Some years ago, I happened to be in a country village outside Moscow on the first day of ice melt on the Trubezh River. It was April, but winter was slow to leave. Free-flowing water was such a welcome sign that teachers were leading their students out of school early to witness it.
Adults and children were dressed alike, bundled up in head scarves and shapeless woolens. They blended in with the local housewives who were washing clothes in the current. This communal gathering, a rustic rite of spring, could have been a painting by Nicholas Roerich. Watching the Mariinsky Ballet on Tuesday night perform “The Rite of Spring” with decor and costumes — hats, bunchy woolen tunics — taken from Roerich’s designs, I was struck by how similar the primitive Russia onstage was to the provincial Russia of real life.
That authentic Russianness is the chief virtue of this “Rite of Spring” (or “Le Sacre du Printemps,” its original title), which is being performed at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday, part of an enchanting evening that includes works by Fokine and Petipa. This “Rite” is a reimagining of the original 1913 ballet by Vaslav Nijinsky, accompanied by the Stravinsky music, which famously scandalized Paris. The version the Mariinsky dances was pieced together in the late 1980s by historian Millicent Hodson from old photographs, dim memories and lots of her own guesswork, a full 70 years after the last performances of the rough, pounding original by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
The result is visually and musically spectacular, though the choreography is an up-and-down experience. At times, the clusters of ancient Slavic celebrants truly come alive, and their stomping and whirling suit the eruptive music. But there are also flat patches, when Stravinsky’s brass is groaning and the drums are thundering and the dancers have no response, or a monotonous response.
However, the stage pictures take you to a world saturated with color and vibrancy, like no other ballet: the lush, rolling watercolor hills, the bright folkloric costumes in white, blood red and blue, the women with long swinging braids. The music, as it builds from the first tender signs of life to a fury of procreative power, conveys the same energy. Picasso may have looked to African artifacts for inspiration in his groundbreaking painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” but Roerich and Stravinsky, who together planned the scenario for “The Rite of Spring,” didn’t have to go so far to find ancient influences for their modern art. They looked to their own country’s past and found a gold mine.
It’s well known that Diaghilev, the world’s most voracious impresario, swept Picasso, Debussy, Matisse and other avant-garde artists into his embrace in those few historic seasons before World War I, when the Ballets Russes simultaneously re-sculpted dance, music and art. But the Mariinsky program celebrates the Russianness of the Ballets Russes, how closely this expatriate troupe was tied to the land it left behind.
If “The Rite of Spring” represents the simple, natural Russian, closely in tune with the seasons, like the villagers I saw not long ago, then “Le Spectre de la Rose,” another Ballets Russes production, gives us the cultivated, polished and dreamy Russian. The stage lighting was too bright for a late-night reverie, and the lavender decor too grandmotherly, but Kristina Shapran and Vladimir Shklyarov were perfectly matched as the debutante drunk on romance and the vision of love who visits her in her dream. Shklyarov, beautifully supple as he was, didn’t venture quite far enough into the erotic; he was a gentlemanly dream lover. They were both blessedly light on their feet. Shapran’s were like feather quills barely touching the stage. The spirit of romance infused their curtain call, too, as the gallant Shklyarov laid his bouquet in his partner’s arms.
The drama — rich and Russian and a bit over the top — built from there. Ulyana Lopatkina rippled and wilted deliciously through “The Swan” (better known as “The Dying Swan” to us), as if she were born for it. Well, of course she was. Why else was she given such endlessly long, thin legs, such liquid arms? No matter who dances it, this solo is 80 percent melodrama. But in Lopatkina’s delicate and knowing grip, it was straight, heavenly schmaltz.
We had to wait far too long to see her again in the everlasting “Paquita Grand Pas,” a parade of lesser ballerinas with Lopatkina at the end, more magnificent than ever. She dazzled us with her languid precision, her trailing arms and the poignancy of that impossibly thin frame churning through fouette turns with a tinge of cold fury, like the Red Queen. The rest of the work was the kind of twinkly froth that Diaghilev put behind him. Easily half the variations that came before Lopatkina could have been cut, and no one would have noticed. But that is not the Russian way. At the mercy of an army of tutus and will, all one could do was surrender.
The Mariinsky Ballet performs through Feb. 1 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, with cast changes. 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.