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Mariinsky Ballet’s ‘Paquita’: Glittering dancing but a skimpy story

The Mariinsky Ballet’s production of “Paquita.” (Darian Volkova/State Academic Mariinsky Theatre)

Viktoria Tereshkina whipped through her double fouetté turns in the final minutes of the Mariinsky Ballet’s “Paquita” on Tuesday at the Kennedy Center, spinning with such speed you half-expected to see her shoes smoke. And the Opera House audience lost its collective mind.

Of course, there could be no other response. Tereshkina, the company’s prima, deserved all the cheers and applause, and more. In fact, she deserves a better ballet.

As a program note makes clear, this production of “Paquita” is not a revival of the 1846 original, which premiered in Paris. Nor does it have anything to do with the remake a year later by Marius Petipa for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg. This “Paquita” is a newly minted “homage to the golden age of classical ballet.”

If that phrase brings to mind a reverent display of familiar motifs, you have a good idea of what’s on offer here. Unveiled in 2017, the ballet is like a bound, glossy postcard collection that captures tourist sites in cliched beauty. “Paquita” unfolds as a string of virtuosic variations, each designed for optimum visual effect but offering few surprises and precious little in terms of compelling storytelling or expressive nuance.

Choreographed by Yuri Smekalov, a second soloist with the company, the ballet clocks in at a long three hours. The story borrows not from the original ballet but from the Cervantes novella “La Gitanilla,” a tale of a smart, strong gypsy woman with a hidden identity.

As the ballet opens, we see her as an infant being stolen from her noble family by gypsies who literally waltz in and carry her off, unimpeded. (Her wealthy parents have everything, it seems, except the brains to lock their doors.) We next see her as a captivating dancer who wins the heart of an aristocrat; when he is falsely accused of theft, they land in jail together. Bloodlines are everything, however — even in this 21st-century production — and soon enough Paquita’s upper-class origins are discovered, and all ends happily in an exuberant parade of perfect classical technique.

The chief allure is visual beauty, generously delivered. There is no end to the classical precision rolling forth from this Russian powerhouse company; the ballet is cast from strength throughout, with Tereshkina in the title role of the gypsy dancer. It’s too easy for her, really, and there is little call for her to flex her powerful dramatic skills. I kept thinking back to her blazing, rebellious fire in “La Bayadere” two years ago, and the contrast with well-behaved Paquita couldn’t be more stark.

The Mariinsky men look especially strong on this tour, particularly the elegant Timur Askerov as the caballero’s son who falls in love with Paquita and decides to join her gypsy band. But this is primarily a ballerina fete. (The Kennedy Center’s website touts the ballet’s showcase of “dazzling tutus.”) For years, the third-act wedding celebration was all that the West knew of this ballet, as it was and still is frequently excerpted as a stand-alone work. According to the company, it is only here that the production returns to Petipa, reconstructing his version. There’s a lovely dance for beautifully trained students of St. Petersburg’s Vaganova Academy. One ballerina after another performed a light, buoyant solo. It was all brightly executed, yet after two hours with a similar impact, the climactic effect was muted.

The decor is rich in detail, with painterly scenes of blossoming foliage in an idyllic Spanish countryside. The Spanish-inspired costumes are utterly gorgeous, with handsome accents in black velvet and lace.

“Paquita” tries very hard to impress, and on some levels it succeeds. But I couldn’t escape the feeling of watching art made for export — in other words, a tourist production. It may as well have originated in the marketing department as a calculated extension of the Mariinsky brand. It projects crisp technique and physical excitement, without the depth of character, dramatic stakes or moral complexity of the company’s best work.

The Mariinsky Ballet’s ‘Paquita’ Through Sunday at the Kennedy Center Opera House.