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Vikharev's Sleeping Beauty 'reconstruction' at the Mariinsky
08 JUNE 17
This is a passionate and beautiful eulogy to the shocking death of the ballet reconstructor Sergei Vikharev, written by Kommersant's ballet critic Tatiana Kuznetsova. Vikharev, 55, died at the dentist's in St Petersburg last Friday, newspapers report, while under general anaesthetic. There is said to be an official police inquiry into the private clinic going on.
As I wrote in this obituary on The Arts Desk, which includes a long interview I had with him about ballet reconstruction at the Mariinsky, Vikharev was known to British audiences for the spectacular 'period' reconstructions he made for the then Kirov Ballet of The Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadère - stagings that caused astonishment when shown at Covent Garden in 2000 and 2001, and that later the Kirov abandoned.
Here is my translation of Kuznetsova's obituary, which clarifies the divisions caused in the conservative establishment by his work.
There is no one to wake Beauty now
In the history of Russian ballet, Sergei Vikharev will be recorded as the man who gave us The Sleeping Beauty - the unique, real, enchanting production of Petipa of the 19th century — the one that made the boy Benois fall sick with ballet, writing later in his memoirs: "I am not overstating it when I say that Sleeping Beauty became my mad passion... If I had not infected my friends with my enthusiasm, then there would have been no Ballet Russes, and all the balletomania generated by their success.”
And indeed, Sergei Diaghilev, the chief of Alexander Benois’s friends, would conquer the whole world, as well as Russia and her successor, the USSR, with the profusion of Russian ballet. Whereas in its native land, The Sleeping Beauty offered in itself a view on ballet theatre — in it, as in Soviet life, there was no place for excess, and moderation and precision in academic classicism became the axiom for many a decade.
Before the 21st century, Vikharev had already completed two of his historic achievements. He was the first in Russia to read the choreographic text of the ballet, deciphering the recorded notations in Harvard University of Petipa’s associate, the balletmaster of the Imperial Ballet Nikolai Sergeyev. And he broke through the barrier of conservatism in his own Mariinsky Theatre, managing to restore the ballet in an historic form to a stage where the standard was the meagre guise of the 1950s staging.
The Vikharev Beauty offered a staggering cascade of attractions. In its gushing stream the familiar classical ensembles and the unprecedentedly elaborate costumes of Ivan Vsevolozhsky were equally ravishing; with burning fireplaces, real fountains and the bravura entrechats of the Bluebird. The grandiose garland waltz, as 100 years earlier, had 72 dancers, and crowded parades of fairytale characters competed with the violin solo in the restored musical entr’acte. In the final analysis, the prima ballerina was only one of the details of the complex structure of an enchanting ballet.
And if Sergei Vikharev had created nothing other than this marvellous reconstruction, his name would still be written in the ballet annals. However, in fact his influence in the ballet world has been immeasurably broader and more fertile. When he joined the Mariinsky Ballet in 1980, he was twenty years ahead of his time, a singular stylistic virtuoso in a generation of desperate, stagnant heroics. But he was lucky: the Mariinsky (then the Kirov) Theatre began to change, and the confirmed classicist, immersing himself in the most sophisticated and intricate combinations, discovered his niche in the theatre’s huge repertoire, in the ballets of Bournonville and Balanchine, in the romantic Giselle, and the stylised Chopiniana, in the then still sterile Sleeping Beauty, and the worldbeating Carnaval of Fokine.
After he ended his performing career, Vikharev revealed another of his gifts: he turned into a remarkable coach, capable of transforming even a bear into a butterfly. At the Mariinsky there were dozens of teachers, and Vikharev’s fantastical Sleeping Beauty hurt the conservatives’ eyes, they took up cudgels against his reconstruction of La Bayadère, and the metropolitan aesthete went off to Novosibirsk.
The years of his leadership (1999-2005) were the Novosibirsk Ballet’s golden age: the company danced as they never had before, balletomanes from all Russia travelled to see Vikharev’s productions there. The Novosibirsk reconstruction of the old Coppélia was acknowledged as the new standard, winning a Golden Mask. The Bolshoi Theatre requested a copy of the production from Vikharev, and, receiving it from the hand of the balletmaster himself, was transformed - the Bolshoi company danced with elegance, grace, subtlety and accuracy.
And thus it was, everywhere that he went - in Astana, Tokyo, Milan. His majestic reconstruction of the period Raymonda was a world triumph for the La Scala Ballet. Vikharev, following Petipa closely, staged the ballet with imperial lavishness, deploying not only the whole company and ballet school on stage, but even firemen and recruits from the streets as extras. Under his direction, they all moved and danced with the fine manners of true courtiers.
In his homeland his unique talents were barely 30 percent exploited, but the forthcoming anniversary celebration of Petipa in 2018 promised to break this unfortunate situation. This autumn the Bolshoi Theatre had invited Vikharev to put on his Coppélia, and in a year's time he was to be one of three producers in a lavish anniversary gala at the Bolshoi.
Now Petipa’s celebrants will be Vikharev’s followers (and sometime opponents) — Yuri Burlaka and Alexei Ratmansky, both of whom also work with Sergeyev’s notations and stage ballets in period style. The truth is that the first of them is far too pedantic and lacking in imagination, and the second is too much wedded to the choreographic end.
So we will no longer have féerie. Ballet’s magician has vanished from this world with a single leap, absolute and final.
"If Sergei Vikharev had created nothing other than this marvellous Beauty staging, his name would still be written in the ballet annals"