In the constant tide of action and reaction that nudges the arts forward, spectacular inevitably leads to spare.
After Wagner and Strauss came Stravinsky and Schoenberg. And after the excesses and bulk of 19th-century ballet came a desire to sweep and scrape the art form clean. We know that the pageantry and fanciful narratives of the classics sparked the streamlining efforts of such 20th-century retoolers as Vaslav Nijinsky, Michel Fokine and George Balanchine. But audiences got a crash course in the whys and hows of modernization -- and even a sense of what its hairpin turns felt like at the time -- at the Kennedy Center last February, when the Kirov Ballet's engagement became an early but enduring high point of the year.
Not only did the performances inaugurate the St. Petersburg company's unprecedented decade-long commitment at the center, which is in itself a remarkable development. But in its performances of the restored, close-to-the-original version of Marius Petipa's "Sleeping Beauty" and Balanchine's plotless masterpiece "Jewels," it was possible to see side-by-side examples of the start and finish of ballet's greatest creative arc. What Petipa began in Russia in the 1800s, perfecting classical ballet's ability to communicate human emotion as well as the loftiest societal values, Balanchine completed. His choreography spoke to his time as Petipa's did to his -- and what the transplanted Russian saw in mid-20th-century Manhattan was speed, muscle, hard, cold beauty, wit and, most inspiring of all, independence. These are all qualities he poured into "Jewels."
The reconstructed "Beauty" was not wholly successful -- it was nearly four hours long, and with crowded sets and an enormous, less-than-electrifying cast, it felt bloated, jumbled and slow. Still, it offered a historically valuable look at classical ballet's origins, and a trenchant perspective on what came next. "Jewels," with its sharp distinctions in mood and style, presents technical challenges few companies can match, let alone a troupe that previously had been cut off from the energetic new directions of a despised defector. Yet despite some forgivable weak spots, the Kirov dancers not only performed this ballet well -- and in some cases divinely -- but also tore into the steps with a hunger that was thrilling to watch. Their passion for this no-pantomime, all-dance ballet, for its sheer abandon, sexiness and brightness, made it feel fresh. The Kirov's "Jewels" came alive in a way that other contemporary performances could never match. It was made new all over again.
-- Sarah Kaufman