The saying that "there are dancers and then are Russian dancers" hasn't become out of date as far as audiences go. Last week in Baltimore, for the Leningrad Ballet's final performance at the Lyric Opera House and again Sunday night for the "Stars of the Donetsk Ballet" gala at the Carpenter Center in Richmond, clapping and cheering was heard the likes of which seldom greets U.S. companies.
One member of the audience, a businessman from Philadelphia, had seen and met the Leningraders there, and decided to travel all the way to Baltimore for one more look at them. He'd never attended a performance by his city's home troupe, the Pennsylvania Ballet. In Richmond, a woman who is an avid supporter of the Richmond Ballet (which hosted the Donetsk gala) commented that the local company has good dancers too, but they aren't as glamorous.
No doubt, Donetsk has good dancers! We learned that last year, when the entire company began to tour the country and became stranded after their sponsors abandoned them. Now, some of the soloists are back, and Richmond was the first stop on their way to the international dance competition later this month in Jackson, Miss.
Triumphing over travel fatigue, the Soviets put on a gala that was fun to watch because they are unstinting performers. Technical lapses don't faze them; they don't scale down when endings aren't neat but try again full blast the next time the step comes around. The term "star," though, probably applies to just two of the group -- flamboyant Vadim Pisarev and intense Inna Dorofeyeva. The interpretations of these two seem complete; with the others, there are parts that need development and polishing.
Pisarev opened the gala with his signature solo, the "Gopak." He must have danced it a thousand times but it is still fresh, a testament to exuberance. Its cannon-shot leaps and cyclone turns aren't isolated tricks but burst seamlessly from the pliancy of his body. In the evening's concluding "Don Quixote" excerpt, he inserted a Nijinsky pirouette (lowering himself into a knee bend while spinning) that was a bit wobbly, yet the incredible 2 1/2 twists he added to a couple of leaps ended flawlessly.
Dorofeyeva was to have danced the ballerina role in "Don Q," but apparently injured herself earlier on the bill in "Francesca da Rimini." She has, to a high degree, the Soviet school's supple body, and uses it so expressively that she reminds one of Galina Ulanova, paragon of the Soviet Union's dancers. Appropriately, the costume she wore as Francesca resembled that for Ulanova's legendary Juliet. Much of the time, Francesca's part consists of bourrees, the minuscule steps on point that are used to cross the stage. Dorofeyeva, skimming, gliding, tapping, stabbing, was able to vary this movement dynamically and achieved a range others could approach only given a richer choreographic vocabulary.
Among the other soloists, Igor Antonov (in the "La Fille Mal Gardee" duo) was notable for his fine bearing and the eloquent use of his long legs, though his balance needs to be firmer. His partner, Marina Antonova, holds high extensions easily and correctly while moving backward on the point of one foot. Viktor Plotnikov (in duos from "Flames of Paris" and "La Sylphide") is approaching Pisarev's level of virtuosity -- bounding high, moving with strength and clearly etching each beat of the legs. Yet at times, the effort still shows. He partnered the light, charming Larisa Ponomarenko, who danced an added role when she substituted for Dorofeyeva in "Don Q." Her pirouettes (in "Flames") were secure as sculpture but, like many Soviet dancers, she's not as much at home with whipped turns (fouette's), though they were respectable. Irina Ushakova, a sensual dancer, was cast in posing roles ("Spring Waters" and "Romeo and Juliet") but had a chance in "Don Q" to caress the air in a solo of leaps. Irina Boitsova, acceptable in an adagio part ("Spartacus"), was awkward in the Dryad Queen solo in "Don Q." Alexander Boitsov, the program's porteur, hoisted his ballerinas strongly.
One looks forward to something new on Soviet programs such as this one, composed of many old excerpts. The novelties, though, made one grateful for the familiar. "Francesca," by company director Vladimir Shumeikin to Tchaikovsky's orchestral fantasy, uses the formulas of Soviet ballets of half a century ago. There's a maximum of emotive plasticity, a minimum of step variety. Instead of achieving narrative continuity and seamless impulse, Shumeikin made the action dramatically trite and choreographically boring. The scene in which Francesca's abductor (Pisarev) gets his comeuppance by going mad seemed especially hollow, and long moments with no one on stage added to the feeling that inventiveness was lacking. Shumeikin has made at least one pleasant variation on a familiar piece (his version of Lavrovsky's "Walpurgisnacht," shown last year), but his "Spring Waters" and "Spartacus" adaptations for this program also added nothing to his reputation. Stretching credulity was Nikita Dolgushin's expressionist version of the Catacomb duet from "Romeo," in which the supposedly dead Juliet moves as if alive and Romeo dances after killing himself.
Worse than any work on the Donetsk program was the Leningrad troupe's major offering, "Scheherazade" by Pavel Smok. "Scheherezade," though, seemed almost a caricature of Soviet ballet. With no old favorites on the rest of this chamber ballet company's program, only experimental miniatures that were musically pedestrian and choreographically tame, and few dancers of Donetsk caliber, where did the audience see Russian glamour?