art thou no longer Romeo…?
With all the euphoria accompanying the Mariinsky Ballet’s determined acquisition of new choreographies, the possible downsides of this development are all too easily overlooked. The Kirov congratulates itself that it now dances several works from the Diaghilev era, as well as ballets by Balanchine, Petit, MacMillan, Neumeier, Forsythe—and who knows what will come next—just like any other world-class company. Yet this expansion of the repertory has proven haphazard and hasty, while the company hasn’t necessarily been seen capitalizing on the real benefits. On the other hand what became more and more noticeable in the last ten years is a certain neglect of the Soviet heritage. The precious time and energy spent to master the Western import is seemingly occurring at the expense of the company’s own repertory. Perhaps they don’t consider this a priority any longer, but that makes as much sense as if the Royal Ballet would throw out Ashton and MacMillan, and the Royal Danish forget all about their Bournonville. A sad case in point is Leonid Lavrovsky’s "Romeo and Juliet," premiered by the Kirov in 1940 and a 20th-century landmark ballet if ever there was one.
To make sure, the Mariinsky still dances Lavrovsky’s "Romeo and Juliet"—but the question is how? In the recent engagement at Covent Garden Prokofiev’s ballet— always a favourite with London balletgoers, especially since its first showing in 1956, in the then all-conquering reading by the Bolshoi—featured again for four performances. Amidst the "Romeo and Juliets", two performances of the Forsythe programme were thrown in and the dancers also found time to rehearse their latest Balanchine triple bill before their final evening of Romeo. It’s a disconcerting mixture which makes one wonder how they carry on.
However, the touring production of "Romeo and Juliet" appears sloppier than ever, the wobbly sets look as if they will fall apart every minute, they are badly lit, squashed, and details seem to disappear with every new showing. The opening triptych has long been omitted and even the chequered floor (at least in 1993 they still had it) is now gone. More importantly, Lavrovsky’s choreography seems to have strayed far away, in steps but even more so in style and manner. It might be that today’s Mariinsky dancers find very little affinities with the Soviet dram-ballet genre of the 1930’s and 1940’s, but can this be an excuse for overblown physicality at the expense of dramatic development? The result is a curious mix of loosely connected steps and jumps which no longer help to establish the characters, but rather seem to go against them. Individual dancers might shine in it (we have fond memories of Altynai Asylmuratova and Zhanna Ayupova, a few years ago, even if these were largely “one-ballerina” shows), yet it seems also clear that an overall artistic vision is lacking. When members of the audience are heard commenting that Lavrovsky’s choreography is weak and the storytelling dull and old-fashioned, something is seriously wrong with this production. At best, the ballet falls apart in a few dramatic moments but the overall sweep which used to keep them together is no longer there. The original massive, epic concept of the ballet, still hinted at by Piotr Williams' Italianate designs, now frequently clashes with the small-scaled performances of many of the dancers.
Diana Vishneva’s performance as Juliet on opening night may be characteristic for the current atmosphere of this production. It looked like an attempt to revitalize it, but she was in the wrong ballet. For one thing there was a complete lack of identification with her character. Where simple girlish innocence and naivety were required for the opening scenes, Vishneva brought a fake tragedy queen air. Someone must tell me why Juliet’s first meetings with Romeo should be moments of pain and suffering? And why does she remain dead serious at Mercutio’s pranks in the ballroom scene? Vishneva’s physicality and athleticism, so appropriate in the Forsythe program, looked totally out of place here and eventually made her Juliet monotonous. The dancing was reduced to bits of flashy outbursts resembling a contest for the highest jump and extension. Vishneva won undoubtedly, but she didn’t save the ballet. She jumped high at the beginning, and she still jumped high at the end. As a performance her Juliet is physically exciting, but now even more than in previous years it is devoid of all subtlety, whacking one in the face, yet without ever touching the soul. It may well be that this is the kind of show that many now prefer—and judging from the reception she got, it is—but it has little or nothing to do with Lavrovsky’s heroine. Andrian Fadeyev is an admirable dancer, but his Romeo remained too small-scaled and gentle to register, especially when paired with Vishneva.
A better match was found with Evgenia Obraztsova and Igor Kolb. Obraztsova, 21, is coached by Ninella Kurgapkina and was awarded a gold medal at the recent Moscow International Ballet Competition. A natural charmer, she brought beauty and simplicity to the role, coming much closer to a credible portrayal of Juliet, as she convincingly developed from naïve child to passionate and desperate lover. Unnecessary, precocious comparisons with the legendary Galina Ulanova, creator of the role, could be heard, but at least here was a performance driven by spontaneity and freshness, and with plenty of talent for genuine, dramatic effect to boast. Igor Kolb, who has grown considerably as an actor, got the best out of the duets. He proved a strong partner, more intense than eloquent, by far the most rewarding Kirov Romeo seen in years.
Supporting roles were uneven and basically suffered from a lack of artistic direction. It’s easy to spot the always brilliant Mariinsky artists like Vladimir Ponomarev as Lord Capulet, or that wonderful character dancer Galina Rakhmanova as one of the servants, but they too seemed more than ever a total loss in this production. Likewise, Ilya Kuznetsov is a much too gifted dancer to waste his time with his over the top portrayal of Tybalt. It was announced he would be seen as Romeo, but as ever last-minute casting policies decided otherwise. Leonid Sarafanov danced his Mercutio with sparkle, but he danced basically on his own. Vladimir Shishov’s numb Paris looked as if he wasn’t in the ballet.
The Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre was audibly not in the best hands with Pavel Bubelnikov, who seems to own the secret of highlighting the wrong instruments and getting the brass and percussion all over the place. The absence of mandolins was regrettable, but the use of the organ at the beginning of the Balcony pas de deux didn’t have to sound like a cathedral recital. It was powerful playing as only this orchestra can, but just as the production, it was crude and messy and in desperate need of some judicious rethinking and artistic control.
Photos of Evgenia Obraztsova and Igor Kolb in Lavrovsky's "Romeo and Juliet"are by Marc Haegeman