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Rave for the English ballet in Moscow

' Victoria Tereshkina has declared she has never before danced anything so technically difficult, above all the first act variation'

Ashton's Sylvia has found a true home in Russia

26 NOV 15  

Frederick Ashton’s ballets have been going down a storm in St Petersburg with the Mariinsky dancers, according to a long and detailed article on the French balletomane website Dansomanie primarily analysing last month’s performances of Sylvia.

Elena Kushtyseva describes the acquisition by St Petersburg’s two major companies, the Mariinsky and Mikhailovsky, of three Ashton ballets - Sylvia, La Fille mal gardée, Marguerite and Armand - as events that were initially more diplomatically intended, as part of 2014's Russia-Britain cultural exchange years, but which have taken on a major resonance in the city’s ballet culture. She finds this most particularly so in the case of the most classical of the three, the 1952 Sylvia which for decades was thought lost until 11 years ago the balletmaster Christopher Newton headed its reconstruction for the Royal Ballet. Newton was invited to stage the ballet for the Mariinsky, with - Kushtyseva observes - some small updates and changes for the Russians.

It was Léo Delibes’ magical Sylvia score that made Tchaikovsky exclaim that had he heard it at its 1876 premiere he would never have continued working on his own first ballet score Swan Lake. Kushtyseva's long article recounts the misfiring early choreographic version, sticking too earnestly to the story of the semi-divine Sylvia, Diana’s nymph, who is captured by a lecherous Orion, and must be saved by Eros, god of love, and restored to her beloved shepherd Aminta. Ashton pooh-poohed any mystical elements, summing up the plot as “a man loves a woman; the woman is captured by a bad man; she’s returned to her lover by the gods”. And by this lightness of touch, says Kushtyseva admiringly, Ashton has produced a classical masterpiece of deliciously subversive inventions.

If you read French you can find out much more about the ballet’s history in the first part of the article. I’ve translated the latter half which addresses the Mariinsky’s performances on 20 and 23 October, headed by Viktoria Tereshkina and Oxana Skorik.

Sylvia 'the most resonant event in the Mariinsky's recent artistic life'

Dansomanie, by Elena Kushtyseva

The Mariinsky Ballet’s reconstruction of Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia premiered on 3 April 2014. The entry of this ballet into the Mariinsky repertoire has become the most resonant event in this legendary company’s artistic life, not only in the 2013-14 season but also in the following one - lacking its own great premieres - and it remains so to this day. After a period of absence, this grand classical ballet has returned once more to the Mariinsky stage…

… According to legend, it was Léo Delibes, who half a century after his death, inspired Frederick Ashton to become the ballet’s saviour, he himself saying that it had come to him in a dream. And thus Sylvia found her own “Petipa”. The British Ashton succeeded where others before him had failed. He created a ballet that was fresh, light, sparkling, ironic, with ingenious choreography which has exactly the spirit of Delibes’s score.

Ashton composed the ballet in classical form while upending classical codes. This concerns its form as much as its language. The ballet is structured in three acts, as traditional, but in the third act one finds a pas de deux of reverse form, which begins with the female solo (the famous “Pizzicato Polka”), continues with the male solo, and ends in an adage. Half a homage to classical ballet, half parody of an anacreontic [amatory, lyrical] ballet, here’s a wink from the founding father of the English style to his predecessors, and to Marius Petipa in particular, which offers a field of play for lovers of postmodern puzzles. Raymonda and The Sleeping Beauty most come to mind, the first for its analogy with the love triangle: Raymonda - Jean de Brienne - Abderahman in one, Sylvia - Aminta - Orion in the other. But by contrast to de Brienne, Aminta is incapable of beating his rival himself and it is Eros who must act in place of the Lilac Fairy to save the heroine’s life and steer the ship that takes the young lover towards his promised one. Only here the roles are upturned, and it is Aminta’s life that must be saved, while his love must come to him by ship.

The file of characters from Greek and Roman mythology in the Bacchic procession of the third act take us straight back to the file of figures from Charles Perrault’s fairytales in the final act of The Sleeping Beauty: the arrival of Persephone and Pluton is a direct quotation from the episode of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, while the two goats instantly put one in mind of Puss in Boots and the White Cat.

Humour, the great British resource, is the key

The choreographer had no need to make radical changes to the libretto to lighten it. Humour, the great British resource, is the key that Ashton found to reconcile the story to the score. He has taken the libretto at one remove and treated it to a healthy dose of irony. You only need see the Goats duet, sacred animals in pastorals, who having first appeared in Act 1 as accessories in the arms of a corps de ballet peasant, grow by the third act to human size in order to come and celebrate the marriage of the principal characters, rather as VIP guests! Of all the beau monde who jostle on the stage during the third act - among the credited characters one finds not only Ceres and Jason, and Persephone and Pluto, but even Terpsichore with Apollo - only the Goats have the right to a true variation.

