Bravely forestalling any possible accusations of trying to hit an original note, the Mariinsky Ballet opened its two-week summer season at London’s Royal Opera House with five performances of "Swan Lake". Konstantin Sergeyev’s 1950 staging, based on the definitive 1895 Petipa/Ivanov, version may have been seen dozens of times in London, yet in many ways it still acts as a cleansing model of the ballet. Its prevailing no frills concept, letting the choreography and the drama speak for itself, and its continuing belief in an interpretative tradition, form the perfect antidote against all modern-day escapades that are being sold under the box-office safe title of "Swan Lake"—a striking example of which could be seen at the London Coliseum where the Australian Ballet performed Graeme Murphy’s alternative take on the ballet. And no matter what, the lakeside acts in Sergeyev’s "Swan Lake" shaped by an impeccable Mariinsky corps de ballet remain a miracle of plastical beauty, stylistic coherence and spatial grandeur.
Uliana Lopatkina danced the opening night. Big, ample and slow, everything meticulously thought through, she unfolds her very personal interpretation as a thick inscrutable veil of otherworldly tragedy. With a constant blank stare gazing into infinity and her face frozen into a mask, there is seemingly very little that could extract this Odette from her inner world. Some find it a reading of pure genius, others of a surreal beauty said to match Tchaikovsky’s music to perfection—well, reputations sometimes are hard to breach. Personally, it left me completely cold. And come to think of it, Lopatkina’s Swan doesn’t seem to have developed much over the last years. Predictability, it has now turned into ritual. Moreover, as was made clear this evening, there is almost no one in this company who ventures on the same wavelength with Lopatkina, and as a result she dances completely alone. Even the orchestra seemed unable to follow her and the dramatic opening scene was ruined by Alexander Polianichko—far from a rookie as conductor—desperately trying to find the right pace.
Lopatkina’s Odile appeared a bit more down to earth, but again much too calculated and lacking in excitement to convince. There wasn’t a step or a breath out of line, and she seems to command all of them, including those of her partner. The precision was quite simply eerie, but again left me completely indifferent while her lack of imagination, her refusal to go with the flow, were ultimately deadening.
Danila Korsuntsev was her Prince. He must have been the happiest Prince
Siegfried I have seen in a long time. Happily smiling from the beginning,
he carried on until the end. There was very little that could disturb
his contentment. The brides seemed to annoy him slightly, but as soon
as Odile entred, he was again as happy and carefree as ever. Not one single
moment did he manage to enter Lopatkina’s world, nor did he seem
to try to, and there was virtually no rapport. It didn’t really
matter that she placed her head gently on his shoulder at the supposed
climactic moment of the White Swan adagio, it even looked inappropriate
in this context. They both played their parts, yet it was as if they were
speaking different languages. Korsuntsev proved a reliable porteur, but
his very few solo dance moments were just adequate.
The most convincing interpretation to my mind came from Daria Pavlenko, in a splendid partnership with Igor Kolb. Still recovering from a knee injury which kept her out of performance for a couple of months, Pavlenko may have been somewhat cautious at times, but here was at last a Swan with a beating heart, one who responded to what was going on around her and who didn’t mistake the serenity of the surroundings for blankness. And we finally had two people dancing and feeling together.
Pavlenko also came through as an intelligent artist, especially in the way she managed to oppose the two Swan characters. Where with the other ballerinas Odile seemed a far too close relative to Odette to fool anybody, with Pavlenko there couldn’t be any doubt they were different. The occasional lack of strength in the Black Swan pas de deux was covered by her clever use of her whole body, from fingertips to eyelashes, to create her character. This was an Odile who was bent on seducing her Prince and her audience, and she easily did.
Unlike Korsuntsev whose Siegfried remains a cipher, Igor Kolb made the most of his Prince, dramatically and emotionally. Konstantin Sergeyev’s concept of Prince Siegfried has been severely simplified by performance practice, often leaving very little more than a cardboard figure. For that matter, I salute Kolb’s decision to reintroduce the contemplative solo which Sergeyev added in the 1st Act, revealing the melancholic nature of the Prince, as opposed to the carefree atmosphere of the festivities surrounding him. A solo loaded with technical difficulties—allegedly one of the reasons why it was discarded in the course of time—set to the music of the 1st variation of the pas de trois. Seeing him dance this (and Kolb danced it beautifully) gives you a reason why he falls for Odette.
The character of Rothbart was in able hands with the theatrical and powerful Ilya Kuznetsov who turned his character into a predatory hawk. Vladimir Shishov has developed remarkably and is now able to project the proper menace and strength.
The part of the jester used to be a lot more fun than it now is with Andrei Ivanov, who only thinks he is funny and mainly marked time only to reveal his gift for a showstopping turbospeed series of spins at the end of the first scene. Yet, even here we have seen much better in the near past. The pas de trois was well enough danced by either Irina Golub, Ekaterina Osmolkina or Tatiana Tkachenko, and Anton Korsakov or Vassily Shcherbakov, even though none of the them could wipe away memories of earlier dancers, including Larissa Lezhnina, Irina Zhelonkina, Irina Chistyakova, Irina Shapchits and Alexander Lunev. As would be obvious during the whole of the season in London, the Mariinsky currently suffers from a severe dearth of real personalities, and the second-soloist level, especially, was surprisingly weak.
There is very little doubt that the Mariinsky corps de ballet remains the true star in "Swan Lake" while the national dances in the ballroom Act still look totally right and were once more the true highlights of the performances. The playing of the Orchestra of the Mariinsky provided great pleasure as well—but is this really sufficient?
Photo: The Kirov Ballet in "Swan Lake." Photo by Marc Haegeman.