No time for jet lag
Entrepreneurial is too tame a word for the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov) under Valery Gergiev. This week, they have been in both the US and the UK - giving their cornerstone repertory in San Francisco, and showing London some of the more recent (ie 20th-century) material they've been exploring - from early Balanchine to post-modern William Forsythe. Performing everywhere at once is a good trick - but is it good enough?
In San Francisco, critic Rachel Howard found the Kirov's principals 'mechanical', adding that 'the rigidity of that famously strong Kirov upper back seems to have traveled north to the dancers' faces.' She wished she had seen them perform Balanchine and Forsythe, but they didn't thrill to this repertory at Sadler's Wells in London. Their two programmes were disappointingly underwhelming, almost routine.
Hauteur still rolls off the stage like a chill wind, for more than any other company the Kirov represent ballet aristocracy - Harry Potter fans would recognise them as true-blood wizards rather than pedestrian Muggles. But, guess what - ballet is increasingly a Muggle art. Inhabiting the 19th century is no longer an option.
The company recognises this but, on the evidence of these shows, also resents it. Forsythe's 1980s pieces are full of presentational cheek (house lights go up and down, the curtain descends in mid-sequence). But they are also hugely demanding (it's no accident than one piece is called The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude), asking the dancers to trash their training and then reassemble it. It's sad that they failed to get their teeth into it, to relish biting the head off the classical canary.
Instead, the evening was a dispiriting indication that they only truly enjoy showing off. If it isn't bravura, they're bored. They only unleashed their invigorating finesse for In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, a kinetic collage that teeters on the impossible. It was thrilling to watch Ekaterina Kondaurova rip into a duet at unforgiving speed, or jab her pointe-shod foot into the floor and swivel fearsomely around it.
Kondaurova was again a gleaming attention-magnet role on the second bill, as the Siren who stalks down Balachine's Prodigal Son. Mikhail Lobukhin hurled himself fearlessly into the role of the Son, but again the most engaged dancing of the evening was the flashiest: young meteors Vladimir Shklyarov and Evgenya Obraztsova in Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. They spun and fishtail swooped with vim, but a performance is so much more than an opportunity to provoke gasps. While the Mariinsky clocks up the air miles, are they forgetting to build a real connection with audiences? I met a journalist at one of the shows who had interviewed two of the young dancers earlier in the day. Don't you get jet lag?, she marvelled. Oh no, they replied. It's not allowed.
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