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The Kirov Ballet: From Russia with Forsythe

For more than a decade the Kirov (Mariinsky) Ballet -- a company famous for its 19th-century repertoire -- has been going through a series of transformations. The reign of Marius Petipa and Michel Fokine was ended in 1989 with the premiere of the ballet Theme and Variations choreographed by George Balanchine. Balanchine’s unique style and modern choreography were gladly adopted and embraced by the Kirov’s dancers. After dancing for more than a century in Romantic and Classical styles, the company was eager for a change. With ten of Balanchine’s works “under its pointes” the Kirov Ballet danced into the 20th century.

William Forsythe, choreographerIn 2004, the 57-year-old American avant-garde choreographer William Forsythe undertook the further transformation (or deconstruction) of the St. Petersburg’s renowned ballet troupe. His modern approach to dance making was a new territory for traditional, classically trained dancers of the Kirov. Once called “Antichrist of ballet,” Forsythe is known for ultramodern and extremely difficult choreography. His ballets are not for the squeamish.

For two months the Kirov’s Odiles, Nikias, Auroras, Giselles, Cinerellas, and assorted princes underwent a strenuous, around-the-clock rehearsal schedule (sort of a dance boot camp) to become ‘Universal’ or Forsythean dancers, intrepid risk takers. Their hard work has paid off. Four one-act ballets -- Steptext, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, and Approximate Sonata -- create an evening-long all-Forsythe program, now a prominent feature of the company’s repertoire. Titled “William Forsythe Masterworks,” this program is currently being presented by the Kirov Ballet at the Opera House of the Kennedy Center.

Choreographed in 1985 to Bach’s Chaconne from a partita for solo violin, Steptext is an abstract dance performed by three men and a woman. Starting suddenly, unexpectedly, viewers at first didn’t realize that the performance was actually under way. In complete silence, with house lights still on, soloist Igor Kolb was performing unimaginable body and arm routine. His solo had elements of an aerobic exercise, martial arts, and yoga. He moved so rapidly – it seemed like he tried to exhaust all his energy. Suddenly a sound of violin pierced the air like a cry – just two bars of music – surrendering to complete silence again. Then from the darkness a woman – Daria Pavlenko – in a red body suit appeared on stage exhibiting robot-like intricate forearm movements. Along with unusual dance vocabulary, bright lights switched on and off, nerve-pinching music played “stop and go,” and the off-centered and multifocus perspective (sometimes with three independent solos performed on different parts of the stage), this work challenged not only the dancers but also the audience. After this 20-minute piece the intermission was welcome, perhaps necessary, to allow spectators to fully absorb the work.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, One Step Forsythe, Two Steps Back for The Kirov (Washington Post, June 15)

John Rockwell, The Kirov Ballet Performs Works by William Forsythe at the Kennedy Center (New York Times, June 15)
Approximate Sonata is set to music by Dutch composer Thom Willems who has collaborated with Forsythe since 1984. The ballet is a collection of five pas de deux performed by four couples (the first couple returns for a final dance.) It may have been the least compelling and visually interesting work of the evening. It began with growling lion sounds and a question “Am I in the right place?” I wondered how many people in the audience asked themselves the same question... What spectators had seen so far looked nothing like “Russian ballet” in any common understanding. If the ballet itself did not leave a particular impression, one could hardly forget the fluorescent green tights of Elena Vostronina. At 5’8’’ she is probably the tallest ballerina in the company. Her leg extensions and swings (up to 210 degrees) were spellbinding. And the performance of Ekaterina Petina will be remembered. She effortlessly navigated through Forsythe’s choreographic geometry, creating exquisite lines and shapes.

A badly amplified recording of Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major provided a soundtrack for The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. Danced by a quintet of soloists - three women in bright yellow tutus and two men in red weightlifter-like costumes – this ballet is an homage to the choreographic heritage of George Balanchine and one of the most frequently performed Forsythe works. Tatiana Tkachenko was especially good in this performance. And Leonid Sarafanov, and Alexander Fadeyev, fighting gravity, demonstrated breathtaking jetés.

After the second intermission, a ballet with another long and strange title, In the Middle, Somewhere Elevated, concluded the program. Created in 1987 for nine dancers of the Paris Opera, this ballet brought William Forsythe fame and recognition. Watching it was a thrill. Six women and three men dressed in almost identical dark green tops and black tights reminded me of a squad of superhumans getting ready for a combat while listening to Thom Willem’s space music. Looking fearless and tireless, dancers moved on stage creating different dance patterns, resembling nine pieces of a puzzle getting assembled and disassembled to form a picture. Ekaterina Kondaurova was without doubt the ‘most valuable dancer’ of the team.

The opening night demonstrated that the Kirov has a new, modern, and interesting program (even if decoration-free staging, gymnastics costumes, and the use of recordings instead of the orchestra made it less appealing than the company's traditional classical repertoire). Beginning tonight, the Kirov Ballet will switch programs to something much more traditional, Giselle: June 16 (Friday), 7:30 pm; June 17 (Saturday), 1:30 and 7:30 pm; June 18 (Sunday), 1:30 pm.


jfl said...

Where is C3PO?

Oksana Khadarina said...

You mean the Oscar statue?