Russian ballet, flawed but brilliant

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday October 6, 2015
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Time was, if big-time dance came to town from New York or Europe, they'd play San Francisco's Opera House: the Royal Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, American Ballet Theater, Dance Theater of Harlem. Most-anticipated were the great Russian companies, the Bolshoi and the Kirov, which began to appear frequently ca. 1990, after the Iron Curtain came down. For these hot tickets, fans would camp out overnight on the steps of the Opera House to be first to get tickets.

With the rise of San Francisco Ballet and the expansion of the Opera season, the great international companies are frozen out of the Opera House, and such as we see of them now comes in Berkeley, courtesy of Cal Performances, the remarkable arts-and-lectures wing of "the world's greatest public university," the University of California at Berkeley, where last week the oldest and perhaps the greatest Russian company, the Mariinsky (aka the Kirov, the Kirov/Mariinsky) Ballet and Orchestra from St. Petersburg, danced Prokofiev's Cinderella at Zellerbach Hall.

When the Bolsheviks took over, they kept the ballet but renamed it Kirov after a general; since the fall of the Soviet empire, it's been re-renamed the Mariinsky, after their home theater, which when it was built in 1860 was the largest in Europe and got its name from the Tsar's wife, Maria Alexandrova. When they arrived last week, with a "small" touring delegation of 144 dancers and musicians, the main company was still performing at home ("all seats sold out," according to their website Sunday morning).

In short, they are a colossal theater organization, bigger than anything in this country, and part of a greater organization including an opera company, all directed by the globe-trotting superstar conductor Valery Gergiev. Moreover, they are the fountainhead of all ballet companies in the English-speaking world, which were all founded in the Russian diaspora, by artists fleeing the upheavals in Eastern Europe of the early 20th century.

The Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra presented Alexei Ratmansky's Cinderella in Zellerbach Hall. Photo: Vladimir Baranovsky

Headlining the shows was the ballerina Diana Vishneva, who created the role of Cinderella back in 2002 and has since become an international superstar; she performed opening night. Unfortunately, your reviewer had to teach that night, and saw the up-and-coming dancer Nadezda Batoeva, who (to judge her against footage of Vishneva available on YouTube), without doing anything ugly, barely sketched in the choreography for the ball scene.

Ratmansky's Cinderella held the mirror up to Nature in post-Glasnost Russia (2002) in ways that must have been explosively disillusioning and simultaneously explosively funny. Cinderella's father is a failed Perestroikaist; he and his Professor Longhair friends are a troika of drunks, with a dazzlingly off-balance array of pirouettes that tells a whole dead-end story in 30 seconds, and all he's asking now is, "Can you lend us a dime?"

The Stepmother's an AbFab fashionista, Pats with a Buster-Brown do. The stepsisters are spoiled but actually kind of adorable, hoping to make their way in cafe society with dance lessons. The curtain goes up on them with hairdressers straight out of Mark Morris' Hard Nut, preparing them to make it in the kleptocracy (that Putin's now got well-entrenched), already putting down good roots and having taken over the town in the ball-scene. The Fairy Godmother is a bag-lady with a Groucho walk.

Perhaps there is a Russian equivalent for Yeats' lines, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity." In this case, the worst just seem to want every perk they can get �" but the best (the Prince and Cinderella) seem to have no idea what to do, except to stay together. When she's lost, he becomes sincerely, genuinely bereft. Perhaps the most expressive choreography in the ballet was the Prince's third-act solo, full of agitated, beaten steps I've never seen before. Or perhaps it was just the meeting of a fine dancer and the dance that ideally suits his gifts.

Ratmansky was free from the censorship and threats of imprisonment that earlier artists had to work under (in the 40s, Prokofiev's wife was in the Gulag as he was writing the music for Cinderella). His ballet is as Western as a portrait by Diane Arbus �" disturbing, bold-faced, and ugly. The stepmother embodies this: furious, ugly, and bored. Desperate fashionista that she is, her dancing is hideous, uglier even than the Roman General's wife's in Spartacus. I hasten to add that this is an intentional distortion of ballet idiom, created to reveal the moral ugliness of the high-class oppressor; in particular, it uses the strength of the pointe shoe, which allows the dancer to hit a pose of terrifying extension and hold it, to burn the image on our retinas �" and for this character, Ratmansky has devised some really ugly imagery. She is violently bored.

In fact, everybody in the ballet is bored except Cinderella; the Prince (the truly charming Vladimir Sklyaurov) has not yet been deadened by boredom, though he is lonely. The rest are all essentially zombies. Both the "Hey Big Spender" prostitutes and the sleek gay boys the Prince meets on his search dance amusingly, though they're not enjoying it, and both laugh at the glass slipper when the prince presents it.

The great weakness of the show I saw was the up-and-coming ballerina Nadezda Batoeva, whose bland sweetness of nature never made any shape out of the choreography, which even when Vishneva dances it, is floating, vulnerable, improvisatory, rather like the "released" dancing of Suzanne Farrell in Balanchine's Don Quixote. Vishneva danced like smoke, and you were fascinated. It was wonderfully light, but though it was an elusive dance, you could feel its emanations. Batoeva seemed never to communicate anything  to me until the final pas de deux.

Ratmanksky's collaborators included the set designer Ilya Utkin, whose constructivist scaffoldings are interesting to think about but made the ugliest stage-design I've seen since The Death of Klinghoffer . They also seemed to take up way too much room on the stage �" one dancer actually banged into a column, while another fell in the near proximity.