home of the Vaganova Ballet Academy, once known as the Imperial Ballet School, that has trained some of the great Russian dancers of the last century (including Balanchine) and where St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s principal Irena Kolesnikova graduated in 1998. By association with the history of St. Petersburg Tachkin lays out the expectation that what we are about to see has all the marks of authenticity but Swan Lake is built up of layers of cultural refinement gathered from many countries and traditions and its lasting appeal is based not only on its score but on its inspired choreographic language and stirring mythology. Classical ballet is essentially ephemeral; a production of Swan Lake relies each time on live performance for its inspiration and genius to be embodied and appreciated. If this doesn’t happen the ballet becomes a product, an approximation that resembles the original in its structure but fails to ignite an emotional response to its essential character. For all the expectation of authenticity, St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s touring production of Swan Lake fails to convince in performance.

The essence of Swan Lake — redemption through love — is released in the music but it must also materialize on stage. In a narrative ballet the story is linked through mime whose meaning arises from the relationship between an established theatrical lexicon and the intention of the person using it. If the lexicon is clear but the intention is lacking, the meaning is lost. One example is when the Princess (Inna Svechnikova) arrives in Act 1; she is supposed to indicate to her son, Prince Siegfried (Bolshoi Ballet’s Denis Rodkin) that as he’s about to reach the age of 21 it’s time to think of getting married. In fact she’s arranged a ball at the palace the next day to invite a few eligible princesses for Siegfried to choose from. But by the time the Princess has left, we are none the wiser as to what she might have expressed as her mime is delivered in an inarticulate display of ornamented gesture; only a knowledge of the plot fills the narrative gap. Another example is the divorce of Rodkin’s mimed gestures toward Odette and Odile from any indication of his feelings for her. This uncertainty of any manifest intention renders St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s production a cardboard cutout of the original ballet. One gesture that has no trouble in communicating its intent is Odile’s contemptuous grimace as she throws her bouquet of flowers over the remorseful Siegfried.

Although Kolesnikova triumphs in this moment, she is not averse elsewhere to another form of obfuscation in her mime, that of hyperbole. Her swan-like gestures err on the side of melodrama to the extent that her interpretation of the duplicitous Odile seeps prematurely into the earlier appearances of the lyrical Odette.

When so much depends in a company of 44 dancers on the presence of its principal ballerina and her Bolshoi and Mariinsky guests, the focus of our attention is inevitably drawn to them and away from the story; as the ballet becomes a vehicle for the quality of stardom so the significance of the story is diminished. In Kolesnikova’s 32 fouettés — taken at a tempestuous tempo by conductor Vadim Nikitin — we are watching not the rapturous culmination of her deception over Siegfried but a resolute display of her technical achievement. The one figure in the production who matches his extrovert behaviour with commensurate physical prowess and gesture is Sergei Fedorkov’s court jester.

As Alexei Ratmansky’s recent reconstructions of Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake reveal, there is a subtle balance between music, mime and choreography that makes the story comes to life through the integration of all its elements. Of course there are principal roles in the original narrative but they support the story through mime and dance that are intimately related. What Ratmansky has also unwittingly revealed is the misunderstanding in current productions of the classics where an over-reliance on technical display and self-expression removes from the narrative the logic — and the magic — of its creators.


The Royal Ballet: Triple Bill (Balanchine, Schechter and MacMillan)

Posted: April 12th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet: Triple Bill (Balanchine, Schechter and MacMillan)

