Giannandrea Poesio

Mariinsky Ballet | 13 August 2011

Balanchine, Russian-style

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It’s somewhat surprising that there are many people who are still amazed by the Mariinsky Ballet’s sparkling response to the choreography of George Balanchine. After all, it is well known that the father of modern American ballet, born Georgi Melitonovic Balanchivadze, had been trained at the Imperial Ballet School, from which developed the artistic principles that have long informed the Mariinsky Ballet’s tradition.

It is true that once in the United States Balanchine reworked those principles with movement ideas that were typical of the Americana he felt so attracted by. Yet all his creations remained unmistakably rooted in the old Russian school. Such historical/artistic affinity has been central to the Mariinsky’s stagings of his work since it first tackled the Balanchinian repertoire a few years back. Am I the only one to remember a superbly sparkling rendition of Symphony in C at the London Coliseum?

The ‘all-American’ triple bill presented last week by the Russian company as part of its current London season confirmed that choreographic empathy and stylistic affinities are still there. The programme opened with Scotch Symphony, one of those colourful Balanchinian forays into western exoticism, and a perfect example of how he could choreograph anything he liked without ever slipping into triteness or bad taste. Indeed, at first sight the ballet looks a tad twee and tacky, and inevitably conjures up images from the Romantic ballet La Sylphide or, worse, the musical Brigadoon.

The fact that the music is by Mendelssohn and has nothing to do with real Scottish lore adds to the hybrid nature of a work that draws on stereotypical iconography and has its main means of expression in Russian ballet. Yet, in Balanchine’s hands, what could have been a laughable romp becomes an engagingly exquisite class in choreographic composition. I only wish the tempi of the whole performance had been more brilliant and fast — as they ought to be. And I wished the dancers, led by the splendid Alexander Sergeyev and delightful, though not always splendid, Anastasia Matvienko, had not overindulged their Romantic mannerisms. Still, it was sheer pleasure to watch and a nice opener.

Temperatures started rising with the second item on the programme, Jerome Robbins’s In the Night. It is unfortunate that in the old world, the genius of Robbins is not more widely celebrated, for his creative inventiveness and his unique sense of theatre are second to none. In the Night, set to piano music by Chopin, played by Ludmila Sveshnikova, is a subtle game of contrasting moods, portrayed by three couples. It gives any company a unique opportunity to display its best talents, which is what the Mariinsky did on the opening night.

Evgenia Obraztsova’s portrayal of young, carefree love was ravishing and perfectly matched by the impeccable buoyancy of her partner, Filipp Stepin. Alina Somova and Yevgeny Ivanchenko gave a nobly nostalgic portrayal of a couple whose love has burnt out, though they could have been more dramatically vibrant. The same cannot be said of Uliana Lopatkina, who gave a memorable portrayal of a woman mourning her long-lost love, amid jealousy, rage and despair. Next to her, Danila Korsuntsev looked perfect in the role of a lover on the brink of quitting. Such a performance could only be followed by a grand finale, which is exactly what Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial was, thanks mostly to Victoria Tereshkina’s breathtaking and stylistically perfect interpretation of the lead female role.