Monday, November 24, 2014

The Mikhailovsky Shows Its Depth

Class Concert. Angelina Vorontsova and Leonid Sarafanov. Photo by Stas Levshin
The Mikhailovsky's mixed bill offered us a snapshot of how the company envisions itself in the historic past, present, and recent past. It's a bit confusing, chronology-wise, but it is revealing.

Le Halte de Cavalerie (1896, company premiere: 1975) is ancient history, relatively speaking. With a libretto and choreography by Petipa, it is old enough to embrace slapstick chauvinism and broad caricature. In a way, this permits the dancers to sink deeply into their cartoonish characters, and simply have fun. Two young women pursue a local lad (Leonid Sarafanov, who was, delightfully, omnipresent in the programs I'd chosen); they in turn are wooed by officers in a military platoon. There's a lot of ogling and flirtation and silly walks, all in outdated fun. One of the women even gives the men some comeuppance by imitating their foolish mannerisms. 
Class Concert. Ekaterina Borchenko.
Photo by Stas Levshin

Class Concert is familiar in form—the re-enactment of a ballet class starting with the little sprouts (area ballet students), up through company principals. It displays the structure and rigor of the art form, which can evoke fond reminiscences from those of us who studied ballet. The performers are all excellent and clearly chosen for their physical gifts, even if the strenuous effort to raise their legs the highest shows. As the exercises build in amplitude, we are reminded that the classroom is a crucible of pressure—Natalia Osipova, the company's biggest star, landed on her fanny after a line of grand jetés. No risk, no reward. (Another dancer fell shortly thereafter.) Ivan Vasiliev, another of the troupe's stars, showed why he's the dancer some love to hate and hate to love, with his wrestler's build, ballon, speed, and deliberate lack of art. Principal dancer Ekaterina Borchenko danced the most sections, showing her pristine line and textbook placement.

Duato stuffed a lot into the subtext of Prelude, a one-act ballet; unpacking it was not an easy task. All but a few of the pointe shoe-clad women wore soft slippers; the ensemble women wore floor-length tulle skirts (Duato also designed these and the sets). All the men wore slick black separates except Sarafanov, in gold. The long skirts alluded to Wilis and swans and Romantic ballets, as did the painted backdrop that resembled so many artificial riverine realms familiar to the story ballet. But creeping under that backdrop were two dancers—modern allegories—who soon took over the stage lit by a chandelier and blue beams; a shimmering bronze drape now covered the cyc. I got the feeling that it was a loose parable for Duato's desire to bring the company into the contemporary era. That said, while he's still affiliated with the company on paper, he is now at the Staatsballett Berlin (read about the company in Marina Harss' NY Times profile). His style is well presented by the Mikhailovsky—Sarafanov is in some ways a prototypical Duato dancer, lean and all line—but the fit has always seemed odd.

Don Quixote. Photo: Costas
The final program was Don Quixote, a ballet that, for all its tropes and predictability, most major companies can't seem to avoid. And why not, it's all in jovial fun, with the bonus of flamenco and folk dances tossed in. Once again, Sarafanov triumphed in his rendition of Basilio, paired with Oksana Bondareva as Kitri. He astonishes with his precision, ideal lines, lightness, air spearing double sautés en l'air, and yet he handled all the heavy ballerina lifting with no problem. In this role, sure he looked on the boyish side, particularly in the first act's leg-slimming navy blue tights, but he came across as downright regal in Act 3, in white tights and a navy bolero. Bondareva has brilliant physical gifts, with split developpés and consistent double-turn fouettés (usually the first half are double turns, followed by a chain of singles) demonstrating uncommon strength, but her habit of spotting on the floor, and her closed expression, did not connect emotionally with the audience as it should. 

The production is impressive and elegant; its scenery evokes Moorish Spain, with stone castles and palm trees. In the final act, the ensemble wears all white costumes; even the men's flat-crowned hats. (An unfortunate costume mishap—the strip of plastic that helped give the hem of Bondareva's red tutu its shape slipped out of its casing and lashed poor Sarafanov as he pivoted his partner in pirouettes; she finally grabbed it and flung it to the side. And yet such an instance can earn an audience's sympathy and strengthen its appreciation, as was the case here.) 

In case I haven't made it clear, by the end of the company's two-week residency, I'd become a true fan of Sarafanov. Again—would it be too much to hope that Kevin McKenzie can slot him into some of the spring ABT season's repertory? Osipova and Vasiliev are already on the ABT roster, so clearly the schedules permit. I'd love to see him as much as possible, especially during this time of transition in the ABT ranks. And ABT's and the Mikhailovsky's artistic mission are as parallel as they are divergent, seeking to present classic story ballets alongside modern ballet.

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