David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY

Nacho Duato's 'Prelude'. Photo © Nikolay Krusser

Nacho Duato’s ‘Prelude’.
Photo © Nikolay Krusser

November 18, 2014: Le Halte de cavalerie, Class Concert, Prelude
November 20, 2014: Don Quixote

Jerry Hochman

The Mikhailovsky Ballet glided into the second week of its two week debut New York season with a repertory evening bearing the overall title: ‘Three Centuries of Russian Ballet,” and then completed the run with its version of the classic, “Don Quixote.” Both the repertory program and the full length ballet were marvelous vehicles for excellent performances by the dancers in this unexpectedly entertaining and engaging company.

With a program titled “Three Centuries of Russian Ballet,” one expects to see blockbusters. The program wasn’t quite at that anticipated level – but the three dances, collectively, proved to be sparkling company showcases.

The final piece on Tuesday night’s program, “Prelude”, a contemporary ballet created in 2011 by Resident Choreographer, Nacho Duato, was the evening’s surprise. Although the reception for it was tepid – perhaps because the piece lacked any display of ballet ‘tricks’, which the audience, heavily laden with Russian-speaking patrons, may have expected – I found it to be a visually interesting and intellectually stimulating dance, and a splendid presentation of contrasting styles.

Have you ever wondered what George Balanchine’s “Serenade” might look like if choreographed by Jiří Kylián? Of course you haven’t. But that’s a thought that crossed my mind as I watched “Prelude”. The ballet includes a female corps, costumed in flowing, ankle-length skirt/dresses made of multi-layered diaphanous chiffon-like material, who on occasion raise their arm as if reflecting, or saluting, ballet’s Romantic legacy. This image, coupled with a panoramic scope of stage activity that occasionally empties into a solo or duet, and a series of focal points that are narratively uncertain but which are not purely abstract, made the piece look at times like a cross between any number of early-Kylián pieces I’ve seen and any number of Balanchine’s nods to his ballet roots, particularly “Serenade”.

Given Mr. Duato’s background and the stated theme of this piece, the relationship between ballet’s Romantic heritage seen through a contemporary filter, and a Kylián-like style, is not surprising. After a year with the Cullberg Ballet, Mr. Duato was scooped up in 1981 by Mr. Kylián, who took him to the Nederlands Dans Theater, where he became a Resident Choreographer in 1988, before moving to Madrid’s Compañía Nacional de Danza as Artistic Director in 1990, and the Mikhailovsky in 2011 – a position he held until this year. Not surprisingly, his choreography is marked by balletic fluidity with a contemporary dynamic pulse. “Prelude” is no different. But what makes “Prelude” particularly grand is its scope and its intensity.

“Prelude” is a sweeping cross-cultural, and cross-stylistic dance that Mr. Duato has indicated is intended to reflect the cultural and stylistic differences that both he and the Mikhailovsky faced when he became the company’s Artistic Director. It describes the meeting of two different dance worlds. To excerpts from unidentified compositions by Handel, Beethoven, and Benjamin Britten, and the piece pulses and flows between one style and another seamlessly, although the clash of cultures and styles is apparent.

The Romantically-dressed  corps women initially appear in the background, upstage of men who join them on stage, and are dressed in contemporary-looking black outfits (the costumes were designed by Mr. Duato). The women have gathered their Romantic skirts up to their necks, as if to hide from, or protect themselves from, the contemporary invasion downstage. Obviously, the women are representative of the Mikhailovsky’s ballet tradition; the more aggressively-moving men in black representative of contemporary ballet. At one point, a curious-looking adaptation of an imperial chandelier drops down from the rafters – even it must adapt.

The clash of stylistic cultures creates a conflicting environment in Mr. Duato’s ballet that is seemingly impossible to reconcile, but must be. To this end, two characters, danced by Leonid Sarafanov and Irina Perren, appear after the initial corps groups are introduced. Both are dressed in simple, neutral, off-white costumes, and they appear to be representative of the culture clash, and the need to reconcile it, reduced to an individual level. The conflict creates in the male character, who I assume is intended to be a Duato-surrogate of sorts, an artistic torment that is seen as both style-searching and soul-searching.

