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Stories from Soviet Ballet

St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater offers an exceptional online season during the time of Covid-19, streaming from its website, Mariinsky.TV, a wide selection of performances—ballets, operas, and classical music concerts—from its illustrious repertory, all impeccably recorded and presented.


Mariinsky Ballet: “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai” on Mariinsky.TV: April 16 and May 29, 2020


Oksana Khadarina


Oksana Khadarina

Anastasia Matvienko as Maria and Xander Parish as Vaslav in “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai.” Photograph by Natasha Razina © State Academic Mariinsky Theatre

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One ballet performance, “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai,” which was first streamed on April 16 and then had a repeat showing on May 29, particularly caught my eye. This is an unfamiliar ballet to many viewers: Mariinsky Ballet rarely takes it on tours. Yet “The Fountain” has a long and fascinating history and, judging by the excellent online performance, which was recorded in 2017, for all its peculiarity and flaws, this production presents a unique foray into the storied past of Russian ballet and deserves our attention.

“The Fountain of Bakhchisarai” was originally created for Mariinsky Ballet in 1934 in the era of Stalin’s regime (the company was called the Kirov Ballet at that time.) It was choreographed by the young and upcoming choreographer Rostislav Zakharov to the original score by Boris Assafiev, who is also known for his music to the ballet “Flames of Paris” (1932). Nikolai Volkov fashioned the libretto, inspired by the famous poem of the same title by a beloved Russian poet Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (1799-1837).

The premiere of the ballet in St. Petersburg was blessed with the performance of the legendary Russian ballerina, Galina Ulanova. She created the role of Maria—a beautiful Polish princess, who was kidnapped and became an unwilling love interest of a Crimean Khan, a merciless invader of her land and a murderer of her family, only to perish in his captivity. The great ballerina held this role close to her heart in the course of her entire career, continuously perfecting the role’s dramatic expressiveness.

Yet it was Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet that brought “The Fountain to Bakhchisarai” to Western audiences during the Russian company’s first famed season at London’s Covent Garden in 1956, which also included “Giselle,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Swan Lake.” The Russians obviously wanted to make an impression, and impress they did. Their success was due in no small measure to the extraordinary talent of Ulanova, an indisputable star, who at that time was dancing with the Bolshoi. (Reportedly, she had to move from St. Petersburg’s ballet troupe to Moscow’s at the request of Stalin himself).

There is a YouTube video which captures a fragment of the old version of this ballet, featuring its famous dancers—Ulanova as Maria and Maya Plisetskaya, another Russian ballet superstar, as her rival, Zarema. This is a poor-quality recording made in 1953 as part of VHS “Stars of Russian Ballet,” with an abbreviated version of “The Fountain;” yet it contains the celebrated scene of the heated confrontation between Maria and a jealous wife of Khan Ghirei, Zarema, which culminates in Maria’s tragic demise.

Describing this moment in Dance Magazine, Edwin Denby wrote: “The film showed as much mime as dancing. There was one interesting invention, that of Ulanova’s death in the harem. She drooped against the wall on both pointes and slid, turning the feet so they sank with the arch against the floor. This moment of extinction—and the brief last look of consciousness before it—was wonderfully acted . . . her intensity of projection became in the film almost formidable.”

In Pushkin’s poem, the scene in which Zarema confesses to Maria her love for Khan and begs her to extinguish Ghirei’s affection, threatening to use a knife if her request is not fulfilled, is the most poignant moment of the story.

Меня убьет его измена...

Я плачу; видишь, я колена
Теперь склоняю пред тобой,
Молю, винить тебя не смея,
Отдай мне радость и покой,
Отдай мне прежнего Гирея...
Не возражай мне ничего;
Он мой! он ослеплен тобою.
Презреньем, просьбою, тоскою,
Чем хочешь, отврати его;

This is the English translation:

1His treason I cannot survive; Thou seest I weep, I bend my knee, Ah! if to pity thou'rt alive, My former love restore to me. Reply not! thee I do not blame, Thy beauties have bewitched Ghirey, Blinded his heart to love and fame, Then yield him up to me, I pray…

Yet Pushkin is vague about the cause of Maria’s sudden demise. From the poem, we learned that she passed. Did she die of a broken heart, desperately missing her family and friends? Did the impulsive and vindictive Zarema followed on her murderous threats? We can only guess . . . . What we do know is that on the night of Maria’s passing, Zarema perished as well. And as a shrine to Maria’s memory, Ghirei builds a fountain to symbolize his tears and his eternal grief—thus the story’s title.

