- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Kirov Orchestra, Opera and Ballet of St. Petersburg combined their mighty forces Tuesday evening for a Kennedy Center gala that was alternately brilliantly alive and soddenly old-fashioned.

The supreme pleasure of this song-and-dance fete — to be given a final performance Saturday afternoon — was a vibrant performance of George Balanchine’s “La Valse,” set to Maurice Ravel’s score and preceded by his “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales.”

Though “La Valse” is a gem of 20th-century art, the opera selections came from scores more than 100 years old. The contrasts among the three opera excerpts, all steeped in Russian history or pseudo-history and stolidly staged, and the galvanizing thrust of the two major Balanchine ballets — “La Valse” and the sparkling “Rubies,” set to Igor Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra” — were stark.

But music and dance were united thrillingly at Tuesday’s gala, with Ravel’s doom-laden “dancing on the edge of a volcano” score and Balanchine’s dramatic and dazzling choreographic response matched by the passionate performance of the Kirov Orchestra under conductor Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Ballet’s elegant clarity and power.

This ballet noir is a haunting example of Balanchine’s response to music and its emotional underpinnings in a fantasy-drama that tells no concrete story. Three women enter, dressed for a ball in colorful floating skirts and long white gloves, evoking an artificial world. They are joined by others; men and women throw themselves headlong into the voluptuousness of the waltz, swiftly entering and sweeping across the stage.

A woman in white, Ulyana Lopatkina, appears and eventually is confronted by a figure, Death, who holds up a mirror to her face. She recoils. The paroxysm in the music is matched by her fate as she is adorned by Death in funeral weeds and plunges her hands into the long black gloves he offers her. She collapses to the floor, then is lifted high above the dancers, who run in a circle ever more wildly as the curtain falls.

The Kirov Ballet, which is showing us more real dancing on this mixed program than it did with last week’s full-length “Cinderella,” also performed a bright and witty “Rubies.” The striking opening of the ballet — the 12 dancers of its corps in scintillating dark red costumes standing motionless on toe — was met with applause, but its effect was muted by a pastel back curtain on hand for the next opera excerpt. Surely, a simple black backdrop could have been rustled up.

“Rubies” is a cheeky work, and the Kirov danced it with style. Diana Vishneva was joyously free in her solos, with Leonid Sarafanov, her inexperienced but promising partner, and Sofia Gumerova as the pin-up girl.

If ballet fared better than opera at the gala, it is perhaps because of its paradoxical status. With a history briefer than other art forms and the lack of a universally readable record of that history, dance has, perforce, been more dependent on new works, accounting in part for its reputation as the liveliest of the arts.

Three short ballet showpieces were also included — “Black Swan Pas de Deux,” “Corsaire Pas de Deux” and “The Dying Swan.” Like the opera selections, they were created before 20th-century modernism arrived. And they were unevenly danced — some by splendid veterans, others by promising newcomers.

Mr. Gergiev led the Kirov Orchestra in the overture to “Ruslan and Lyudmila” with his characteristic whirlwind tempo. In the excerpts from the operas, Olga Trifonova was quietly affecting in her mad scene in “The Tsar’s Bride,” and Alexey Steblanko and Vladimir Moroz stood out in “Sadko.”

***

WHAT: Kirov Spectacular

WHEN: Final performance 1:30 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

TICKETS: $40 to $250

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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