Review – Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet, Forsythe Program – Sadler’s Wells

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Last night was a wonderful opening to the Mariinsky’s visit to London. I was especially excited when I read about it (seemingly months ago!) and saw that they were doing an all-Forsythe program. I am a huge Forsythe fan. Forsythe makes ballet exciting and full of energy in a way I would have never though possible. His dances show off the physical prowess of the dancers and completely strips away the “preciousness” of ballet, re-casting it as an event in which athletes at their prime show us just what they can do with the bodies and skills they’ve spent years creating. Also, Forsythe’s work seems so challenging that it changes the mentality of the dancers performing it. When dancing Forsythe, mild mannered performers suddenly become tigers, excited about performing something that pushes their technique. In short, William Forsythe makes great dancers excellent, and I love to watch that happen on the stage – it makes me want to jump up and shout, a feeling I get from almost no other choreographer out there (Wayne Macgregor excluded).

The evening had four works, one of them (“Two Ballets in the Manner of the Late 20th Century”) presented as if it were one piece, but with works so thematically different I couldn’t really see it as a unit. The first ballet was “Steptext,” my favorite of the evening, a work for one woman (the brilliant Ekaterina Kondaurova, red haired and perfect for the role) and three men (Igor Kolb, Mikhail Lobukhin, and Alexander Sergeyev) done to the Bach Partita 2 in D minor. But the whole piece, including the music, messed with the audience’s expectations. First, the dance started without lowering the house lights – I think a dancer (Sergeyev?) just showed up on stage and started dancing without music (though perhaps the curtains were opened and he was just there). The audience kept talking, not noticing, while this main was moving his arms around in a hypnotic pattern – then there was a jolt of music – then silence again.

The audience kept quieting down, but the house lights stayed up for a long time, then went to half light, then went down, but came up to midway before it was over. And the music was just a brief screech of the Partita for probably the first five minutes, during which the first dancer just walked off stage and the other two men showed up. When the woman showed up – dressed in red in comparison to the men’s sleeveless black leotards (and dominating the stage because of this) – she did a series of movements with her arms that appeared to be defining a box. This seemed to set up a language that was repeated by the men later in the piece.

From this point forward the piece became more about the men dancing with the woman, although the men all had their own time in the spotlight and also danced with each other. The action was furious at times, with the woman lifted up, dropped into the splits, and then picked up again (a movement that made my husband’s and my jaws drop), rolled up a man’s body, and (I think) rotated, while leaning back and on her toes. She also ran backwards on the tops of her feet … it was crazy! Meanwhile, the men were like great gorgeous animals, their entrechat (is this the right word? – the crossing of the feet over each other) seemed to show that they were not just muscle but grace, also. I was entranced, and I loved the movement, and the fact I’d come to the show with only six hours of sleep just faded from my awareness. It was great.

The next piece, Approximate Sonata, was a series of pas de deux about which I took few notes. The tracksuit-like costumes the men wore were pretty heinous, and Ryu Yi Jeon was so thin it made my stomach feel a little off, but the movement was good. I saw a theme I’d seen in Forsythe’s pieces before – a female dancer refusing to partner with someone, being approached and then refusing to let herself be touched. I like that, actually – it makes the dancers feel much more human, and kind of focuses your mind on some of the expectations of what will happen on stage. The piece ended with Ksenia Dubrovina (I think – it was the heaviest of the dancers, a really busty woman with incredibly strong legs, basically the embodiment of the strength you get with maturity versus the flexibility and agility that comes with youth) working through what to do (in Russian!) with her partner, then finally her dancing on stage while he sat and watched while the curtain came down, so all that you saw at the last was her feet.

While I was watching this, my brain went on a bit of a tangent about the current state of choreography in ballet. First, in my mind, Forsythe seems the clear heir to Balanchine. He’s stuck with the story-free leotard ballet and continued to enhanced the skill levels of dancers. Second, why can’t most choreographers figure out how to make dance as exciting as this was? Christopher Wheeldon totally gets the “history” of ballet, but even though he wants to make it accessible to modern audiences, it seems like the second he gets the dancers on stage he goes all cerebral and forgets everything there is to know about modern culture. Wheeldon seems only to reference the ballet vocabulary, but Forsythe makes exciting movement that doesn’t need ten years of watching people dance in order to appreciate it. Or …. well, who knows, maybe I’ve been watching dance too long and I can’t tell anymore. But still, I find few people that seem to hit the sweet spot like Forsythe does. And he lets dancers be sexy. Yay for that.

The third piece, “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,” is the one that’s getting all of the publicity shots. It was actually quite fun – three women in chartreuse tutus (Elena Androsova, Olesya Nobikova, and Evgenya Shklyarov) being terribly gamine and fairly classical as they danced with two men to Schubert’s Sympony #9 in C Major. However, the men were generally doing better in this piece than the women were – though I loved the happiness the girls were projecting (for once not looking like the sharks who’d fought their way up since kindergarten and just like young women doing what they loved), they seemed to be a bit … loose. They weren’t quite matching up with each other, they just didn’t seem to have the preciseness the dance required. I wondered if maybe they hadn’t rehearsed it for a few days or if maybe they were stiff from the plane ride over – at any rate, it didn’t seem to be as on as it should have been. (On the bus later, an elderly gentleman who really seemed to know his stuff opined that the entire female company was just trying too hard to be pretty instead of trying to do what the works required – a thought I feel had real merit.) Still, this piece really showed how pointe work isn’t some airy-fairy delicate thing for the ladies – it’s an activity that requires strength, dedication, and (I suspect) a high degree of pain tolerance. And even though this wasn’t done as well as it should have been, I still enjoyed myself. I mean, really, I was just having a great evening, and the joy of the dancers was infectious. And who was that charming woman with the black hair? (These were all corps girls so I can’t tell from the program.) She seemed terribly young but I feel like she’s got a great career ahead of her and I’d like to keep tabs on her progress.

Finally, the evening was coming to an end (running rather late due to the many bows the dancers were taking, and can someone please tell Russian people not to talk out loud when the show is going on if they’re not actually in Russia?), and we ready for “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” which I’ve seen done three times by Pacific Northwest Ballet. It’s a great piece – an incredibly match of movement and music only really equalled in its force by Macgregor’s “Chroma” – and I love to see it performed. However, there was, once again, a certain sharpness missing to the movements of the women. The lovely black haired girl of the previous act seemed too delicate to be as hard as she needed, while the other dancers were frequently not giving their moves the … how do I say it … “plosiveness” they needed. When the kicks to the top of the body happen, you should about feel like you’ve just taken a thumping by a mule, and while the women were able to handle the element of flexibility, the razor edge was not there. This was, however, not true at all of Ekaterina Kondaurova, who powered her way through the whole piece as if it was the Olympics all over again and she was going for a gold. She flexed, she bent, she was a power to reckon with on pointe, she was on it. And Ksenia Dubrovina (if it was indeed her) cranked out her oldster power skills, fairly well spanking the younger women of the company. (Meanwhile the men were all pretty good in general – I apologize for not having too much to say but my notes were thin.)

Overall, I think this was an excellent evening of dance, of the kind that rewards me for the many duds I have to put up with in my search for great ballet. Do check it out if you can, and, well, you might even want to see the Balanchine program, too – I know after last night I was thinking that twice in one week wasn’t nearly enough.

(This review is for a performance that took place Monday, October 13th, 2008. The Mariinsky will repeat this program on Tuesday, October 14th, then do a Balanchine program the 15th and the 16th.)

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