Mariinsky Ballet: A Technical Marvel That Falls a Bit Flat

The St. Petersburg company's
The St. Petersburg company's "Don Quixote" -- with Alina Somova as Kitri in a dress rehearsal at the Kennedy Center Opera House -- is a technical marvel but doesn't fully engage the audience. (By Dominic Bracco Ii For The Washington Post)
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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009

We've always known it here as the Kirov Ballet, but that name, a Soviet-era holdover, was a sore point for this jewel of Russian culture. And so, with Tuesday's opening at the Kennedy Center Opera House, the St. Petersburg company has officially reintroduced itself to Washington audiences as the Mariinsky Ballet -- its pre-communist name, which it took up again in Russia some years ago.

To go with the legacy moniker, the Mariinsky performed a legacy ballet, "Don Quixote," which it has been dancing for nearly 150 years. No ballet boasts more athleticism, playfulness, virtuosity and sheer guts than this one, and the opening-night cast -- led by the inexhaustible charms of Diana Vishneva as Kitri -- delivered at nearly every level.

Why, then, did the evening feel long? "Don Quixote" is a difficult ballet to put over, not merely because of its technical demands. These were the least of the Mariinsky's challenges; the dancers' mastery of classical technique is conclusive, and a thrill to see. Vishneva, in the role of Barcelona's supreme flirt, was a daunting pace setter. You didn't see a start or finish to her jumps; they simply burst into air, an explosion of legs and chiffon. Time bent to her will throughout the ballet. She flew into leaps and turns at a heart-racing speed -- I have never heard Ludwig Minkus's score played as fast for Kitri's variations as the Opera House Orchestra played it for Vishneva. Yet, as a dancer with keen dramatic instincts as well as superb musicality, she also knew when to stop and capture a moment of utter stillness, her lace fan quiet and her eyes blazing.

Alexandra Iosifidi's street dancer possessed too much glamour and haughtiness for her station -- a fault only if you're looking for dramatic coherence, as I was -- but flashed through the air like a switchblade. Konstantin Zverev's cape-swirling toreador was wonderfully complete: reckless and commanding, with a spine so flexible it was lyrical.

Vishneva's partner, Evgeny Ivanchenko, was of a cooler sort, clean and regal and above it all. His appeal began and ended with his glorious line and firm technique. Did we buy him as Basil the barber, a penniless rascal whom Kitri's father rejects as son-in-law material? Not for a minute.

This is the catch in "Don Quixote." Is it an evening-length suite of gorgeous dances, interrupted here and there by mime and comic relief? Or does the ballet tell a story of young lovers defying parental censure, drawing us into its characters' lives, prompting us to feel what they feel?

The Mariinsky tries to have it both ways, and doesn't succeed fully in either. The ballet feels too long for the dance-suite approach; two intermissions and a lengthy pause break up the momentum. With the high value it places on technique, the company exploits the choreography as a showcase for its technical strengths, but there is little natural interaction among the performers when they are not dancing. Certainly, the production is clean, energetic, fitfully exciting -- but it doesn't pull us into its story.

Vishneva, for all her gifts, did not convince me she loves Basil. I felt no passion from the Gypsy dancers. Vladimir Ponomarev, usually a riveting character dancer, had an air of dusty elegance about him as Don Quixote, but he was not especially sympathetic. The problem here is not with the dancers but with the overall vision of this ballet, and that comes from the top. The Bolshoi Ballet, to name an obvious contrast, makes "Don Quixote" work: There is real heat in that production, authentic characters whose dancing tells us something essential about them. It's been two years since I saw her, but I'll never forget the Bolshoi's Gypsy dancer, who spilled her life's story onto the stage in her solo. I thought a lot about her, in fact, on Tuesday night.

Performances continue through Sunday afternoon, with cast changes.

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