- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

The Kirov Ballet, the birthplace of Tchaikovsky ballets, is dancing two of them here this fortnight: “The Nutcracker,” which concluded Sunday, and “Swan Lake,” which opened last night.

These two Russian productions stand in stark contrast to each other. “Swan Lake” has been performed here in the past and follows traditional staging. “The Nutcracker,” on the other hand, is iconoclastic and controversial.

This well-known Christmas ballet — which ended a five-day engagement Sunday at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House — was given a massive and quite ugly staging by the designer Mikhail Chemiakin, who also created the sets and costumes and rewrote the libretto, making it murkier and sardonic in tone.

This was a “Nutcracker” in which the designer was king, and the choreographer, a young and inexperienced Kirill Simonov, was faced with the daunting task of trying to make a meaningful contribution through dance. Not surprisingly, he seldom succeeded.

“The Nutcracker” has always been more popular in this country than abroad, perhaps because this relatively young nation is comfortable with a story that tells not of princes or swan queens, but of a middle-class family gathered for a holiday party.

In Europe and in Russia, where it was first seen, this was viewed as a boring locus for a ballet. During its 1892 premiere in St. Petersburg, the artist and balletomane Alexandre Benois wrote, “We were obliged to contemplate during a whole hour the salon of some rich parvenu banker in the Friedrichstrasse style. It was stupid, coarse, heavy and dark.”

Some might call that an accurate description of the Kirov’s “Nutcracker.” Herr and Frau Stahlbaum, the parents of the ballet’s young heroine (called Masha in this production) are preening caricatures … and the house in which they live resembles a dark hunting lodge, with gigantic heads of animals ringing the walls.

The principal appeal of “The Nutcracker” in this country is its two key elements: Tchaikovsky’s radiant score and George Balanchine’s magical staging of the ballet, the inspiration for many of the hundreds of “Nutcrackers” seen in America each year. Mr. Balanchine danced in the ballet when he was a student at the Mariinsky Ballet School in St. Petersburg and obviously tried to recapture the feeling of wonder it inspired in him as a child.

Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, the last ballet he composed, is central to the ballet’s success. But here, it is Mr. Chemiakin who usurps the central role.

Any restaging of the ballet that rides roughshod over Tchaikovsky’s tender score, playing it fast and loud, and has a stageful of male dancers frozen in a pose — or sitting on the floor in the “Waltz of the Flowers” as Tchaikovsky’s music soars — has lost its way.

Mr. Chemiakin harks back to the dour E.T.A. Hoffman tale rather than Alexandre Dumas’ lighter adaptation, “Casse-Noisette,” the version used by the original choreographers, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. More important, he ignores the riches he has at hand in Tchaikovsky’s composition.

The late critic Edwin Denby described the ballet as “the story of a child’s presentiment of handsome conduct, of civilized society; it is no foolish subject, and it gives the ballet its secret radiance.”

This sense of tradition embedded in the story seems to answer a felt need in these difficult times, a reassuring glimpse of continuity.

But the Kirov’s production, rejecting that approach, is mean-spirited. Masha’s brother is more than mischievous, he is a bully boy who obviously delights in tormenting. Herr Drosselmeyer is a grotesque hunchback (quite brilliantly performed by Anton Adassinsky).

Masha was given a luminous performance at Sunday’s matinee by Natalya Sologub, who also danced the lead opening night. She moved with liquid grace and has a lovely, airy jump. Leonid Sarafanov was light and swift as her Nutcracker Prince in the ballet’s central pas de deux, while Mr. Simonov was the Nutcracker in earlier scenes.

The classical choreography of the pas de deux was pleasant, but elsewhere there was a paucity of dance invention. The low point came when three honeybees with bushy black-and-yellow tails stood with their backs to the audience and wiggled their hips.

Mr. Chemiakin’s most inspired designs were the costumes for the snowflake scene, where dancers in black tutus and tights covered with white balls made for a striking stage picture. The choreographic motif here was also a hip wiggle.

In contrast to all this, the Kirov is dancing that ballet icon “Swan Lake” this week.

Tchaikovsky died thinking this beautiful score was a failure. The ballet was first performed at the Bolshoi Ballet in 1877 with choreography by Julius Reisinger. It was poorly received and soon left the repertoire.

To mark the first anniversary of the composer’s death, Lev Ivanov mounted the wondrous second act. This was so successful that a year later, in 1895, the complete “Swan Lake,” more or less as we know it today, was presented. The choreography for Acts II and IV were credited to Ivanov and Acts I and III to Petipa.

The version the Kirov Ballet is dancing here harks back to a traditional staging mounted in 1950 by the company’s longtime director, the late Konstantin Sergeyev. The subsequent artistic director of the Kirov, Oleg Vinogradov, restaged the ballet in the early ‘80s, hewing closely to Mr. Sergeyev’s earlier version.

It is a production that highlights two of the company’s strengths: the beauty of its classically trained corps de ballet, which gives transcendent power to the famous second act, and the vigor and thrust of the various national folk dances of the third act.

Some of the company’s grandest ballerinas are scheduled to perform what is perhaps ballet’s most coveted part, the dual Odette-Odile role — Daria Pavlenko, Sofya Gumerova and Miss Sologub. Their Prince Siegfrieds will be Igor Zelensky, Danila Korsuntsev and Mr. Sarafanov.

The engagement is sold out, but last minute cancellations might be available.

WHAT: “Swan Lake,” staged by the Kirov Ballet

WHEN: Through Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

TICKETS: $45 to $110

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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