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'The Moscow Rhapsody had a dose of diligent fussiness about it that considerably obscured the ballet’s serene joyousness'
Ananiashvili & Polunin as Marguerite & Armand [photo Kommersant/ Yuri Martynov
Ananiashvili and Polunin 'miracle' in Ashton
6 NOV 15
Frederick Ashton's increasing popularity in Russia is shown in a new triple bill at the Stanislavsky Ballet, directed by Igor Zelensky, and starring Sergei Polunin in Rhapsody and Marguerite and Armand with Nina Ananiashvili. Tatiana Kuznetsova of Kommersant was swept away by the Marguerite and Armand, which she says has never before been so miraculously intimate in a Russian performance. It was like spying on the lovers through a keyhole, she says.
The Moscow critic finds Russian attempts to be Ashtonian unimpressive, making heavy weather of what should be exultant and deceptively light, and she worries about Polunin's mixing his 'English' dancing style with misplaced dramatisation.
Incidental information: the Stasik (to give the theatre its nickname) was for a long time headed by Vladimir Urin before he moved over to the Bolshoi, and its ballet company was directed by Sergei Filin before he became the Bolshoi Ballet's director in 2011 - a career move that led to the current unrest at the Bolshoi in which Urin refused to renew Filin's contract.
Doing violence to lightness
The artistic director of the Stanislavsky Theatre’s ballet company, Igor Zelensky, was at one time principal dancer simultaneously of three theatres, the Mariinsky, the Royal Ballet and the Balanchine company New York City Ballet. Since then his love for English-language classicism has only grown. He has regularly staged signature ballets of England and America on the Stasik stage, trying with mixed success to extract the right choreographic pronunciation out of Muscovite dancers.
Following on from the of the Scot [Kenneth] MacMillan, and the one-act lyricism and comic sketches of the American [Jerome] Robbins, we are now offered a group of the romantic poems of Frederick Ashton - the UK’s first and chief national choreographer.
One should add that the artistic director’s Anglomania is fuelled by the presence in his troupe of Sergei Polunin, with his immaculate English style: before he became the Stasik’s guest star, the young Polunin graduated from the Royal Ballet’s school and successfully danced with the company for several seasons, becoming the youngest male principal in Covent Garden’s history.
The choice of Rhapsody, set to Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini, was targeted on Polunin, with its hellishly tricky male lead role: Frederick Ashton, captivated by Mikhail Baryshnikov’s academic virtuosity and Soviet athleticism, made the ballet in 1980 specially for him.
“On a theme by Paganini” is dropped from the title with good reason - there is none of the agony of creativity or the battle against obscurantism in this optimistic work (unlike the ballet Paganini that the Soviet classicism Leonic Lavrovsky choreographed long before Ashton). The protagonist’s profession is indicated only by the lightest gesture (just a couple of times stroking an imaginary bow across an imaginary violin), and perhaps too in his romantic quest for his one muse - the ballerina, hidden among six coryphees.
But Polunin had not forgotten Paganini; he performed the pirouettes and entrechats, the explosive, whipping turns and slides with a psychological subtext that hinted at some circumstantial challenge, which actually cannot be found in this radiant choreography.
Oddly enough, it was the dancer’s dramatised approach that spoiled the part (minor technical flaws - such as his ragged fouetté with jump, or an unclean revoltade - are entirely forgivable in this boiling cauldron of highly complex fioritura). He broke up the role into disparate fragments - protesting, romantically loving, dramatic; and thus the entire ballet also broke up into episodes, in which what accompanied the dancing suddenly acquired a deliberate new weight.
Fussiness obscured serene joyousness
The first obvious thing was how the defects of the six male coryphees stood out - bad backs, crooked hands, clumsy landings. And the leading man was almost eclipsed by his bubbling muse (Xenia Ryzhkova), going over the top in her attempts to transmit the impetuous vivacity of the English choreography. As a result the Moscow Rhapsody had a dose of diligent fussiness about it that considerably obscured the ballet’s serene joyousness.
The same could be said about the second Russian premiere - La Valse choreographed to Ravel by Frederick Ashton in 1947 at the height of the young English ballet’s success. The war was over, the company moved into the Covent Garden theatre, acquiring a large stage and national reconigition, with a future that looked radiant.
La Valse is a well-populated, opulent victory ball: the men in frock coats, the women in full dresses and tiaras, chandeliers, liveried footmen, the riotous crescendo of the finale in which the swirling of the couples, the surrendering jumps and high lifts, all reach an ecstatic climax.
In Moscow the grand triumphalism was turned into a feverish pursuit of the music’s tempi, especially as young conductor Zangiev was getting carried away by Ravelian contrasts, making the brass roared like a military band, letting the strings spread into a lyrical intimacy. The frock-coated men coped elegantly with the music's heedless turns, but the women were noticeably panicking, spraying out obviously strained arms and frantically bobbing on the simplest balances.
So it turned out that the highlight of the “Ballets of Frederick Ashton” evening was not the premieres but the ballet in repertoire, Marguerite and Armand, on Lizst’s music, which the Stanislavsky has had in its repertoire for several seasons.
The miracle happened
This time artistic director Zelensky's choice of Marguerite was Nina Ananiashvili, former prima ballerina of the Bolshoi and many other international companies, and currently artistic director of the National Ballet of Georgia. She is 52 years old while her partner, Sergei Polunin, is 25. Yet the age difference was no problem: at the end of the day, this ballet was created by Ashton in 1964 for 25-year-old Nureyev and 44-year-old Fonteyn, taking into account the capabilities of an older ballerina.
The first thing has to be that notorious question: ‘chemistry’. If the players can’t be convincing in conveying fateful passion, the ballet is exposed as a set of stilted tableaux and some more or less striking lifts. So far, no one on any Russian stage has managed to transmit the magic of this archaic ballet.
At the Stasik the miracle happened. This Marguerite and Armand forced one to forget everything about the old-fashioned direction, the naivety of the choreography, and the technical performance. It was as if it was not of the slightest importance whether the ballerina’s back was so flexible, or her legs went so high, or she had a wasp waist or not, if the love story of a selfless, tender courtesan and an ungovernable young aristocrat mesmerised you as if you were watching them through a keyhole.