The Mariinsky Ballet’s program, “Chopin: Dances for Piano,” which concluded the company’s season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, offered a sampler of three ballets, all set to Chopin’s piano music and created in different time periods: Michel Fokine’s “Chopiniana” (1908), Benjamin Millepied’s “Without” (2011) and Jerome Robbins’ “In the Night” (1970).
This program was a real treat for ballet and music lovers alike and a great chance to see the company’s young dancers taking the spotlight in more prominent roles. It also afforded the audience a unique opportunity to compare the artistic vision and styles of three dance-makers whose shared choreographic lineage spans more than a century.
A romantic reverie, imbued with a scent of nocturnal mystery, Fokine’s “Chopiniana,” the opening dance of the program, was a foray into the era of Romanticism. The ballet premiered at the Mariinsky Theater in 1908 and has remained in the company’s repertoire ever since. (Outside of Russia, this piece is better known as “Les Sylphides.”)
A great innovator and perfectionist at heart, Fokine promoted a natural way of movement and expression in classical ballet—a style that accentuated the atmosphere and dramatic purpose of the choreography rather than its sheer virtuosity for the sake of pleasing audiences. The sublime and poetic “Chopiniana” was a true testament to his artistic credo.
The ballet unfolds as a series of picturesque vignettes, one seamlessly melting into another. From the first moment, the imagery onstage takes one’s breath away. The curtain opens on a visually arresting tableau: a semi-circle of sylph-like ballerinas in long white tulle dresses, framing a quartet of leading dancers (a principal couple and two female soloists), their hands gently curved and heads slightly tilted. With their lovely poses and serene composure, the dancers could have stepped from a period lithograph.
With the sounds of the music, their charming composition comes to life as the ensemble softly bourées about the stage as if floating on a cloud, forming jewelry-like patterns. Their ever-changing formations serve as imaginative frames for the solos and duets performed by the leads. When properly danced, this gem of a ballet is pure poetry in motion.
Yet the performance of “Chopiniana” on January 25 (the final performance of the Mariinsky’s residence at BAM) was less than transporting. The cast delivered a clean and technically polished account of the piece; but, for the most part, the dancing felt listless and guarded. The corps de ballet and the principals (Timur Askerov and Oxana Skorik) went through the motions of the choreography in a routine manner, never really surrendering to the dreamy radiance of Fokine’s masterpiece.
With his good looks, lean physique and a fine classical line, Askerov was a picture-perfect romantic poet; yet he didn’t seem to be comfortable with Fokine’s poetic style. His dancing looked self-conscious and detached, lacking emotional impulse and stylistic finesse.
Skorik is undoubtedly a promising ballerina. The grace and serenity of her dancing and the purity of her expression was delightful. But she hasn’t matured yet as an artist; and she seemed far from home in the realm of romantic ballet. In “Seventh Waltz,” the beating heart of “Chopiniana,” her dancing was missing that special sense of brilliance and effortless abandon that make this part so special.
The most nuanced and musically sensitive performance came from Viktoria Brilyova. Her enchanting monologue in “Prelude” accentuated the ballet’s idyllic atmosphere as her heroine softly breezed across the stage, listening to the sounds of the forest with girlish gaiety and a sense of wonder.
It was a stroke of genius to include Robbins’ “In the Night” (the concluding dance of the program) on the same bill with Fokine’s “Chopiniana.”
A great entertainer and one of the most distinguished choreographers of the 20th century, Robbins had a profound admiration for Chopin’s genius. ‘I love Chopin’s music … I feel it has haunted me all my life,’ he wrote. ‘It was Fokine’s use of music for “Les Sylphides” that got the message across to me. Because I have such a deep respect for Chopin’s music and want to liberate it from all the clichés. I hope to reveal all its unsuspected depths, underlying emotions and astonishing inventiveness.’
In his very first Chopin ballet, Robbins indeed liberated the composer’s music from all the clichés, creating “The Concert” (1956), one of the most hilarious comedies in modern ballet—a witty and wistful essay on human nature.
