Astonishingly impressive as the Kirov Ballet proved to be in its opening appearances at Wolf Trap, there were two major elements missing from its renditions of "Swan Lake" Tuesday and Wednesday.
One was a dancer of star quality, as we've come to define it in the western world -- an artistic talent on a plane with expectations engendered in American audiences by the likes of Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov, all of whom defected from the Kirov within the two decades since the company's earlier visits to this country.
The other was an individual performance in which technical mastery and stylistic refinement were mated to an equal degree of emotional commitment and spontaneity.
On Wednesday evening, however, in the new context of a mixed repertory program, this double void was remedied in a single person: 25-year-old ballerina Altinay Asylmuratova, making her first Washington appearance as Nikiya in "The Shades," the third act of the Soviet version of "La Bayadere."
The public knew instantly what it was dealing with and responded accordingly, with tremendous ovations at the conclusion of her first adagio, and maybe 10 minutes of curtain calls, with her fellow principals, at the ballet's end.
Asylmuratova is indeed the pearl of the present-day Kirov and this has long been known to western devotees, but for reasons clear only to the company's directorate, her performances have been almost begrudgingly rationed on the current tour. In Vancouver and Los Angeles, she danced in "Swan Lake," setting off predictable accolades from press and public -- what one wouldn't have given to have seen her Odette here. A few may have gotten prior glimpses from the documentary film "Backstage at the Kirov," and others may have had anticipation whetted by the glowing reports of her from the company's 1982 visit to Paris.
We can only be grateful, however, for what we did see -- a dark-eyed, dark-haired dancer of breathtaking beauty, with a face out of Botticelli, long shapely limbs, and proportions that are the stuff of sculptors' dreams; and an artist whose silky, generous phrasing, unaffected musicality, technical finesse and exquisite line would set her apart anywhere. But against the background of the rest of the company, perhaps more than anything it was her conviction, expressed in an unfettered intensity of attack, that made her stand out so conspicuously.
The mixed repertory program also displayed, by its very nature, a broader representation of the company's dancers and an ampler share of virtuoso fireworks than was possible with "Swan Lake." Other dancers who particularly caught the eye included the exceptionally musical Sergey Vikharev as the lone, ruminating male in "Chopiniana"; the spirited Irina Sitnikova and Zhanna Ayupova in the allegro variations of "Shades"; and in "Paquita" (the following names are educated conjectures, since the attributions in the printed program for this ballet were mostly incorrect) the sparkling Irina Tchistyakova, Ayupova and Aleksander Lunev in the pas de trois, and the elegant Olga Tcheytchikova (elsewhere spelled "Chenchikova") and Tatyana Terekhova in the solo variations.
The program itself was interesting because of how it symbolized stages in the development of the great Russian ballet tradition.
"Paquita" demonstrates the ways in which choreographer Marius Petipa transported the heritage of his native France to his adopted motherland. The original, full-length "Paquita" was created by Joseph Mazilier, a Frenchman of Italian parentage, in 1846. Petipa staged his own version in St. Petersburg a year later, when he arrived in Russia, and afterward added the divertissements that are all that now survive of the work. Westerners know some of the music and choreography because it shows up in other versions of "Paquita" itself, as well as in most productions of Petipa's "Don Quixote."
"Shades," choreographed in 1877, shows the geometric distillation of Petipa's classicism at its height, nowhere more than in the hypnotically spiraling entrance of the 32 female corps de ballet dancers at the start of the excerpt. It was this ethereal passage that so utterly captured western imagination on the company's former tours, and it has earned the status of a Kirov signature.
"Chopiniana" is the work of Michel Fokine, the great reformist choreographer of early 20th-century Russia, who came west with Sergei Diaghilev, returned briefly to Russia, then left again for a nomadic career and died in New York in 1942. The work, rechristened "Les Sylphides" by Diaghilev, illustrates the historic step from romantic storytelling to stylized abstraction -- in its earliest form, in 1907, the piece was heavily narrative. It's not accidental that Fokine's innovation coincided with the tidal shift of experimental daring in ballet from Russia to Europe and America.
The Kirov version of "Chopiniana," like the other classics on the program, has various differences from western productions (Fokine himself, who staged the ballet in many nations, including this one, claimed he never changed a thing, but no two examples one sees are ever exactly alike). The most obvious is the Kirov's musical beginning, with Chopin's "Military" Polonaise serving as the overture instead of the A Major Prelude. The backdrop is entirely pastoral, with no suggestion of Gothic ruins, and correspondingly, the Kirov interpretation of the choreography, though wondrous in its feathery legato, seems distinctly less nocturnal, dreamy and melancholy than familiar western stagings.
It has been enormously exhilarating to see the Kirov in the flesh again, and to marvel once more at the melting fluency of the movement, the amazing linear harmony of the corps de ballet, and the overall high technical and stylistic standards.
And yet, and yet -- the enchantment the Kirov holds for the West may be partly a product of its infrequency of appearance. One can surmise that a steady diet of Kirov dancers and repertory -- for all their strength, purity and loftiness -- might come to seem somewhat suffocating. There's an aloofness, a cloistered quality about much of the Kirov's work, as if these performances were carefully immersed in artificial preservatives. Seeing the Kirov again, one can easily discern what nourished the company's celebrated defectors to their plateaus of excellence; it's also not hard to understand what impelled them to stray and tarry elsewhere.
For the company's final Washington performance last night -- a repeat of Wednesday's program and casting -- the Kirov's artistic director Oleg Vinogradov had hinted at a "surprise" in the form of additional, more recent repertory. It will be fascinating to learn how these superb Soviet artists construe the term "contemporary."