One Step Forsythe, Two Steps Back for The Kirov

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Kirov Ballet, which so desperately wants to be thought of as stepping boldly into the new century, instead seemed to be taking a backward leap Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

The venerated Russian company has been fast-tracking through the choreography of the past half-century, trying on all the modern ideas it missed out on during the Soviet regime. In past seasons, we've seen a subversive "Nutcracker," with its violent snowflakes and a sexy Clara. We've seen a stripped-down "Cinderella" dressed in warehouse chic. Works by George Balanchine, one of the most famed of the Kirov defectors, have been triumphantly reclaimed.

Now the company has discovered William Forsythe, the American choreographer who made his name with Germany's Ballett Frankfurt, where he boldly, heartlessly and at times brilliantly broke ballet apart and slammed its pieces back together in novel ways. The Kirov performed four of his dark, experimental works: "Steptext" (1985), "Approximate Sonata" (1996), "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude" (1996) and "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" (1987) .

If this were the late 1980s or early '90s, the evening might have seemed edgy and raw. That was when Forsythe felt thrillingly new. That was when his style -- the abrupt beginnings and choked-off endings, the ostentatious slouching, the whiz-bang technical feats -- felt fresh. That was also a period of unfavorable economics, when many companies were cutting back on costumes and decor, and forgoing live orchestras. It was that kind of spareness that made Wednesday's program feel as though it were taking place in a past we had already painfully experienced. With virtually no design elements and all taped music -- except for one solo piano -- it looked like recession-era art.

None of the four works on the program was a clinker. I would see any of them again, on a program leavened with other, lighter styles. But viewed all together, they became a recitation of Forsythisms. Most noticeable was the unemphatic layering of duets and solos, an accumulation of little moments. Lots of little moments, few markers as to what was important and what was secondary. Performing the works together clearly has meaning for the Kirov, which is plainly eager to update its image from that of 19th-century powerhouse to 21st-century player. And to their credit, the dancers, all glorious long lines and elasticity, dived into the works with zeal. One could admire their execution, but choreographically the program had fewer rewards.

It also produced a rarity for the company in its annual series of Opera House seasons: rows of empty seats. And the empty seats increased after the intermissions.

It's a pity, because "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," which was the strongest work, came at the end. A frequent fixture of mixed-repertory programs, it was given an unusually supple account by the Kirov, and it felt like a full ballet rather than a series of exercises. Irina Golub added a dash of glamour and catlike play to the central ballerina role, putting a luxuriant finish on a cold display of how far hip joints and hamstrings can stretch. Here, also, the sound was best. Thom Willem's aggressive clanging had the force of thunderclaps.

This work was preceded by the evening's worst musical moment, a poor-quality recording of the finale to Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C that accompanied "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude." It was Forsythe's wish that the recording be used rather than a live performance, a choice that furthers the skewering of ballet conventions happening onstage. Yes, it looks like the most "classical" of the Forsythe works -- the women wear tutus the color of pea soup, while the men are in blood red, and the steps are actual ballet steps. But there's mischief at work in the dazzling speed of the nonstop pirouettes, the endless repetition of movements, and the dancers' wild-looking glee at racing through the classical vocabulary they have so meticulously perfected in their training.

"Steptext" and "Approximate Sonata" resembled each other a bit too closely, with the dancers in practice clothes, a black-draped stage and abrasive snatches of music. "Steptext" featured Daria Pavlenko, the company's premier ballerina, wearing lipstick red and stabbing the stage with those perfectly arched swan queen feet even as she seemed a bit cautious about a running jump into her partner's arms. This work was a particular showcase for the flair and finesse of the male dancers: Igor Kolb, Andrey Merkuriev and Maxim Khrebtov.

This program repeats tonight. The Kirov performs "Giselle" beginning tomorrow.

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