Ilya Zhivoi's debut full-length ballet, “The Four Seasons” for Mariinsky Ballet
Mariinsky Ballet: “The Four Seasons” on MariinskyTV.com, broadcast June 12, 2020
Since the middle of March, when St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater closed its doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic, nearly 85 million people from all around the world have accessed a variety of high-quality streaming performances—symphonies, choral works, operas, ballets and ballet classes—which the company has offered on various online platforms, including Mariinsky.TV. This staggering number of viewers speaks for itself. In such unprecedented times for performing arts, Mariinsky Theater has demonstrated an exemplar way of outreach and engagement with their audiences.
For ballet lovers, the selection of streaming performances has been wonderful in its richness and variety, ranging from masterpieces of Marius Petipa (“The Sleeping Beauty” and “Raymonda”) to historical drambalets of Soviet era (“The Bronze Horseman” and “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai”) to Alexei Ratmansky’s modern productions (“Cinderella,” “The Little Humpbacked Horse,” and “Anna Karenina”) among the others.
I was especially delighted to see a new work, “The Four Seasons,” by a young Mariinsky dancer-turned-choreographer, Ilya Zhivoi, streamed on June 12th on Mariinsky.TV.
Zhivoi joined the Mariinsky Ballet as a dancer in 2008 after his graduation from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Since 2013, he has been a regular participant of the Mariinsky Theatre’s Creative Workshop of Young Choreographers. “The Four Seasons” is his first full-length ballet and his first commissioned work for the company. The ballet received its premiere in 2017 as part of the theater’s famed “The Stars of White Nights” festival.
There is much to admire about this “Four Seasons.” The ballet is set and inspired by Max Richter’s wild, ingenious and utterly enchanting music—a reimagining and electronic deconstruction of Antonio Vivaldi’s evergreen violin concertos, “The Four Seasons.” Recorded in 2012, the album is titled Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons; and it’s a true marvel. In his revamped Vivaldi, Richter not only highlights the beauty, the verve, the vibrancy of the original composition; he gives the over-familiar Baroque concerto a contemporary rhythm, an irresistible harmony and a new sound.
There are four distinctive parts in Zhivoi’s ballet, each signifying a particular period of human emotions, relationships and life itself. Each season brings many changes: rewards, challenges, gains and losses. As the ballet unfolds, we witness and experience these changes, deftly captured in music and in movements: the feelings of rebirth and excitement of spring; the exasperating heat and turbulence of summer; the silky mellowness and calmness of fall; the fragility and finality of winter. So in many ways, the seasons become a potent metaphor for human condition.
The choreographic language is a fluent mix of classical ballet and modern dance idiom, all dotted with everyday gestures and spiced with wit and humor. I admired the ballet’s animated pantomime—the vivid facial expressions of the dancers, which reflect their inner emotional state, are an important part of the choreography, contributing to the whole experience of the piece.
The ballet is stylishly outfitted by designer Sofia Vartonyan. The costumes for the women are particularly attractive: flowing strapless dresses in shades of dark pink in spring; chic sporty attire in summer; a stunning burgundy gown for a leading ballerina in fall; and white translucent long tunics in winter.
This piece utilizes a cast of ten: a leading couple and four supporting couples. When I was watching the streaming of the ballet, I couldn’t help thinking that this “Four Seasons,” in no small part, belonged to the superb Ekaterina Kondaurova—a ballerina of many skills and talents.
Tall and long-limbed, with exceptional plasticity and expressivity of her movements, Kondaurova is an exquisite classicist; yet she is perfectly at home with the neoclassical style of dancing. In fact, one of my first memories of her onstage is her high-voltage rendition as a fearless leader in William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhere Elevated,” which was part of the all-Forsythe bill presented by the Mariinsky Ballet at the Kennedy Center Opera House in 2006.
In “The Four Seasons,” her dancing—her liquid arms, her super long extensions and arabesques, and all the magnificent shapes she creates with her body—gives the choreography a new dimension and a unique appeal.
A budding romance between the main couple (Kondaurova and an attentive and poignant Roman Belyakov) is the focal point of the ballet. In the opening scene, which takes place during springtime, the two lovers meet; and, as the piece progresses, they navigate through the multiple ups and downs of their amorous relationship, their whirlwind of feelings expressed in emotionally-charged duets. The ensemble serves as an attractive backdrop, but quite often the imaginative choreography for the supporting group takes centerstage to admirable effect.
The ballet’s most effective part is “Winter.” Gone are green lawns of the previous three sections and the stage is dominated by the enormous pieces of ice: you can almost feel the biting sting of the frosty air. Richter’s music is mesmerizing here. Describing the slow movement, Daniel Hope, who played a solo violin in the original recording, says: “It’s really out of this world . . . . It’s as if an alien has picked it up and pulled it through a time warp. It’s really eerie: Max has kept Vivaldi’s melody, but it’s pulled apart by the ethereal harmonics underneath it.” And Zhivoi’s choreography, in turn, aptly reflects the music’s ethereal and mystical atmosphere, creating onstage a world—delicate and fragile—in which, even when all seems lost, there is still hope for renewal.