Did the Kirov Ballet live up to its gilded reputation? Taking a cue from Tim Rice's lyrics for Evita one would have to say: "Yes! And no and yes and no and ?" Well, mostly yes.
There were some spectacular performances -- one of which was enough to bring tears to your eyes -- the technical proficiency of the dancers was amazing, the corps de ballet looked beautiful and graceful and the Kirov Orchestra was in fine form. All too often, however, the emotional connection between the dancers and the music or the story appeared to have been discarded in the drive for style over substance.
But the audiences appeared pleased with the productions and the National Theater looked close to being sold out the two nights that were reviewed.
There was definitely a festive air for the gala opening last week. There was also a lot of security for the president and other top officials who were invited to attend. The evening began with Mikhail Fokine's Chopinana (Les Sylphids) to the music of Frederic Chopin. It's a lovely little ballet and the Kirov's performance was very soft and musical.
This was followed by five short pieces: Le Spectre de la Rose, Talisman, The Dying Swan, Le Coirsaire Pas De Deux and Polovtsian Dances.
Le Spectre de la Rose is unusual in that it is the male dancer who is the focus of the piece, from the moment he makes his grand jete entrance. When people talk of the amazing arms of the Kirov's dancers, it is usually the women they are talking about. Igor Kolb's arms were amazing -- liquid and languid and hardly real.
Talisman, with Irma Nioradze and Mikhail Lobukhin got off to an uneven start, but picked up speed and finished strongly. This pas de deux is not seen that often. It is all that is left from a ballet by Marius Petipa created in 1889 called Le Talisman.
The highlight of the evening was Uliana Lopatkina as The Dying Swan. She was unbelievable: Six minutes of heartbreaking fluttering, yearning arms, tiny stuttering steps, and deeply arching body. Her arms -- at times floating through the air, at other times bending backwards at amazing angles -- looked so unlike a normal human being's that you would almost swear they really were wings. A last stretch back, a broken wing hanging in the air, and the swan folded herself over her legs, bowed her head and moved no more. It was a performance that could have wrung tears from a stone.
Lopatkina's performance was a hard one to follow, but Alina Somova and Leonid Sarafanov managed a flashy Le Corisaire Pas De Deux. His leaps and spins were right on the mark every time and she nailed her 32 foutettes as if they were nothing. The fast pacing of this piece set the stage for Fokine's Polovtsian Dances, a rousing one-act ballet from the opera Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin. The bare-chested nomadic warriors and exotic dancing girls were ably led by Islom Baimuradow, all fierceness and flash.
The gala finished with the Paquita Grand Pas, which, with its multitude of dainty solos and variations, was a very polished and elegant end to an enjoyable evening and triggered several rousing rounds of applause for the company.
On Saturday night the loudest applause was for the dancers whose roles are unique to Russian productions of Swan Lake: Andrey Ivanov as the jester and Ilya Kuznetsov as the evil magician, Von Rothbart. Ivanov, a short dancer with bulky thighs, has some of the fastest pirouettes ever seen. Fast, confident, and cheeky; just what a good jester ought to be.