Royal Ballet, Triple Bill, Royal Opera House, March 30

Hofesh Schecter rehearsing The Royal Ballet cast in  Untouchable

Hofesh Schechter rehearsing The Royal Ballet corps and soloists in Untouchable

The history of a ballet is fascinating but it’s not what you see on stage. A work might be a masterpiece in the canon of ballet history but if it is not danced as a masterpiece what have we just seen? George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, with a brilliantly melodic, syncopated score by Paul Hindemith, is ‘a dance ballet without plot’, and is based on the ancient notion that the human organism is made up of four humours or temperaments: melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic and choleric. Balanchine (who commissioned the score) said of his ballet that he had made a negative to Hindemith’s positive plate but as danced by the Royal Ballet this evening something seems to have gone awry in the darkroom. The positive aspect of the score is there, with pianist Robert Clark and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under the baton of Barry Wordsworth, but the dancing, with one or two exceptions, is not as closely matched as Balanchine designed it. Writing in 1952 Edwin Denby described The Four Temperaments as ‘developing a ferocity of drive that seems to image the subject matter of its title: internal secretions.’ Apart from Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell in the second theme, a moment when Federico Bonelli comes alive in the second variation and Zanaida Yanowsky’s arresting performance of the Choleric variation, Denby’s ‘ferocity of drive’ is replaced by a pusillanimous parade of Balanchine steps; the jazz-inspired hip movements barely register, the wit is missing and the precision of the choreography abandoned in the execution of the steps. The production is credited as staged by Patricia Neary, but that was possibly when she first set it in 1973. I wonder when it was last visited by Neary or anyone else from The George Balanchine Trust. In its present manifestation, it feels like Balanchine by numbers — or in choreographic terms, by notation.

Hofesh Schechter’s Untouchable, his first work for the Royal Ballet at the invitation of director Kevin O’Hare, is borrowed from his previous work; rather than developing new ideas inspired by new dancers he has simply drawn the new dancers into the comfort of his own mould. Untouchable has costumes with a military theme by Holly Waddington and apocalyptic lighting by Lee Curran who uses industrial amounts of haze and banks of lights to create a total scenography from which the dancers emerge at the beginning and into which they disappear and reappear throughout the work. But Schechter’s swarming choreography and Nell Catchpole’s score (to which Schechter contributed) fuse so seamlessly that Untouchable lacks any contrast; it looks like the staging of something that should be happening but never does. One interesting aspect of the work is that Schechter works only with the corps and soloists: there are no officers in this army as the choreography emphasises. No doubt the administration is happy to have sold out these performances but the programming of Untouchable seems to have less to do with the future of ballet — a topic O’Hare is discussing at the Dance UK conference this weekend — than with making money from a popular choice of choreographer.

The psychological baggage of Untouchable may have a closer affinity to Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria than to his Song of the Earth but it is the latter ballet that the Royal Ballet choses to program this evening. Song of the Earth is, like Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, a milestone in the choreographer’s creative output, a beautiful work that sets Mahler’s symphonic song cycle Song of the Earth to dance. It was not thought acceptable by the Board of the Royal Ballet at the time to choreograph Mahler so MacMillan had to create it on John Cranko’s company in Stuttgart. Happily the value of Song of the Earth has been vindicated since the Royal Ballet took it into its own repertoire 100 performances ago. Not all performances are equal, however. This evening, Laura Morera as the woman in white is the only vestige of transcendent beauty against a rather dense barrier of emotional inertia. Nehemiah Kish’s entrance as The Man — the very first entrance in the ballet — does not augur well and Edward Watson’s subsequent entrance does little to suggest he is the powerful messenger of death. The corps of men has a fey element or two that disturbs an otherwise grounded chorus into a discordant group; the women fare much better and Morera has some strong support in her chorus but she has to struggle too much to establish her emotional credentials with her Man and Death. In a score that is so thoroughly imbued with Mahler’s own struggle with love and death the conviction and sensitivity of this trio is essential to the success of MacMillan’s choreography. Morera’s force of character is convincing but the relationship is not.

 


San Francisco Ballet: Programme A

Posted: September 17th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on San Francisco Ballet: Programme A

San Francisco Ballet, Programme A, Sadler’s Wells, September 14

A Buddhist tale relates that a king once had a group of blind men brought to the palace, where an elephant was brought in and they were asked to describe it. When the blind men had each felt a part of the elephant, the king went to each of them and asked: ‘Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?” Of course their answers differed according to which part of the elephant they had touched and they could not arrive at a consensus. The elephant in this case is analogous to Helgi Tomasson’s San Francisco Ballet, and the blind men to those who are only able to see one or two of the three quite different programmes the company is presenting at Sadler’s Wells. To see the full range of this versatile company means investing in all three programmes, however satisfying each one may be.

