The first two productions of the Mariinsky Theatre’s Kirov Ballet, playing at the Lincoln Center Festival through Saturday, are ballets more than a century old; both have lavish sets and costumes; and both featured spectacularly limpid dancing from their female leads. But Swan Lake hit the spot, while La Bayadère, claiming to replicate the 1900 version, misfired.
On July 11, Svetlana Zakharova played the dual role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, leaving both the audience and her prince, Danila Korsuntsev, breathless. Whenever he placed his hand on his heart as one stricken with love, he was convincing, partly because she was so dazzling. Arms flailing delicately behind her, legs shimmering in the bourrées, Zakharova as Odette personified a fugitive bird with human qualities (or is it vice versa?). Every flung arabesque, every split leap seemed a cry for freedom from a creature trapped by a spell. In her adagio with Prince Siegfried, her leg lifted, unfolded, and extended to the back like a flower blooming in a time-lapse sequence. An enthralled quiet blanketed the audience.
Zakharova’s poignance was balanced by the gusto of Dmitri Zavalishin as the Jester, who presided over the first and third acts. Without his revelry, those acts would have been merely grandiose, but he added wit, nonstop mischief, and astounding gyroscopic turns.
In this Soviet version of Swan Lake, staged by Konstantin Sergeyev (after Petipa/Ivanov) in the 1960s, a small flock of eight black swans infiltrate the corps of 24 white ones in the fourth act—a nice touch. And the Soviets insured a happy ending: The Prince, in a battle with the vulture-like sorcerer Rothbart (Andrei Ivanov), rips off a wing, leaving him to writhe on the floor. The moment Rothbart collapses, Odette rises up to be united with her true love. The Tchaikovsky music, conducted by Boris Gruzin and played by the Kirov Ballet Orchestra, seems heaven-sent throughout.
La Bayadère was strong on pageantry and weak on choreography. The heart of the July 9 performance was Diana Vishneva’s Nikiya, a temple dancer. Her expansive rib cage and pinched lower back gave her a vulnerability and almost unbearable sensitivity to her surroundings. With her high-strung expressivity, she embodied the idea that a loved one can continue to haunt even after her death.
The Indian warrior Solor, played by Adrian Fedeyev, pursues Nikiya in the first act, but turns away when the temple dancer is dying of an asp’s bite. Fedeyev’s style is graced by an elegant lengthening of the back and arms, but there seems to be restriction in his legs. He does well in an improbable section in which he juggles his partnering of Nikiya’s ghost and of Gamzatti (her rival, about to become his wife) in the middle of an irrelevant celebration.
During this almost four-hour ballet, women wear veils of every color attached to ankles, hips, or heads. Men carry long peacock-feather fans or parrots. The sets are magnificent, from a valley bounded by storybook boulders to a Taj Mahal-type palace with lovely foliage, all in muted colors with ornate designs. The lushness of the environment contrasts with the repression of Solor’s being forced to marry someone he doesn’t love.
An occasional gesture reveals the power of movement to tell a story. When the jealous High Brahmin informs the Rajah (father of Gamzatti) of the love between Solor and Nikiya, his whole body tilts as though his head is too heavy with the knowledge. Later, when Gamzatti orders the death of Nikiya, she slowly presses her hand down with a lethal force.
But static staging and endless rows of people dancing standard ballet steps, often returning for more when we thought they had finished, rob the production of momentum. (Whether the choreography, reconstructed using the Stepanov notation by Sergei Vikharev, is authentic is anyone’s guess.) One accepts that Russian audiences love to immerse themselves in the aura of the theater, doting on their favorite ballerinas. But for non-insiders, large portions of pantomime and lackluster variations eclipse brief moments of full-out dancing. (The action comes to a dead halt for a full 10 seconds preceding Solor’s third-act variation.) The production makes one realize why Michel Fokine and George Balanchine left Petipa behind for more fertile approaches to choreography.
But these classics celebrate the fantasy that all personal dramas can be danced, the belief that no infidelity goes unpunished, and the reality that exquisite dancing can touch one’s core.