Chopiniana, Without, In The Night
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY; January 24, 2015
Maybe it’s the mystique. Maybe the expectation. Or maybe it’s simply that the company is comprised of particularly exceptional dancers. But when the Mariinsky performs, somehow the production looks better than – or at least as good as – whatever performance of the same ballet has come before. So it was with this program of dances that closed the company’s run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Indeed, the performance achieved the virtually impossible: it made a full evening of piano ballets, all to Chopin, tolerable.
Even though I appreciate the stylistic rigor, the difficulty, and the seemingly endless sequence of beautiful frozen images, watching Michel Fokine’s “Chopiniana” (more commonly danced as “Les Sylphides”, the title given to it by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909) is a little like watching paint dry. That having been said, the Mariinsky’s performance of the work, which is generally considered to be the first ‘plotless’ ballet (although the original 1908 version in fact had a narrative in five scenes), was almost exciting to watch – even to me. And although there was an overall weightiness to the performances by the lead dancers that made me miss the delicacy and purity most recently seen in the portrayals by Veronika Part, Hee Seo, and Sarah Lane of ABT, the Mariinsky leads danced, with one exception, like they were born to it.
The production is slightly different from others I’ve seen, which may be a result of its adherence to more of the original, or its revision by Agrippina Vaganova, or a combination of the two. It seems longer – there’s more dancing overall than I recall seeing previously, but it also looks more magnificent than the ABT production. The corps patterning in particular creates a Romantic feast from the moment the curtain opens – even more unexpectedly lovely since it follows the usually deleted (at least here) introductory fanfare, the same music to which Jerome Robbins’s opens his comic ballet classic “The Concert”. Hearing this introduction, my mind anticipated comedy; seeing an idyllic sylvan glade instead, inhabited by idyllic sylph ballerinas, was a glorious shock to my eyes. And the patterning and poses, though well within the stylistic framework, looks interestingly different – particularly the corps ballerinas posing with their languid arms crooked over their heads, or parading with one finger lightly but securely connected to the sylph forward and behind.
More importantly, these sylphs appeared to be having a wonderful time in their moonlit clearing hidden among soaring birch trees. For example, although dancers in the ABT production appear uniformly serene, Yana Selina and Anna Lavrinenko smiled gently throughout, which made their excellent execution more endearing.
Timur Askerov, the Poet/Dreamer, danced impeccably, and his partnering was secure. But to me his demeanor was more stoic than dreamy. Oxana Skorik, who danced the pas de deux with him, and who was the most prominent of the three featured sylphs, was more problematic to me. She danced stiffly at first and seemed relatively uncomfortable (at least compared to her fellow lead sylphs), with a flat expression – nothing, not even serenity, radiating from her face. Her demeanor lightened as the performance progressed, but her performance, though certainly capable, was more ponderous than the others.
Benjamin Millepied is a choreographic curiosity to me. Although his pieces are capably crafted, I’ve rarely liked them. I’ve previously described his pieces as existential and frenetic, as if created by a Jean-Paul Sartre with a NYCB accelerant. But I liked “Without” – perhaps because it’s one of Millepied’s early dances and is more accessible than others; perhaps because it bears a superficial resemblance to Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering”, and perhaps because in many ways it’s the visual opposite of “Chopiniana”. Although it too is plotless, it moves quickly (there’s no stylistic posing; indeed, none of the dancers stands still for more than a second), relationships and emotions are examined and briefly exposed, and there’s no danger of anyone in the audience dozing through it.
In its initial incarnation at the Joyce Theater in 2008, “Without” was choreographed on young dancers, many of whom would later join American Ballet Theatre. I did not see it then, so I don’t know if changes have since been made, but it’s a very likeable, deliciously dynamic little piece now (it premiered with the Mariinsky in 2011), and a wonderful vehicle for the five pairs of Mariinsky dancers in it.
At times, “Without” looks like a study – snippets of dances, some lasting seconds, some lasting a few minutes, that respond to the Chopin music almost phrase by phrase, and then are pieced together. But that description is not a fair representation of the ballet as a whole. Rather, the bits and pieces that comprise “Without” are integrated in a way that camouflages the fragmentation, with couples (who wear the same costume color) dancing together, changing partners, dancing solos, or in groups of varying components. As each little dance ends, the dancers involved exit through narrow panels, like closed vertical blinds, which surround the back and sides of the stage.
The dances within “Without” are connected to each other by the personalities that the music and Millepied’s choreography create – all of which relate varying types of romantic passion. For example, the girl in green, Margarita Frolova, is a lovable sprite who percolates through most of whatever she’s assigned to dance, presenting a youthful relationship with her ‘color’ partner, Xander Parish; Nadezhda Batoeva, the girl in purple, appears somewhat more cerebral with her partner, Filipp Stepin; the girl in blue, danced by a stunning-looking Kristina Shapran, is vibrant and dramatic with her partner Andrei Yermakov; and Anastasia Matvienko, in red, is more circumspect and ‘real’ in her emotionally complex relationship with Konstantin Zverev (she’s the one who is left ‘without’ a partner at the ballet’s end). Tatiana Tiliguzova and Ernet Latypov, in orange, who completed the cast, had less defined personalities in the piece.
The finest piece on the program was also, visually, the simplest. Robbins’ “In The Night” is one of his masterpieces because it is so complexly compressed. By that I mean that although he stuffs the many intricacies of a relationship into his choreography, he does so by using what appears to be a minimum of extraneous movement. Every step is there for a reason; every combination speaks.
I’ve seen “In The Night”, which premiered at NYCB in 1970, performed by many companies, and I’ve never seen a poor performance of it. But this one was particularly vibrant. And aside from the extraordinary talent of the dancers, perhaps some of the credit should go to Ben Huys, who staged it. I remember Huys from the 1985 Prix de Lausanne, which was held that year in New York, and from his years with NYCB from 1986-1996. Based on this performance, his qualities as a ballet master and repetiteur are the equal to his qualities as a dancer.
The three couples represent three different types of relationships: one young and passionate; another more refined; and the third more mature, and the emotional ingredients that comprise each is expressed in excruciating, but exquisite, choreographic detail. Equally marvelous, however, is how Robbins ties it all together at the end, when the couples meet and exchange pleasantries, never knowing what really happens in private, in the night. Matvienko and Stepin danced the youthful pair; Yekaterina Kondaurova and Yevgeny Ivanchencko the ‘adults’; and Viktoria Tereshkina and Yuri Smekalov the mature couple. Singling out one couple more than the others is unfair, since each was flat out fabulous, but Kondaurova and Ivanchenko – perhaps because she is so majestic and his partnering efforts so exceptionally difficult –were particularly exciting to watch.
The three dances were performed to piano accompaniment by different musicians: Alexandra Zhilina played “Chopiniana,” Philip Kopachevsky performed the score for “Without”, and Lyudmila Sveshnikova for “In The Night”. Each performed zestfully, and, since the piano was in the pit, somewhat miraculously since it must have been virtually impossible for the pianists to see, and respond to, the action on stage.
Compared to its full length programs, this Chopin program was less impressive overall. But it provided a view of the Mariinsky that is not often presented here, including invaluable insights into the capabilities and stage personalities of its dancers below principal level. When the company next visits New York, hopefully it will broaden its programming to include more such opportunities for is dancers, and for local audiences.