It is worth noting that the opening night of Programme A is only two days after the dancers arrive in London, and they find themselves on a stage that is much smaller than their home theatre.

San Francisco Ballet performs with a live orchestra but the liveness was in some doubt on the opening bars of its first outing with Mozart’s Divertimento No. 15 in B Flat major, K 287. The pit sounded as if it had been dug a little too deep and the brilliance of Mozart’s sound was decidedly muffled, especially in the horn section. Balanchine’s Divertimento is a sparkling, airy work, full of intricate steps and patterns, a celebration of classical shapes in space and of the beauty of the dancers. The beauty of the dancers is not in question here, but I am not sure if it was the jetlag, or the orchestra’s playing, or the first-night nerves, but the cast struggled to maintain the unity of Balanchine’s choreography with Mozart’s music. Davit Karapetyan showed it was possible, ending his variation with a delightful flourish, but then Vanessa Zahorian danced beautifully but ran out of space and had to change trajectory to finish hers. The orchestra’s tempi seemed to spread panic through the ensemble patterns, giving them an air of constantly trying to catch up, with arabesques and arms arriving to their fullness in the same way different drivers might approach a speed limit: before, as you pass or after. In a program honouring Balanchine by a company steeped in his tradition, I can understand opening with Divertimento: you honour the great man and his work first. But the preparations were just too rushed to do full justice either to Balanchine or to the company, placing time and space at odds with one another. I am sure other iterations of the program will fare better.

The orchestra, under conductor Martin West, was more comfortable in the Rachmaninov, producing a full, warm sound in his Symphonic Dances which choreographer Edwaard Liang borrowed as the title to his work. Liang was a soloist in New York City Ballet, which comes as no surprise. There are elements of Balanchine in Liang’s choreography, but rather too much of a ticklish disconnect between the music and the choreography. Rachmaninov’s lush romanticism proves too powerful for the choreographic forces Liang can marshal, and he gets lost in a plethora of complex lifts that further divide attention from the music in direct proportion to the lifts losing form in space. Simpler ideas have greater traction, as when a group of women lift the hems of their skirts and let them fall in unison to accent the end of a musical phrase, but these are like snippets of conversation rather than part of a consistent choreographic language. It is towards the end that Liang manages to gather his forces closer together, infusing his choreography with a natural, sinuous energy that is warm without being emotional. Daniel Deivison responds to this beautifully, coaxing every last bit of juice out of the movement, and Sofiane Sylve enters almost deliriously into the swirling emotions of the score, taking full advantage of the movement Liang has given her, but it is all too little too late. Neither Jack Mehler’s rich seasonal lighting, nor Rachmaninov’s sumptuous score nor the dancers themselves can rescue this work, though it finishes bravely.

Number Nine (perhaps Christopher Wheeldon’s ninth creation for San Francisco Ballet), takes us by surprise at first by its vibrant, phosphorescent colour contrasts by Holly Hines (costumes) and Mary Louise Geiger (lighting). But very soon I realise I am watching what I have been looking for all evening, a match of equals between music (by American composer, Michael Torke), choreography, costumes and lighting that is consummated in the dancing. Wheeldon plays with his steps and in so doing finds musical space within the score that sets the dancers free. And a wonderful octet of principals and solists it is: Frances Chung, Maria Kochetkova, Sofianne Sylve, Sarah Van Patten, Daniel Deivison, Gennadi Nedvegin, Vito Mazzeo and Carlos Quenedit. Like Balanchine, Wheeldon, who was New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer for seven years, celebrates the body, makes effortless patterns – in one instance from four groups of women to two lines into a square and then into a rectangle – creates lifts that have clarity and sculpts movement that fills the space, however many dancers there are on stage. The entire work is suffused with humour, from the colours to the score to the two dancers conducting the orchestra; only the technical demands on the dancers are not to be laughed at. Towards the end, as the dancers appear to be wriggling in space, there is a trumpet fanfare. How appropriate: Wheeldon’s works have flown home, and in great company.