Opera House, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC; January 27, 2015

Carmel Morgan

The Mariinsky Ballet in 'Le Sacre du printemps'. Photo © Valentin Baranovsky

The Mariinsky Ballet in ‘Le Sacre du printemps’.
Photo © Valentin Baranovsky

2015’s performance by the Mariinsky Ballet at Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center was an evening full of history lessons. While I had eagerly anticipated the mixed repertoire program, I left somewhat disappointed. The Mariinsky’s dancers are certainly among the world’s best when it comes to classical works, and in full length story ballets brimming with sumptuous sets and costumes they truly excel. The dancing of the corps never ceases to astonish. Their talent is deep. In the short pieces in their recent program, however, the company’s strengths were less readily apparent.

“Le Sacre du printemps,” Millicent Hodson’s 1987 version of Nijinky’s daring 1913 choreography with Stravinsky’s discordant score, did not suit the Mariinsky’s dancers. This ballet was meant to be provocative, even ugly. The most notable thing about it is probably its passion rather than the peculiar percussive folk-dance type technique. Rhythmically the dancers, in ethnic-inspired costumes, circled up and stomped about, hopping and jumping and appearing quite sinister. On the Mariinsky dancers, whose mastery of technique is enviable, the passion accompanying “Rite of Spring” came across awkwardly. Only Daria Pavlenko as the eventual human sacrifice projected sufficient emotion. The rest of the dancers moved mechanically, and although they executed the movement adeptly, the spirit of the piece was lost, and the audience did not seem very receptive to it.

“Le Spectre de la Rose” also disappointed a bit, but for entirely different reasons. It is a sweet and simple duet choreographed by Michel Fokine in 1911. Vladimir Shklyarov played a rose that comes to life, looking a little like Esther Williams in a reddish pink unitard and swim cap-like flowered hat. Kristina Shapran, in a long layered white lace dress was the beautiful young woman reminiscing about her time at a ball. As she dreamed of the wonderful time she had, the rose danced around her conjuring romantic memories. The pair performed well, and the result was charming, but I was left feeling on the empty side here, too. Their “Le Spectre de la Rose” was a mere morsel of a dessert, not a bold and rich confection.

Ulyana Lopatkina in 'Paquita Grand Pas'.  Photo © Natasha Razina

Ulyana Lopatkina in ‘Paquita Grand Pas’.
Photo © Natasha Razina

“The Swan,” and its performance by the beloved Ulyana Lopatkina, drew many people to pay top dollar for tickets. No one could have been dissatisfied by her performance or left untouched by it. You could feel the hush of the audience as she took the stage, and whole opera house stayed absolutely silent and enrapt watching her in this famous role, choreographed by Fokine in 1907. The lighting was faint. Loptkina’s white costume and skin against the dark background reminded me of an old film reel. There was something fleeting and fragile that brought tears to my eyes. As “The Dying Swan” she could have been the ghost of many dancers before her. Her body is rubbery, yet strong. Her head arched backward gracefully but unnaturally, her arms, as well, bent behind her body like wings. She simply became a swan.

Finally, “Paquita Grand Pas” came closest to showing off the company’s breadth of skill and beauty. One after another, dancers in quick succession playfully challenged each other in a revised version of Petipa’s Act III from the 1881 ballet “Paquita.” In puffy tutus of various colors, bodices sprinkled with sparkles, the women twirled and balanced. Lopatkina, again in white, reigned supreme, and Yevgeny Ivanchenko provided excellent partnering. This was another work the audience welcomed warmly. Unlike “Le Sacre du printemps,” you could take in “Paquita Grand Pas” on autopilot, leaning back and enjoying the exquisite, more familiar style of classical dancing.