Gentle Love in post-Soviet Verona

"Romeo and Juliet "
The Kirov Ballet of the Mariinsky Theatre
Opera House
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC
January 16, 19, 2007

by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2007, Alexandra Tomalonis

Today, there are nearly as many ballets called “Romeo and Juliet” as there are “The Nutcracker,” but Leonid Lavrovsky’s grand, splendid and poetic version, choreographed for the Kirov Ballet in 1940, was the first. The Bolshoi Ballet — and its prima ballerina, the great Galina Ulanova, also borrowed from the Kirov — conquered the West with the ballet in the 1950s and a movie was made of her performance. The ballet was a casualty of the Cold War; it hasn't often been abroad since, although imitations abound. The Bolshoi brought its version — much darker and more dramatic — here several years ago, but this is the first time the Kirov has danced the ballet in D.C., and while the production looked a bit thin and down at heel on opening night, the two young dancers in the title roles were so gorgeous it almost didn’t matter.

Evgenya Obraztsova’s Juliet was both willful and adorable. This young, impossibly thin and extremely long–limb ballerina has the technique, the authority, the musicality and singing line of a great dancer; unless the gods are extremely unkind, she should be one of the finest ballerinas of her generation. The lyrical choreography suits her perfectly and she dances the role as if it had been made on her, each perfectly centered sequence of pirouettes or explosive leaps a spontaneous expression of Juliet’s emotions. Her delight at being at the ball, her private moments dreaming of Romeo, the decisiveness with which she ended her life — all made her seem as though she were living the story rather than merely dancing it. Her scenes with Juliet’s father (the incomparable Vladimir Ponomarev at his best) — first both desperate and angry, her dancing welded to the imploring, wailing music in Prokofiev’s score, then, after her visit with Friar Lawrence, seemingly resigned to carry out his will — were as dramatically powerful as any shown here in recent memory.

We’ve seen so many young dancers with little to offer beyond medal–wining tricks, that it’s especially rewarding to see a ballerina so artistically mature. Andrian Fadeyev, Obraztsova’s Romeo, matched her in the freshness and sincerity of his dancing. The lifts were a bit strained, but the endless, spun-silk pirouettes and beautiful arabesques were not, and Romeo’s gentle passion was always on view.

Obraztsova and Fadeyev gave such fine performances that they masked this production's many flaws. On opening night, the dancers in important supporting roles, probably due to jet lag, were vague or sluggish or both. Both Dimitry Pykhachev’s Tybalt nor Alexander Sergeev’s Mercutio were barely sketched, and Lady Capulet and both Montagues were hardly there. In contrast, Ponomarev’s Lord Capulet was such a grand and detailed portrayal that he looked out of scale.

The company brought a touring production with both scenes and scenery left at home (there was no balcony; everyone noticed), and the first act, especially, opening with only three couples cavorting in the square for what seemed like half an hour, was threadbare. The three women, who once were nice tavern girls, must have been sent abroad to study at the MacMillan Academy of Harlotry and Skirt Flouncing; the character dancing was pallid; the Jokers ill–matched and not very impressive; and Friar Lawrence, in one of the worst wigs ever forced upon a dancer, seemed to be miming in his own private language, or perhaps had read another play. And then Obraztsova would return, take an arabesque or tear across the stage, dizzy with her first love, and all was right with the world.

Friday night, Maria Dumchenko and Mikhail Lobukhin took the leading roles and, Mercutio and Tybalt having found their stage legs, the ballet was more balanced dramatically. Dumchenko is also a lyrical and expressive ballerina with extremely long lines, and she gave a very thoughtful and emotionally mature performance. She dominated the third act, and the “monologue” in her room before taking the sleeping potion was more expressive dance than classical ballet, and totally appropriate. Lobukhin’s was also a very dramatic performance, finely detailed. HIS monologue — the before–the–curtain dance in which Romeo expresses anger at himself for the actions that got him banned from Verona and relives the beautiful moment in the wedding scene when he had scattered lilies in Juliet’s path and everything seemed possible — was extraordinarily clear.

Lavrovsky’s ballet is as much about the explosion of life and art that was the Renaissance, contrasted with feuding families, and the futility of war, as it is about young love. Both Mercutio and Tybalt are vividly characterized in the choreography, Mercutio as a Renaissance swordsman–intellectual with flashing footwork to show his nimbleness of mind as well as swordplay; Tybalt as his opposite, a man of lustful appetites, interested only in fighting and women, and his movements are rough and thuggish. As Tybalt, Pykhachev was burdened with a ridiculous costume: tights and a tunic made of patches of orange, turquoise, yellow, light red, gray (and I’ve probably forgotten some). Top that with an orange wig, and it must be hard to be menacing, but Pykhachev managed to be a thoroughly unlikable thug, and a promising leader–in-the-rough at the same time. Sergeev, as Mercutio, was nimble, if not especially witty, but both were lightweight and immature, and the same lightness and boyishness afflicted the corps. This town could have been overtaken by invaders in about a half–hour. Paris, the extremely tall Sergey Popov, had an easier task, as Paris is usually danced as vain and shallow (in this version, he has a little page who carries around a mirror so Paris can check his hair before entering a room) but Popov fleshed out the character, disappointed in Juliet’s lack of interest, but willing to give her time, and genuinely stricken by her death.

What the ballet desperately needs is a director, someone who can inspire the cast and bring out all the dramatic points Lavrovsky so carefully embedded in the choreography. Opening night, especially, there were moments of such true emotion, and such dignity, that the company had the house; there was the legendary pin drop silence. Once was at the end of act two, after Mercutio and Tybalt have been killed and Lady Capulet has loosened her hair and torn at her bosom on Tybalt’s bier. The outdoor scenes are brightly lit, not only accurately depicting sunny Verona, but also serving as a metaphor for youth and all its possibilities, but now the sun flees and the sky darkens; the Capulet men raise their spears as the Prokofiev score rages. One senses that terrible things will happen, and the moment sears.

Photos: Andrian Fadeyev (Romeo) & Evgenya Obraztsova (Juliet) by Natasha Razina.

January 25, 2007

P.S. The Kirov's Third Night Cast

Romeo and Juliet were fine young dancers working hard to find themselves as soulmates. The extra lift at apex made Romeo's jumps remarkable. Juliet's long line was diamond cut yet pliant. Throughout the evening they kept discovering parts of the tragic poem their lives are supposed to be. This performance foretold a powerful future for both — Vladimir Shklyarov and Olesya Novikova — though it may not be with each other.
— George Jackson

Volume 5, No. 4
January 22, 2007

copyright ©2007 Alexandra Tomalonis

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