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Mariinsky Ballet shines in Fokine program

It’s safe to say that Michel Fokine never dreamed of the spaghetti bodies dancing his works in the Mariinsky Ballet today. He could never have imagined the prevailing extremes of flexibility, the whoopee collisions of classical shape and modern contortion.

Nevertheless, in the early 1900s, when the visionary Russian was creating works for St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky and for the roving Ballets Russes, he railed against far lesser elements of acrobatics and showiness. This is what prompted him to create “Chopiniana,” a tribute to classical purity and the primacy of great music; “The Firebird,” in which only the mysterious, ephemeral title character had the privilege of dancing en pointe; and “Scheherazade,” a showcase for feeling and drama, rather than steps.

The Mariinsky performed these works Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House, in a program dubbed “Russian Seasons” to honor Serge Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes presented Russian dancers to the West with an explosive showing in Paris in 1910. The works are a welcome break from the typical Mariinsky sojourn, which is a week-long presentation of some familiar three-act ballet. Here, we saw more leading dancers and more range of individual expression.

The ballets are not all historically faithful recreations — a central pas de deux has been inserted in “Scheherazade,” danced Tuesday by Uliana Lopatkina and Daniil Korsuntsev, and chances are you’ll either love or hate the redesigned set and costumes for “The Firebird.” I am not a fan: Whisper-thin Ekaterina Kondaurova was nearly engulfed by the distracting flap of her oversize tutu skirt. The evil Kashchei looked as if he’d stepped off the set of a “Doctor Who” episode, festooned, apparently, with tin foil; his goon squad was coiffed in zombie bouffants and stuck all over with purple and green fur. It struck me as run-of-the-mill fantasy-kitsch.

Still, several of the performances were quite wonderful, particularly Xenia Ostreykovskaya in the tender Prelude role in “Chopiniana.” There was suppleness and breath in her dancing, and great delicacy. And, a sense of the body harmonizing with the Chopin, and with its candlelight mood.

You can see echoes of “Chopiniana” in the captive princesses of “The Firebird.” Like their earlier chiffon-skirted sisters, these adorables, also clad in white, gather in pairs to frame the central couple, posing with fingertips to chin like art nouveau cupids. Part of Fokine’s reform was to breathe life into the corps de ballet, engage them with the music (here, Stravinsky’s sparkling score, with its sentimental nod to Russian folk airs). This was the chief interest in “Firebird,” though there was also an unfortunate hesitancy in spots on opening night.

“Scheherazade” had the most winning decor, a riot of peacock blues and greens, hanging lanterns and lots of nooks and crannies for cuddling. The ensemble is not so innocent here; now it’s men paired off with women, and they’re a good deal more active in echoing the preoccupations of the leading couple. Lots of rolling on the floor, by all ranks of dancers. Lopatkina ripples in places you never thought a body could bend. There’s a whirling folk dance led by the men, but Fokine’s belief in ballet’s chief currency — poignancy — sends you off into the night, as Lopatkina’s undulations meet the wailing, weeping notes of Rimsky-Korsakov’s fever dream.

This program repeats through Sunday, with cast changes.

Sarah L. Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. She is the author of THE ART OF GRACE: On Moving Well Through Life. She has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996, and what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. Learn more at and Facebook SarahLKaufmanWriter


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