By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010; C05
The snow shut down the government, above-ground Metro stations and pockets of the power grid, but it wasn't enough to stop more than a thousand ticket holders from seeing the Mariinsky Ballet at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Tuesday night. Neither snow nor slush nor a two-wheel drive with failing wipers (guilty!) kept the faithful from "The Sleeping Beauty." And they were amply rewarded: There are indeed stronger forces of nature than a winter whiteout, and one of them is ballerina Diana Vishneva.
Vishneva popped in solely for the opening of Mariinsky's engagement, which continues through Sunday. (Wednesday's performance was canceled, but at press time, the rest remained on the schedule.) That lone chance to catch one of the supreme dance artists of our day is probably what accounted for the weather-be-damned resolve of her audience.
Vishneva's Princess Aurora isn't just a beauty, she's a kind of serenity. She is a work of art, and that felt essential amid the frozen onslaught. Just as we rely on the high arts to ground us in times of uncertainty, to see Vishneva dance -- to feel swept up in her story and drawn personally into its emotional arc every time she looked out at the audience -- was to feel a bit bigger inside when it was over.
But ask me to break down what exactly Vishneva does to bring that about, dancing the same steps thousands of ballerinas have danced before her, and I'm at a loss. Better to ask by what measure of glue, wood and design a Stradivarius gets its tone, or how that famous blue of Chartres' stained-glass windows can spill out such transcendent light. I can point only to Vishneva's obvious talents: her platinum technique, the balances that lift and lift, the turns that spin effortlessly out of thin air. But with Vishneva, technique isn't everything and doesn't stand out as much as it does in dancers who deliberately draw your attention to it.
Vishneva's complete and nuanced understanding of Aurora -- bashful yet sunny in her first-act youth, warm and radiantly assured as Act 3 rolls around -- is central to her magic in this ballet. There are also her physical gifts: a round and open face lighted with joy, a reed-slim physique and the freedom and expressiveness at the center of her body.
Most important, there is also the lyrical fullness of her phrasing, in which steps, musical sensitivity and the buoyant character of Aurora form a single melodic line. By some alchemy, Vishneva pulls together all these elements in a performance of moral, kinetic and musical force.
Musical unity is essential here. Even lacking Vishneva's star power, the rest of the Mariinsky run should offer plenty of rewards, with fine dancers to burn and, especially, that luminous Tchaikovsky score. Constant Lambert, the British composer and conductor, once wrote that Tchaikovsky's tunes in this ballet are ideally written for the body, a fact that is soundly apparent in this production. Surely no composer has better understood the particularities of dance phrasing, the timing and rhythms best suited to the body's elegant sweep through space.
That watertight seal between movement and music is brilliantly realized in the Prologue's potpourri of dances for the fairies bearing gifts to the newborn Aurora, and in the mime sequence for evil Carabosse as she curses the infant (have flutes ever sounded so menacing?); in the singing violin that begins Aurora's solo in Act 1; and in the swelling cello that marks the moment when Prince Desiré first lays eyes on Aurora in Act 2. It's the very sound of awe.
The Opera House Orchestra wasn't always at its best Tuesday, but the baton of Alexei Repnikov coaxed an extraordinary richness of feeling.
The music poses a challenge: Russians like a slow tempo, but at times it was so slow it threatened to send the audience into a century of sleep. There was also soporific help from the intermissions (three) and the mounting hours (three). It's a long night. It would be better with one fewer intermission and a swifter tempo in spots.
This handsomely costumed and designed production, Konstantin Sergeyev's 1952 revision of Marius Petipa's original, is all about old-fashioned stability. The ensemble choreography fares least well in Sergeyev's hands -- it's streamlined to the point of dullness, and when they are not dancing, the assorted attendants and wedding guests stand frozen in the background. A more human liveliness is sacrificed for purity in other aspects -- in the solos and pas de deux that you look for most in this ballet.
Tuesday's cast was near-perfection throughout. As Prince Desiré, Vladimir Shklyarov possessed noble proportions and poetic looks, as well as the endearing sense that he couldn't quite believe how lucky he was to land such a bride as Vishneva. Ekaterina Kondaurova's tall, slender Lilac Fairy was quite literally a pillar of virtue. And I have never seen a Carabosse as fully realized as Anton Pimonov, whose evil was terrible and piercing, and whose low, crouching, lizard-like skittering made plain the moral contrast with Kondaurova's upright goodness.
That physical intelligence is what was so magnificent about the Mariinsky's performance: Inner life equates to outer bearing. The grace and harmony that "Sleeping Beauty" celebrates is told entirely in the body.