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Gifts from Fokine

Gobsmacked by beauty and the timelessness of ballet! Indeed, what a gift it was to witness terpsichorean history come alive—if only for several hours—when Segerstrom Center for the Arts presented the Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra as its season opener in an all-Fokine program.


Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra perform choreography by Michel Fokine


Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, California, October 12-15, 2017


Victoria Looseleaf

“Le Spectre de la rose” by Mariinsky Ballet. Photograph by Natasha Razina

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Michel Fokine, who was born in St. Petersburg in 1880 and first joined that company as a dancer in 1898, became the first choreographer in residence in Serge Diaghilev’s then fledgling Ballet Russes, in 1909. The great influencer may have died in New York in 1942, but his legacy continues.

In a program of four of his works—“Chopiniana,” “The Swan,” “Schéhérazade” and “Le Spectre de la Rose”—the master of elegiac conjuring and dance drama, also proved the apotheosis of Romanticism.

“Chopiniana,” which premiered in 1908 (renamed “Les Sylphides” in Paris by impresario Diaghilev the next year), the female dancers sport tiny fairy, or sylphide, wings in this “ballet blanc,” a pure dance in all white, against the backdrop of bucolic woods (set design based on original sketches by Orest Allegri). With an impeccable corps moving about in numerous and varied groupings, often holding one picturesque tableau after another and bringing to mind both Fragonard and Degas, this moonlit nocturne is an emotional fusion of technique and grace.

Mariinsky Ballet dance “Chopiniana.” Photograph by Natasha Razina

With a stellar Gavriel Heine conducting an equally marvelous orchestra, the dancers not only seemed to float on gossamer layers of tulle, but their every move appeared to be an organic response to the lush music of Chopin. The Sunday cast included an understated but effective Philipp Stepin, also known as the “Poet” and dancing Mazurka, as well as Yekaterina Osmolkina, who brought a supreme elegance to the Seventh Waltz.

Xenia Ostreikovskaya shone in the Prelude, Valeria Martynyuk cast a delicate spell in her solo, here called the Eleventh Waltz, and Tamara Gimadieva and Anastasia Mikheikina were well matched in the Duet. Said to have been Diaghilev’s favorite work, “Chopiniana” hints of Balanchine’s architectural formations to come (he was the fifth and final choreographer of the original Ballets Russes, which ended in 1929 with Diaghilev’s death).

“Le Spectre de la rose” by Mariinsky Ballet. Photograph by Natasha Razina

“Spectre,” the 1911 work that originally featured the brilliant but troubled dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky (Fokine also made “Petrouchka” in 1911 for Nijinsky), is an exquisite fuchsia-colored cupcake of a dance.

A girl’s dream of a rose she received at her first ball, this 10-minute trifle is set to the music of Carl Maria von Weber (“Invitation to the Dance,” orchestrated by Hector Berlioz), with an androgynous Vasily Tkachenko executing leaps with authority and brio, and Yana Selina amplifying fantasy with a sweet smile and often-closed eyes.

Another bon bon, but of a different order, “The Swan,” choreographed in 1904 to the music of Camille Saint-Saëns for the inimitable Anna Pavlova, continues to be danced by ballerinas around the world, as well as providing feathery fodder for the all-male troupe, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. In addition, the work catapulted street dancer L’il Buck to fame, his tennis shoe rendition accompanied by superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma having racked up north of 3 million YouTube views.

Here, Oxana Skorik deployed her finest avian qualities in the four-minute opus, her fluttery arms and supple, supremely arched back a study in jaw-dropping agility, her steely fragility also giving an emotional thrust that compelled the nearly sold-out audience to jump to their well-shod feet at the bird’s demise.

On another plane altogether, the one-act, 45-minute showpiece finale, “Schéhérazade,” is a glittery, albeit culturally misogynistic ballet (the pervasive shadow of Harvey Weinstein loomed large), set to Rimsky-Korsakov's familiar music, the haunting strings and brass particularly enticing.

The plot is simple, if outrageous and somewhat of a kitschfest: Harem girl Zobeide is a favorite of the Shah, who finds her with her lover and orders a mass slaughter, driving Zobeide to commit suicide.

The tireless cast featured a solid Timur Askerov as the erotically feral Golden Slave (another role made famous by Nijinsky), and Ekaterina Kondaurova as his beloved. Hailing from the “where-is-my-stomach” school of ballet (when she stands sideways it’s a tad difficult to see her), Kondaurova, nevertheless offered sinewy, slithering, sexy dance at its best as the doomed femme.

Add a commanding Soslan Kulaev as the Shah, Andrei Yakolev as his Iago-like brother Shakhezman, and an appealing Anatoly Marchenko as Chief Eunuch for comic relief, and the stage becomes a veritable embarrassment of riches. The lavish décor, based on Leon Bakst's designs, features the rich blues and greens of Orientalism, with the costumes (also after original sketches by Bakst), a mix of sparkle, swirly harem pants and sumptuous royal wear.

Taken as a whole, though, this stuck-in-amber ballet, does present a strikingly memorable experience. Happily, Fokine, who also gave the world, "Polovtsian Dances," from Borodin's opera "Prince Igor" (1909), “Firebird" (1910), and "Daphnis et Chloé" (1912), lives on today. For all of his bounteous gifts—and the notion that art can lift our spirits—we are ever so grateful.

Victoria Looseleaf

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.



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