The choreographer continued his exploration of Chopin’s oeuvre for piano with “Dances at a Gathering” (1969), “In the Night” (1970), and “Other Dances” (1976)—all three pieces vivid examples of Robbins’ creative mastery.
His “In the Night” is a model of contemporary romanticism and a nod to Fokine. This piece has no plot; but the ballet’s choreography is rich in emotion, brimming with passion and romance. Accompanied by Chopin nocturnes, three couples, one after the other, take center stage, swirling with blissful abandon under the starry sky, each pair conveying a distinctive love story. As a result, the entire piece stands as a collection of three deeply personal romantic poems inspired by the shifting colors and moods of the music—passionate and rapturous, lyrical and serene, fierce and daring.
It was a pleasure to see the superb Mariinsky dancers luxuriating in Robbins’ world of amorous fervor and untamed desire. Anastasia Matvienko and Vladimir Shklyarov brought a touch of cool glamour to their nocturnal rendezvous as the first couple. Dressed in a gorgeous lilac gown, Matvienko danced her part with stately elegance and allure, adding personal nuance to the choreography; Shklyarov, on the other hand, was an ardent lover who blindly worshiped his seemingly unattainable love quest.
In the second duet, Yekaterina Kondaurova and Yevgeny Ivanchenko evoked a noble couple in a ceremonial dance as they glided about the stage with languid grace and élan, comfortable in each other’s arms and assured in their mutual love. A gorgeous and immensely talented ballerina, Kondaurova was mesmerizing, dancing with lovely legato and innate charisma. There was a sense of enigma about her heroine, as though she was concealing her erotic feelings under a veneer of poised formality.
But the most spectacular moment of the dance came from Ulyana Lopatkina and Andrey Yermakov as the third couple. Lopatkina was riveting as a tantalizing, fiery heroine in this impassionate “love-as-a-battlefield” pas de deux. Balancing obsession and sensuality, stormy craze and excitement, she took romantic passion to new reaches.
Millepied’s “Without,” the centerpiece of the program, showed just how much the French-born choreographer and current director of the Paris Opera Ballet was influenced by Jerome Robbins, who was Millepied’s mentor during his student years with the School of American Ballet.
Choreographed for five couples and accompanied by 15 short Chopin pieces (nine preludes, five etudes and one nocturne), “Without” takes off with compelling intensity and kinetic pulse. It unfolds as a kaleidoscope of solos, duets, and ensembles as the dancers dart in and out of the stage. The background is draped by multiple dark-grey fabric panels which provide the constantly-on-the-move cast with unobtrusive and convenient entrances and exits. The dancers are dressed in simple, yet attractive costumes (designed by Millepeid) in solid bright colors: red, blue, green, purple and orange. The women are in sexy summer-like dresses; the men in shirts, matching the color of their partner’s costume, and black pants. When the entire cast fills the stage, the visual effect is striking.
Based on the classical idiom, the choreography is full of intricate lifts and holds and keeps the cast in restless, perpetual motion. The ballet’s title hints at the presence of loss, or even death; and the atmosphere of the dance is one of melancholy and emotional distress. In one particularly effective duet, a girl dances with a young man, who appears more like a nostalgic memory than flesh and blood.
Yet for all the grief and suffering and occasional outbursts of sunny hope, “Without” lacks emotional and theatrical punch, as well as creative invention to carry the piece forward without falling into a trap of repetition or veering into melodrama.
The greatest reward of this dance was watching the young and gifted cast conquering the technical challenges of the choreography with enthusiasm and phenomenal skill. The whole ensemble deserved the highest praise, but the lithe and supple Kristina Shapran as the Girl in Blue was a standout. The poignancy of her dancing; her expressive style and acute sense of musicality made her performance memorable above all.
Three outstanding pianists—Alexandra Zhilina, Philipp Kopachevsky, and Lyudmila Sveshnikova—contributed greatly to the success of this program.