American Ballet Theatre at Kennedy Center

Nina Ananiashvili danced her last Washington
Nina Ananiashvili danced her last Washington "Swan Lake" with American Ballet Theatre. (By Nancy Ellison)
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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2009

The bouquet of blood-red roses was fat and lovely, but Nina Ananiashvili wasted no time admiring it when an usher presented it to her onstage at the Kennedy Center Opera House Saturday night. Having just beautifully danced her last "Swan Lake" with American Ballet Theatre in Washington -- Ananiashvili, 45, will retire in June, during the company's New York season -- she got to work carrying out the ballerina's equivalent of an Oscar thank-you speech.

As applause, wolf-whistles and shouts crested around her, she pulled out a rose from the bouquet for her partner, Jose Manuel Carreño; she also gave roses to Isaac Stappas and Jared Matthews, who shared the role of evil sorcerer von Rot hbart (two men dance it in ABT Director Kevin McKenzie's version). Next, she dashed toward the wings to offer a couple of blooms to conductor Ormsby Wilkins, while sinking dramatically to one knee. As she stood back and beamed at the whole cast onstage, we had a brief moment of alarm: Was she going to dole out flowers to them all? No, there was just one more rose to go: Ananiashvili extracted it, held it aloft for effect and -- pausing, as she had done moments before as the doomed Odette, before plunging to her death in the lake -- tossed it to the musicians in the pit, with another melting curtsy.

Ananiashvili is justly celebrated for her warmth as a dancer, and for her unwavering technique, even years past the age when many ballerinas retire. But she is also a troublemaker, and that's what I like best about her. Years before it became the norm, she stood up to the Bolshoi Ballet, her original home, demanding to be free to freelance with troupes around the world. With that freedom, she attained a level of international stardom that had previously been the province of male dancers -- think Nureyev and Baryshnikov. Noted for her unassisted balances, she can also ask for punishing tempos from her conductors -- in "Swan Lake's" third act, she whipped through those 32 fouettes so fast she looked like she could saw through a redwood. Did she give the cast a pep talk before Saturday's markedly energized show? She likely didn't need to -- she also possesses the confidence-instilling leadership of a great quarterback, the ability to pump up the efforts of those around her.

This was essential to her "Swan Lake's" success. McKenzie's production is handsomely designed and costumed, but it lacks dramatic focus. The first act, which contains an abundance of solo dances, doesn't give us a clear picture of Prince Siegfried's character -- the choreography for him is buoyant and virtuosic one moment, small-scale and pensive the next -- and we don't feel much for him until the second act when he encounters the bewitched Princess Odette transforming from swan to maiden. But electricity ran through the whole ballet Saturday, and -- having seen numerous well-danced but theatrically sluggish performances of this production before -- I attribute it to Ananiashvili's enormous star power. Her brief appearance in the prologue triggered enthusiastic applause, and from that point on the evening never lost momentum.

Her Odette is no fey tragedienne. She had a wonderful take-charge moment that is hers alone, in that agitated instant when Odette winds herself into Siegfried's arms, quivering away, then turning hesitantly backward, trying to avoid the embrace that could prove fatal to her, as foretold in the sorcerer's curse. Ananiashvili fluttered and trembled, but when Carreño finally drew her to him she rose up to her full height -- was it 10 feet? -- and looked him square in the face. This woman, a feathery creature no more, was fully onboard, come what may.

At Friday night's opening of "Swan Lake," Veronika Part's Odette was also grounded in the human dimension of the character. It was good to see Part, partnered by an ardent Marcelo Gomes, in full command of a starring role. Since she was hired away from the Mariinsky Ballet she had seemed to come to a dead end at ABT. Last March the British Web site reported she would leave at the end of the season, but ABT officials say she has no plans to leave. The company ought to make the most of her stay. Her Odette was marked by unusual clarity: You saw the bird become a woman, with small, telling starts and silences. It wasn't a flamboyantly dramatic portrayal, but a quieter, melancholy one, and deeply affecting. When you were watching her Odette, as well as her third-act doppelganger, the seductress Odile, your eyes were drawn not so much to the line of her legs, elegant as it was, but to the creamy softness of her arms and upper body. There, she was all velvet, no strain, no bones, and that physical ease gave her whole performance a feeling of naturalness.

"Swan Lake" is a work steeped in mystery: Consider that it was Tchaikovsky's first ballet -- this raging, grieving score that evokes so completely the elements of water and air that ensnare and finally liberate Odette and the Prince. And in Russia, it was a flop before it became a success, arguably the success in ballet. This production leaves us with its own questions. With forward-thinking Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky -- the Bolshoi's former director -- as its new artist-in-residence, might ABT commission a sophisticated new "Swan Lake" from him? A world-class production with the wholene ss, musical insights and conceptual intelligence of other works we've seen by him? Will Part now be elevated to principal status when Ananiashvili retires? Will Isabella Boylston, so soft, strong and enchanting in Saturday's Pas de Trois, move up from the corps, while maintaining her easy charm? This season more than ever, ABT gives us plenty of reasons to stay tuned.

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