In some ways, the full-length story ballet has become the bane of the art form. There are so few in circulation, and we seem to see the same ones over and over. They sell the most tickets, ergo every season brings its rash of "Swan Lakes" and "Sleeping Beauties." In so many of them, a costume spectacle meets a circus, with storytelling sacrificed to a variety show of exploded technique and some new "concept."
But those evening-long dance dramas have endured for a reason. At their very best, they draw us into a complex emotional landscape and build to a dramatic pitch in a way no shorter work can. What I find most exciting about the coming months of dance is the prospect of taking that journey with three premier foreign companies performing straightforward, unsullied productions of their signature large-scale works. (All performances are at the Kennedy Center Opera House.)
First up is "Giselle," one of the most popular ballets in the canon. But the Mariinsky Ballet's performance of it, Feb. 8-13, may well reveal new depths to the tale of a peasant girl who dies of grief but doesn't bear a grudge; her ghost saves the life of her unfaithful (but remorseful) beau. This ballet stands to be excellently handled by the St. Petersburg-based company; after all, while the ballet premiered in France in 1841, it was retooled by the famed Marius Petipa for the Mariinsky in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This is the version the company dances now.
The refined, pure and relatively cool style of the company is well-suited to "Giselle's" ethereal atmosphere, and much of its effect rests on the unity of the corps, which is a Mariinsky hallmark. On top of that, there are the ballerinas - each one not only capable, but interesting. There's Diana Vishneva, a theatrical creature with incomparable powers of expression; Alina Somova, a hyper-flexible young firebrand; the grand and emphatic Viktoria Tereshkina; and the intensely focused Uliana Lopatkina.
In late May and early June, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba returns for the first time since 2001 with "Don Quixote," in addition to a program of excerpts it calls "The Magic of Dance." I'll be interested to see if "Don Quixote," to be performed June 2-5, retains the magic it had when I saw it in Havana in 2000 and it nearly blew the roof off the theater. What I like best about the Cuban dancers is that they know why they're dancing; they don't forget about the story, even when, as in this one, it's as thin as young lovers sidestepping a father's disapproval and earning his favor in the end. Cue the fiesta.
June also brings us the Royal Danish Ballet and two productions by Auguste Bournonville, restaged by the artistic director, former New York City Ballet principal Nikolaj Hubbe. Hubbe has re-imagined "Napoli," June 10-12, with its seaside love story and underwater demons, in mob-run Naples of the 1950s and has added in some of his own choreography. It's a radical take on a classic, but where you might expect shrieks of horror there has been fairly warm acceptance in Europe. Not all new concepts are travesties - if they follow the core intentions of the original.
Hubbe endeavored to restore the original clarity and charm to "A Folk Tale," June 7-9, a story of elfin changelings and human frailties. It will be good to see the Danish style, which is light and open and somewhat small-scale. It's a welcome counterpoint to the big, stretchy ballets such as "Don Quixote." And it's especially fortunate to have them both in one season.