Correction to This Article
The article misidentified Marat Daukayev, a dancer who was quoted discussing "The Sleeping Beauty," the Russian classic that the Mariinsky Ballet will stage. Daukayev is the artistic director, not the deputy artistic director, of the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Northeast Washington.

Bolshoi Ballet, Mariinsky Ballet visit Kennedy Center

"The Sleeping Beauty," to be staged by the Mariinsky Ballet, pays homage to royalty.
"The Sleeping Beauty," to be staged by the Mariinsky Ballet, pays homage to royalty. (Natasha Razina)
By Lisa Traiger
Friday, February 5, 2010

While lobby conversation at the Kennedy Center may focus on pointe work and pirouettes when a pair of Russian ballet companies come to Washington this month, their works say as much about politics as they do about artistry.

The Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov) opens its Kennedy Center run Tuesday with the classic Russian ballet "The Sleeping Beauty," and the Bolshoi Ballet, which arrives later in the month, will stage the Soviet-era work "Spartacus."

Marat Daukayev, a former Kirov dancer and deputy artistic director of the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Northeast Washington, ranks "The Sleeping Beauty" as "the classic of the classics," above even "Swan Lake." The ballet was created by Marius Petipa in 1890 to a score by Tchaikovsky.

The Mariinsky Ballet is staging a 1952 version by Konstantin Sergeyev. "The overall performance," Daukayev says, "is softer than the original Petipa," with more dancing and less mime and static tableaux. But beyond the artistic elements, the ballet can be seen as a three-act political advertisement.

"When you look at the politics of its creation," says District-based dance critic Alexandra Tomalonis, "it was deliberately so to show that Czar Alexander [III] was the equivalent of Louis XIV," who ruled the French empire in the 17th century and is known as the father of classical ballet.

"Spartacus," too, wears its politics on its sleeve. Choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich in 1968, the story of a young slave who leads a revolt against Emperor Crassus and his Roman army becomes a stand-in for the 1917 Russian Revolution. "The Soviets probably just assumed that the people would think their Russian government was the good guy, rising up against the corrupt, aristocratic rule of the monarchy," says Tomalonis, who leads the Ballets 360 lecture program at the Kennedy Center. " 'Spartacus' is the populist story of all populist stories."

Grigorovich broke ground with his ballets for the Bolshoi. He did away with mime passages and imbued the steps with meaning. "This was a new way of storytelling in ballet, a new form for a new time," Tomalonis says. "He uses grand gestures, and it is all about the men. You can see that he gets his plastique from Soviet sculpture of the period, and the poses are incredible. It is a conscious work of art."

In Russia, ballet has always captured the nation's imagination. "Ballet was truth. Ballet was meant to inspire and to move you, to reach you," Tomalonis notes. And, yet, she adds, "in the end it's all about politics."

Traiger is a freelance writer.

Bolshoi Ballet Feb. 16-21. Also at the Kennedy Center.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company