But there is no ambiguity about the tragic destiny of two main heroines of “The Fountain” in the ballet’s scenario. In the climatic Act III, the furious Zarema stubs Maria with a dagger in front of the stunned and outraged Khan. In the following act, she pays for the murder with her life, thrown from the Palace wall at Ghirei’s command.

The Mariinsky’s production of “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai” is a feast for the eyes: it is handsomely designed and costumed and danced with dedication and aplomb by the entire cast.

With its twisting plot and a pile of kidnapping, betrayal, seduction, revenge and death, the ballet evokes such staples of 19th-century repertory as “Raymonda,” “La Bayadère,” and “Le Corsaire.” Yet Zakharov’s choreography, even if pleasing and often evocative, rarely soars; the solo dances for the principal characters in particular beg for variety and intricacy of steps. However, there are plenty of moments here for the corps de ballet to shine, most memorably in the first and the final acts. The first act particularly stands out for a colorful parade of traditional Slavic dances; and the formidable Mariinsky’s ensemble performs them to the hilt; their energy and spark are wonderfully invigorating.

To beef up the story—and to create a narrative arc—Volkov’s scenario introduces new personages and locales that are not present in Pushkin’s poem. In Act I, which takes place in Poland, we meet a young Maria, in a white bridal gown, dancing with her handsome fiancé, Vaslav. The young couple is falling in love and their flowing dancing, full of romantic lifts and turns, feels like a welcome respite before the imminent storm.

Viktoria Tereshkina as Zarema “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai.” Photograph by Natasha Razina © State Academic Mariinsky Theatre

As Maria, the stunningly beautiful Anastasia Matvienko was quiet, shy, gentle and soulful; her facial expressions and her poised comportment echoed her heroine’s innocence and her good nature. These personal traits of Maria were also reflected in Matvienko’s expressive dancing: the ballerina was floating onstage with fine delicacy, her lines soft and fluid.

In the role of Vaslav, Xander Parish had a short-lived chance to display his airy jumps, fast turns and his long gorgeous classical line. His personage meets a violent but heroic death at the end of Act I as he tries to protect Maria from the invaders.

In Act II, the action moves to Khan’s Palace where we meet his favorite wife, the alluring and vain Zarema, who, in the opening scene, walks onstage while admiring her image in an oversized mirror, a long luxurious train of her dress trailing behind her. Mariinsky’s prima Viktoria Tereshkina imbued the role of Zarema with passion and hauteur, expressing through her exotic, serpentine dancing and articulate pantomime the emotional state of her heroine. In this production, Zarema has three distinctive solos. In every one of them Tereshkina deftly projected the wild rollercoaster of Zarema’s feelings from her initial excitement and happiness in the scene when she anticipates her lover’s triumphant return, to torment and disbelief when she realizes that she is no longer his favorite, to anger and frustration towards the unfaithful Ghirei and his new love interest when she finds herself abandoned and unwanted.

The role of the lovelorn Khan Ghirei was played by the towering Roman Belyakov. This is a supremely challenging role based almost exclusively on mime and body language. It’s not an easy task to portray a ruthless man—a warrior and a leader—who becomes a prisoner of unrequited love. Alas, Belyakov didn’t make strong impression as a dramatic actor, often slipping into exaggeration, his movement frantic, his facial expression the same angry mask. Yet there were flashes of poignancy in his performance, particularly in the fateful scene that takes place in Maria’s bedroom in the third act, in which the captive Princess rejects Khan’s advances and meets her death.

Featuring scores of concubines and slaves, the ballet shows despicable violence against women; and there are moments in this production that are hard to watch, particularly the opening scene of the final act, with yet another row of captive women, beaten and deprived of any human dignity. I felt that this particular episode was unnecessary and too harsh, contributing nothing to the plot but showing violence for the sake of violence.

With all its assets and deficiencies, this production is a vivid example of Soviet Realism—an important period in Russian ballet from 1920s to 1940s, when Russian choreographers were front and center in the development of full-length contemporary dramatic ballets to original scores, the period that ultimately brought us Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” and “Cinderella.”

Oksana Khadarina

Oksana Khadarina is a Washington, DC–based dance writer. She has been covering dance at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, as well as in New York City and internationally, since 2006. She has written for Dance Magazine, Pointe and DanceTabs, among other publications.



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