- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

Some companies are most at home in abstract ballets; others are devoted mostly to dances that tell a story.

The Kirov Ballet from St. Petersburg — which concluded a two-week engagement yesterday at the Kennedy Center — offered an interpretation of “Swan Lake” that barely sketched in the familiar story of Odette, transformed into a Swan Queen. The emphasis on glorious dancing rather than on plot turned the ballet into a grand symphonic poem, full of ravishing movement that is its own excuse for being.

Drenched in tradition, the Kirov’s “Swan Lake” is a shining example of the company’s extraordinary quality and unity of style. Elegantly arched feet, pliant backs and arms that float like tendrils mark the company’s style throughout its ranks. High drama is not its touchstone; its eloquence springs from poetic movement, especially in the heart of the ballet, the beautiful, sustained second act (Act I, Scene 2 in this version).

Framed by the astounding grace of the company’s corps de ballet, Prince Siegfried encounters Odette and their transcendent, extended pas de deux begins. Eloquent movement becomes the metaphor for romantic longings, the human and personal is subsumed into abstract expression.

Three stellar casts took turns as Odette and her Prince during the week. Each couple shared the Kirov’s approach, shying away from dramatic gestures or personal tenderness.

As a result, Daria Pavlenko was cool and remote as Odette at the opening last Tuesday. In other versions, Odette has a tremulous wonder and vulnerability that make this scene deeply affecting. Here, awe was the reaction to the eloquence of her malleable, deeply arching body and steely technique.

One of the challenges of this demanding dual role is to go from the melting languor of Odette in the second act to the brilliant, wickedly seductive Black Swan of the following scene. In the Kirov’s interpretation that dichotomy is muted. Miss Pavlenko is so cool as Odette that the iciness of Odile is only a minor adjustment.

Igor Zelensky, who made his mark in Kirov appearances here a decade ago (and afterward at the New York City Ballet) is tall and princely in bearing. He was a gallant partner, effortless in his variations during the ballroom scene.

Sofia Gumerova and Danila Korsuntsev, a second couple dancing the lead roles, were also commanding in presence and technique. Miss Gumerova was a poignant Odette; the strength and beauty of her movement still allowed for a sense of fragility. She has a long, elegant body and pure way of moving.

As Odile she seemed friendly rather than wily; it was hard to believe she was about to betray the hapless Prince. Mr. Korsuntsev has an easy grace and is a bland, self-contained Prince.

The third Kirov ballerina dancing Odette-Odile, was the lissome Natalya Sologub, seen the week before in the very different role of the heroine in the Kirov’s controversial “Nutcracker.” In that she had been soft and flowing; in “Swan Lake” she had a grand classical style. Her partner on both occasions was Leonid Sarafanov, a young stripling of a Prince who is still somewhat unformed but full of promise.

These principal dancers led a company that is without peer for its elegance and uniformity of style. At this point, it may be short of the galvanizing performers of years past. Still, under the artistic direction of Makharbek Vaziev it is dancing at the top of its form.

Whatever this version of “Swan Lake” may lack in piercing drama it makes up for in the splendor of its dancing ensembles, from the light and airy ladies and gentlemen of the Prince’s entourage that begin the ballet, to the high-flying pas de trois danced opening night by Irina Golub, Vassily Scherbakov and Tatiana Tkachenko.

Andrey Ivanov was the intrusive, crowd-pleasing jester.

A special pleasure of the Kirov production is the quartet of national dances performed during the ballroom scene. At the Kirov’s school, the famous Vaganova Academy, young students are steeped in these dances along with their ballet classes and it shows in the easy mastery with which they are performed on stage. Nothing is forced; they are to this manner born.

Musically, however, this “Swan Lake” was uneven. Under conductor Mikhail Agrest, tempi were erratic, at times so slow that something massive and unwieldy descended on stage, at other times racing at breakneck speed, and sometimes a little of both in the same passage.

The last act with its abrupt happy ending is perhaps the least convincing — although certain moments, like the slow walking forward of the linked swans to the audience, are effective.

The evil magician Von Rothbart is thwarted in a perfunctory manner, with the prince tearing off one of his wings and twirling it around like a limp dishrag.

It’s a pale approximation of the wonderfully Grand Guignol moment in an earlier Russian version where Von Rothbart loses one wing and lies on the floor writhing and flailing, beating his remaining gigantic wing in a cloud of dust until he sinks out of sight into the stage’s trap door.

The highlight of this “Swan Lake” is subtler but infinitely satisfying — the lakeside scene where 32 swans, every one a long-limbed and exotic creature, frame the Swan Queen and her prince, bending to the ground and beating their arms like a giant heartbeat.

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