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The Times (UK)
July 15, 2003
New steps for old
As the Kirov comes to London, our critic finds a company whose future rests with its past

By Debra Caine

ONE DOESNT FREELY ASCRIBE pre-eminence to a single ballet company, but in the case of the Kirov its hard not to. Practically everything we know and love about 19th-century classical ballet comes from the Kirov. This is where The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker were born, where enduring stagings of Swan Lake, Copplia and Giselle were premiered. And this was home to some of the most famous names in dance: Petipa, Nijinsky, Pavlova, Fokine, Balanchine, Nureyev, Makarova and Baryshnikov.

Its a past unrivalled in ballet, and its no wonder the Kirov trades on it. Everywhere the Russians go on their frequent tours abroad, the big Imperial ballets top the bill. They will do so again next week at the Royal Opera House, when the Kirov opens a three-week season that features Swan Lake, Le Corsaire and La Bayadre. And why not? Thats why ballet-lovers flock to the Kirov, to see their perennial favourites performed by the inheritors of the St Petersburg tradition.

But ballets change over the years. Their look, their style, even their steps fluctuate according to the popular fashions of the day. And the Tsars ballet wasnt immune to the flashy, heroic Soviet aesthetic which would change the face of Russian dance in the 20th century.

Four years ago, however, came a sea change in the post-Soviet era. The Kirov decided to do something about preserving its precious Tsarist past, now that glorifying Russias aristocratic heritage was no longer so politically incorrect. The company went to great lengths to reconstruct The Sleeping Beauty, the most glittering example of the Imperial Ballet. Four enchanting hours of spectacle and historical magic attempted to recreate in every detail Petipas 1890 landmark staging at the Maryinsky Theatre, the Kirovs St Petersburg home. Then, last year, the Kirov did it again, reconstituting the 1900 Maryinsky staging of La Bayadre, an exotic melodrama of love, betrayal and murder in mythical India which Petipa had first staged in 1877. On July 31, it receives its British premiere.

Dance archaeology, though, is controversial. Not everyone was happy with the 1999 staging of The Sleeping Beauty, least of all Russians who preferred the Soviet version, or Americans who wanted more action and a shorter night out at the theatre. But audiences in London, where appreciation of dance history is high, were thrilled with the new/old Beauty and the rapturous critical reception here carried the production back to St Petersburg in triumph.

Sergei Vikharev, the former dancer who reconstructed both Beauty and La Bayadre, believes London is the right place to show Bayadre in all its three and a half hours of glory. New Yorkers dont have the background for it, he says. This kind of production is quite alien to them. As soon as the curtain rises, people there expect jumping. But it wont be a shock for the London public. The production unveils very gradually, it develops its drama quite slowly. All Petipas productions follow the same recipe, with an equal share of mime, demi-caractre, character and classical dancing. The idea is to show off the talent of the whole troupe.

Audiences are certainly in for a leisurely evening, in which the pageantry of the drama is as important as Petipas vibrant choreography.

La Bayadres fragrant spectacle is the exact opposite of The Rite of Spring, say, or Les Noces, two landmark Stravinsky ballets from the Diaghilev era which the Kirov has just acquired and will dance in London this season. The 1900 La Bayadre (Petipas third staging of it, in fact) only predates Nijinskys Rite of Spring by 13 years (and his sisters Les Noces by 23 years), but its a world away from their driven, churning primitivism.

For many years, La Bayadre was one of the hidden treasures of the Russian repertoire. Petipas ballet had never been seen in the West when, in 1961, the Kirov presented just one scene, the Kingdom of the Shades, a fabulous hallucinogenic vision in white tutus. In 1963 Nureyev staged the scene for the Royal Ballet, but it wasnt until 1980, when Natalia Makarova staged it for American Ballet Theatre (and later for the Royal), that the West had its first full-length Bayadre.

This Kirov reconstruction, however, is as close to Petipas vision as you will ever get. At least thats how Vikharev sees it. He has spent years immersing himself in old Russian choreographic scores, which are housed in the Harvard Theatre Collection in America, and turning their squiggles into dance. His excitement at sweeping away the cobwebs of dance history is palpable. Some might say Im following the wrong route, but with so much attention and interest in these reconstructions there must be something in it.

His primary archaeologists tool is the notated scores of Nikolai Sergeyev, the Maryinskys balletmaster, who brought them to the West when he fled Russia in 1918. And thanks to the 50 or 60 extant design sketches, all housed in the St Petersburg Theatre Library, it was possible to recreate the sets and costumes as well as the choreography.

The most radical aspect of Vikharevs production is the reinstatement of Petipas fourth act, which disappeared in the 1920s. No one knows for sure why it went; Vikharev cites two possible reasons. One is that the Maryinsky Theatre was short of stagehands and couldnt mount the ambitious fourth act, which calls for the destruction of a temple. The other is that a flood in 1925 did away with the set. Mind you, its choreography didnt disappear entirely as much of it was incorporated into Act II in later stagings.

Vikharev isnt claiming absolute authenticity here. There are gaps in the manuscripts, certain variations and entries which are absent. Its not a pure academic reconstruction. I could have done that and shown it to academics, but this is living theatre.

He has made concessions to contemporary taste by allowing the male dancer cast as Solor, the warrior hero, to dance full out; leading men in the Imperial Ballet didnt dance as aggressively as they do today. The 20th century discovered mens dancing in ballet, Vikharev explains. And when we revive a ballet we cant deprive male dancers of the opportunity to show what theyre capable of. The way men danced in the 19th century is contrary to everything we expect today. What I have done is arguable, and purists could accuse me of cheating, but Im open to this criticism.

Vikharev, however, takes issue with the way some of todays dancers dance, with their higher leg extensions and more flexible physiques. It may not be stylistically correct but you cannot tell a dancer how to dance, he sighs. Perhaps the stars of today are too young; they dont yet have a taste for the past.

Maybe they are right; maybe the past is another country. Vikharev is well aware that new choreography, not dusty old archaeology, is the lifeblood of a company. But, he adds, there is much value in unearthing the treasures in your grandmothers trunk and points out that there are notated scores at Harvard for many Petipa ballets, including Raymonda, Esmeralda, Paquita and The Pharaohs Daughter.

This companys strength lies in its conservatism. We preserve tradition, we preserve the repertoire, we preserve the school. We rarely have guest artists. We are one of the few companies left in the world which has preserved its national style and this is how we do it.


Le Corsaire: Petipas colourful tale of pirates, shipwrecks and damsels in distress opens the season

Swan Lake: the worlds best-loved ballet needs no introduction

La Bayadre: a lavish return to 1900 for Petipas Indian exotica

Chopiniana, Les Noces, Schhrazade: a homage to Diaghilev on a mixed bill Serenade, The Rite of Spring, Etudes: 20th-century ballets from Balanchine, Nijinsky and Lander

The Kirov Ballet is at the Royal Opera House, July 21 to August 9 (020-7304 4000)

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