[slideshow] I went for the downy thunderbolt of technique and expression possessed only by Russian ballet artists in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” and I was not disappointed. The 200-person forcefield of sophistication, generosity and technical excitement that comes at you when St. Petersburg’s Mariinksky Ballet and Orchestra (formerly Kirov) brings its gold-standard classical ballet to town certainly made the standard touring productions by our U.S. ballet companies feel thinned and rigid. At the Mariinksky’s concert, every performer was a superstar technician, everyone exuded in their delivery, and they were all evenly proportioned and lily-white. Watching them flood the stage in village dances or the moonlit lakeside formations was like seeing the first excited group portraits of a tribe that’s been isolated from the rest of human social development for the last 100 years. And though the excising of mime passages in this version may break from ye olde tradition, the dancers paused fully and meaningfully for all the well-placed gestures that do remain. Long sips from goblets, slow kisses, and deep swooping bows projected to the back of the packed houses, swelling the hall with human drama. Add to that the orchestra’s matching opulence, polish and expressiveness and you had a production that unfurled in high, graceful waves.
What I did not expect, however, was to see the spirit of the late George Balanchine here, insistently and undeniably. A man who fled his upbringing at this same St. Petersburg theater to work outside the classical tradition, who publically announced his preference for Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” over “Swan Lake” and condensed his own version of the swan tale for New York City Ballet down to one act, Balanchine was the voice of cool 20th century ballet modernism here in America, never baggy scene-shuffling romances. Yet could it be that in the looong 28 years since his death, the work that might finally satisfy one’s pent-up longing for Mr. B’s recipe for choreographic logic and frisky play and innovative harmonies would be something from way back in his DNA? For indeed Balanchine danced in this epic Petipa/Ivanov work for this same huge traditionalistic institution when he was just starting out in ballet. And in later years he did single out Ivanov as a choreographer whose musicality helped elevate him above the tyrannical constraints of the Russian institution.
Watching Vladimir Schklyarov and Oxana Skorik and the whole Mariinsky company on Tuesday night at Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, I realized how much I’d been aching for Balanchinean choreographic precision and finesse, and how little console there’s been in contemporary craft since his death. Here, within this four-act romantic melodrama, performances and choreography felt radiantly matched, and over and over again, individual steps and group geometries had reason and details mattered. When Schklyarov’s extensions were presented in croisé, before he found Odette, those crossed positions held him at a distance from the audience, and love, too, it seemed. When he met her, and they began dancing together, his extensions began to appear in effacé, with a new reveal of his shape. And the male-female partnering felt like a revelation. It was not until I saw the lovers’ dance that I realized just how frustrating it’s become to have today’s choreographers constantly ‘equalizing’ the partnerships in these moments, having both lovers aswirl and akimbo at once, rendering the whole moment like a mass of tangled cables. Having the amazing Schklyarov do nothing for a moment but lift and support the woman, taking her to heights unachievable on her own, seemed like a revolution – at certain heights, the beauty of reflected glory is enough. He got his turn later, anyhow, blowing the roof off the house with his leaps and hot hot turns. The plucky confidence that shows up in Balanchine’s idiom was here too – as when the Jester (Alexsey Nedviga) posed with a hand held jauntily on his hip as he begins a step.
If the Mariinsky weren’t such formidable interpreters of this work (as well as having a recent spate of Balanchine ballets in its repertory), I doubt I would have seen the wonderful Petipa-Ivanov-Balanchine lineage. It’s a testimony to the organization (led at present by Valery Gergiev) that the work felt as well scrubbed and alive as it could be, after all these years. Even with opening night’s missteps – there was a kind of jet-lagged caul over the evening that led to stumbles and tics – this show, like none in recent memory, satisfied both conscious and unconscious longings for dance that fulfills its destiny, coursing backwards and forwards through this difficult, unbelievable art.