Clop, clop, thud. Clop, clop, thud. Cloppety-clop THUD. No, it's not the Lipizzaner stallions, or the Budweiser Clydesdales, but the corps of the Kirov Ballet, dancing Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center.
In one of the oddest spectacles of the center's International Ballet Festival, the company stuffed the second act of the 19th-century classical ballet "La Bayadere" onto the Eisenhower Theater stage, whose compact dimensions and closeness to the seating sharply amplified the dancers' footfalls. Any illusion that these ladies in white were ghosts rising from the underworld was pounded out of one's head.
A far more troubling effect of performing this ballet in that space, however, was the muddling of Marius Petipa's masterly choreography and concept.
Unfortunately, this was not the first time a work has been compromised. Since its opening last week, the ballet festival, featuring six companies from four nations, has felt more like a ballet competition, emphasizing strength and technique.
The exceptions have been the one-acts performed in full: American Ballet Theatre in last week's rousing and well-considered "Fancy Free" and, this week, Miami City Ballet in a handsome "The Four Temperaments" and Adam Cooper and Company in "Sea of Troubles," a beautifully danced if imperfect work. In the parade of excerpts that has constituted the bulk of the festival, excerpts performed without sets, out of context and lacking atmosphere, what has been missing is the very thing this festival was designed to highlight: artistic impact and style.
Don't blame the dancers, who have done their best with the bare, reduced stage space. According to Kennedy Center officials, it is the troupes' artistic directors who have made all the choices about programming, sets and lighting.
This raises a question: Why did the Kennedy Center allow the companies free rein? Why, for instance, when the Kirov decided upon the "Bayadere" excerpt, with a reduced number of dancers and no ramp for them to descend (a crucial design element), did no one object?
The festival has, in many ways, been successful -- the sold-out houses, the fodder for discussions of style, form and substance, the views of dancers and works we do not often see here. One hopes it will inspire more such collaborative events. But in some ways the festival has been indifferently executed. Nowhere was that clearer than with the Kirov Ballet, which closed the evening.
Petipa created the three-act "La Bayadere," with music by Ludwig Minkus, for the St. Petersburg company in 1877. In the central "Kingdom of the Shades" act, a seemingly unending stream of ballerinas files down a ramp and winds across the stage in a slow procession, spirits conjured by the opium-smoking hero, Solor, who hallucinates that he rejoins his murdered lover, Nikia. In the original conception, the dancers form a mesmerizing vision, descending, descending, descending into clear, precise formations of inhuman orderliness.
This was not what we saw Wednesday night. Call it a concert version. The corps emerged from a split curtain at the back of the stage, in overly bright light. Crisscrossing the flat stage, the dancers seemed too close, too heavy-footed, too corporeal. The first dancer was shaky in her balances; perhaps she was as much thrown by the staging as I was. By the time the three soloists joined them, the stage looked like a tutu convention.
The dancers went a long way toward overcoming the directorial mistakes. Once it got through the opening, the corps jelled into a more pleasing picture. Irina Golub, Irina Zhelonkina and Ksenia Ostreikovskaya cleanly danced the three difficult solo variations.
As Nikia, Daria Pavlenko was both evanescent and unbendingly authoritative -- a superb technician and a soulful, dark-eyed spirit. As Solor, Leonid Sarafanov was lean and light as a cat. He threatened to fly out of the Eisenhower's confines with a jump that seemed to leave him lingering in midair.
Kenneth MacMillan's "Sea of Troubles" is a minor work that the choreographer created near the end of his career, and in an unusual style that had less to do with ballet than with a kind of highly emotive theatrical blocking. An expressionistic take on "Hamlet," it bore traces of MacMillan's more popular works -- the overt sexuality, violence and sequences of aggressive extensions and sweeping jumps. One of the most interesting aspects of the work was the music, selections by Anton Webern and Bohuslav Martinu.
Overall, the work felt long and confused. But its cast of six -- former Royal Ballet principal Cooper and three members of the English National Ballet, with two freelance dancers -- invested its contortions and pregnant pauses with conviction. Cooper, especially, has a majestic presence, and a stare that could melt ice.
The evening's triumph was its opener. Miami City Ballet has performed George Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments" here before, always expertly, and it delivered the goods again: the crispness, the dangerous-looking broken angles and slippery elegance, the musical fluency. Usually it is the women who stand out in this company, but Wednesday it was a pair of men: Jeremy Cox as an exceptionally musical Melancholic, and Yann Trividic as a towering, risk-taking, exciting Phlegmatic.
This program continues through Sunday, with cast changes.