The Mikhailovsky Ballet in 'Le Halte de cavalerie'.  Photo © Sveta Tarlova

The Mikhailovsky Ballet in ‘Le Halte de cavalerie’.
Photo © Sveta Tarlova

The anguish showed by Mr. Sarafanov is matched by Ms. Perren, and their attempts to rebel against the forced adaptation are visually striking (although they don’t look at all alike, Ms. Perren’s expressive movement quality throughout the piece, particularly in view of the simple but elegantly flowing dress she wears, brought to mind Sabine Kupferberg, Mr. Kylián’s partner and muse). In the end Ms. Perren walks off together with Mr. Sarafanov into the brave new Mikhailovsky world. But strong performances were not limited to Ms. Perren and Mr. Sarafanov – every dancer in the piece performed with exquisite passion.

“Le Halte de cavalerie” (Cavalry Halt), the one-act ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1896 that opened Tuesday’s program, would have been even more of a novelty than it was had the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet not mounted a fine production of it last spring. I reviewed it in some detail then, but with the added luster of the Mikhailovsky dancers the piece looked more polished. It’s a particularly valuable addition to the more familiar Petipa canon.

“Le Halte de cavalerie” presents a simple story of the rivalry between the town sweetheart, Maria, and the town spitfire, Teresa, for the love of one of the village’s young men, and of a cavalry’s temporary bivouac in the village that upsets the normal village routine – and which leads to three of the cavalry officers of varying rank vying for Teresa’s affections. The comic adventures that follow until the cavalry leaves, coupled with the performances by Angelina Vorontsova as Maria, Olga Semyonova as Teresa, and Alexey Malakov, Vladimir Tsal, and Maxim Podosyonov as the three cavalry officers, made the ballet particularly charming. And as the man over whom Maria and Teresa squabble, Ivan Vasiliev kept his tricks under wraps – at least until the finale – and played Peter as a somewhat dense but lovable Ferdinand of a bull.

What I found particularly interesting about this production, which I didn’t catch (or which was staged differently) in the GK Ballet production, was how much the corps work in the rousing finale before the cavalry leaves the village anticipates corps work in similar stage situations by Balanchine. From my vantage point, I could see the dancers race at breakneck speed from one position at the end of one choreographic sequence to assume their positions at the start of the next sequence, as well as the progression of lines of male and female dancers downstage as the finale concludes, led by the dance’s principals. It all looked surprisingly like the Balanchine-crafted finale in “Theme and Variations”, as well as in many other Balanchine/Tchaikovsky ‘collaborations’. Seeing this, for me, was like opening a time capsule, or discovering the missing choreographic link.

The central piece on Tuesday’s program was “Class Concert”, a theatrical version of a ballet class created in 1960 by the notable Russian dancer, choreographer, and teacher Asaf Messerer, which was revived for the Mikhailovsky by his nephew, Mikhailovsky Ballet Master in Chief Mikhail Messerer. The only surprise in this “Etudes”-like ballet (only it’s bigger, befitting its Bolshoi roots) is how exciting it is to watch. The progression from children at the barre (which featured children from local ballet schools – including the Gelsey Kirkland Academy) to bravura performances by the Mikhailovsky’s stars prompted a chorus of well-deserved oohs and aahs from the thrilled audience.

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in the Mikhailovsky Ballet's 'Don Quixote'.  Photo Mikhailovsky Ballet

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in the Mikhailovsky Ballet’s ‘Don Quixote’.
Photo Mikhailovsky Ballet

Thursday’s opening of the Mikhailovsky’s four-performance run of its new (2012) production of “Don Quixote”, though limited by curious narrative sequencing, was nevertheless one of the finest presentations of this classic ballet that I’ve seen. The reason is two-fold: the fabulous conducting and execution of the Minkus score by Pavel Bubelnikov and the Mikhailovsky Orchestra (the orchestra’s fast pace electrified Act I, which set the tone for the rest of the ballet), and the extraordinarily performances by the Mikhailovsky dancers.

Although it claims ‘additional’ choreography by a committee of five, as well as staging by Mr. Messerer, this production very much resembles the production that the Bolshoi Ballet brought to New York four months ago. And my comments are essentially the same as they were for that production: the narrative sequence, though presumably ‘authentic’, makes no sense. The gypsy camp and the Don’s ‘dream scene’ are standalone, with no relationship to the rest of the ballet other than the presence of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. And this scene sequence is larded with over-the-top gypsy dances, includes a logically improbable puppet show that causes the Don to go ballistic, and ends with the Don and Sancho being invited to a wedding party by passing nobles he’s never before seen, and at which Kitri and Basilio, who are nowhere in the vicinity at the time the invitation is extended, celebrate their own wedding. The American Ballet Theatre production – particularly its ‘original’ version by Mikhail Baryshnikov, but also the less vigorous current incarnation – is much more coherent.

But, like the Bolshoi production, this one features many extraordinary performances, particularly by its ballerinas. It almost goes without saying that Natalia Osipova’s portrayal of Kitri was fabulous (her performance here was much more fluid and comfortable-looking, but no less exciting, than her portrayal with ABT a few Met seasons ago). Her footwork during the Act III pas de deux was nothing short of otherworldly. But Anastasia Soboleva’s Street Dancer (the Act I portrayal of Mercedes in the ABT production) was a knock-out as well. Ms. Soboleva, a First Soloist who stood out in one of the divertissements in “Flames of Paris” last week, danced with particular flair and nuance, and delivered a degree of excitement that is absent from recent overly careful portrayals at ABT. Similarly, Ekaterina Borchenko’s Queen of the Dryads was danced with exquisite strength and finesse – the same qualities she brought to her Queen of the Wilis (Myrta) in the Mikhailovsky’s “Giselle” last week. Also dancing at high technical and expressive levels were Ms. Semyonova, a coryphée, who portrayed a fiery Mercedes (here, Mercedes is an electrifying dancer in the tavern), and Mariam Ugrekhelidze (Theresa in “Flames of Paris”), a member of the corps, as the soulful Gypsy Girl. Veronika Ignatyeva, another member of the corps, danced a delightful Cupid (Amor) – she played essentially the same role, with slightly different choreography, in “Flames of Paris”. And Yulia Tikka and Anna Kuligina sparkled as the Flower Girls. Among the leading men, Mikhail Venshchikov played Espada with appropriate bravado, and although the role of the Gypsy Man is overbaked, it was danced with particular flair, and no small amount of eye-popping tricks, by Sergey Strelkov. Credit must also be given to Marat Shemiunov’s strong and sensitive Don, and Alexey Kuznetsov’s exuberant Sancho.

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in 'Don Quixote'.  Photo Mikhailovsky Ballet 1

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in ‘Don Quixote’.
Photo Mikhailovsky Ballet 1

And then there was Mr. Vasiliev’s Basilio. If you’re going to pull out all the tricks in your repertoire, it might as well be in “Don Quixote”. And to the shrieks of glee of women of a certain age within earshot of me, Mr. Vasiliev delivered. He may be a consummate showman, ballet’s equivalent of Evel Knievel, but Mr. Vasiliev’s athleticism is without peer, and what he may lack in finesse and grace he makes up for in sheer power.

The Mikhailovsky’s New York season has been something of a revelation. It is no surprise that the quality of dancers in what used to be known as ‘regional’ American companies has risen significantly in recent years: there are wonderful dancers in every nook and cranny of this country. It should come as no surprise that the same situation may exist in Russia – at least as evidenced by the Mikhailovsky. More than that, the repertory that the Mikhailovsky has selected for this engagement shows that it is a company of quality – of all the programs it has presented in the past two weeks, I found only part of one of them to be problematic: Act I of “Giselle”. But most important is the level of energy and the appearance of accessibility of the dancers in this company. Every Mikhailovsky dancer – not just its stars – danced brilliantly, and with a degree of cross-proscenium enthusiasm that generates not just awe, but a sense of familial pride as you get to watch them over time The Mikhailovsky has obviously tried very hard to make a good first impression on New York balletgoers, and it has succeeded.