The characters' presentation turns on mockery: Eros is nothing other than his own statue, who from time to time comes alive and gets off his pedestal to do some good; Diana behaves like a shrewish woman who doesn’t like being disturbed by the neighbours; as for Orion, who physically has a droll resemblance to Farlaf as designed by Konstantin Korovin for Ruslan and Ludmila, he is more stubborn than bad.

As regards the choreographic language, which is based on classical lexicon but in quite frequently unexpected combinations, shorn of the usual preparations and links, embellished with Balanchinian caprices, it is hard to believe that the choreographer really mounted this ballet for the queen Margot [Fonteyn] entirely out of bonhomie. At any rate, Queen Victoria [Tereshkina], who danced the ballet’s premiere at the Mariinsky, has said that she has never before danced anything so technically difficult, above all the first act variation. According to her, she burst into tears after the premiere even at the suggestion that she might be asked, for some reason, to replace Alina Somova, who was scheduled for the second performance.

One thing is for sure - this ballet needs, over and above anything else, a ballerina of great virtuosity, capable of performing a fantastic choreographic text stuffed with difficulty, and physically challenging, with so much elegance and ease as to give the spectator the illusion of absolute lightness. If the flaws mount up and the dancer’s effort becomes visible, that puts in doubt the legitimacy of this choreography, whose spirit could be defined as “the unbearable lightness of dancing” (to paraphrase the title of a famous novel).

As at the Royal Ballet in 2004 it was Christopher Newton who implemented the reconstruction of the choreography of Sylvia for the Mariinsky. There are some differences of nuance by comparison with what was filmed at the Royal Ballet 10 years ago, which one can see with the naked eye without knowing the choreographic text by heart. For example, there are some changements on pointe instead of pas de bourrée at the end of the first part of Sylvia’s variation in Act 1. In the second, the "wheels" turned by the slaves in parallel are performed here in portés (instead of putting their hands on the ground, the dancers catch each other around the waist, a little like the combat between Orion and Aminta in Act 3), with the two dancers thus forming a single "wheel".

Through the first act the choreographer accustoms our eyes to corps de ballet ensembles that are quite compact, but effective. Everything changes in Act 3, in which the corps de ballet pile up on a stage that’s already considerably constricted by the scenery. One needs time to get used to it and manage to see something other than Brownian motion, particularly at the entrée of the nymphs.  Having said that, with a top-quality corps de ballet which is able to hold the public’s attention, and moreover can sense the style of the ballet, the situation quickly sorts itself out. For the Mariinsky corps de ballet, one of the best if not the best in the world, this isn’t a particularly difficult task.  

The dancers "narrated" the parade of the third act in an effectively, amusing way.  Grigori Popov (Pluto) and Svetlana Ivanova (Persephone) played a real mini-performance. Popov with his powerful jumps emitted real menace as the character, while Ilya Zhivoy, who danced the role three days later, did everything he could to frighten, without managing to do so, and was quite droll as a result. Still that did not stop Svetlana Ivanova from trembling with fear in a very natural way, making that scene still more comic, which goes very well with the spirit of the ballet. Alexandra Iosifidi as Terpsichore (on 23 October) stood out against a noisy corps de ballet for the softeness of her landings.

The Goat duo (in which Ashton shows himself nearly as sadistic a choreographer as in Sylvia’s variations) is traditionally very well rendered by the Mariinsky artists: light, technical, playful, with a good dose of self-mockery. All the same, the pairing of Anastasia Asaben and Vassily Tkchenko (on 23 October) were better synchronised than Sofia Ivanova-Skoblikova with Yaroslav Baybordin (on 20 October). The young Sofia, taking great care with the shape of her small ronds, began the jumps with a slight delay.

One has to acknowledge, however, that in Sylvia, a ballet from a tradition that is not very familiar to the company, the Mariinsky corps de ballet lacks a little of the brio they show in their own repertoire. This time, the fauns and nymphs of the first act were not always very well organised. From this aspect, there were more powerfully performed nights last season. The male section of the peasant corps de ballet, armed with rakes, looked rather too serious alongside the maliciously smiling rustics playing casually with the kid goats and wheelbarrows. By contrast, the demi-caractère dances of the second act were well mastered both by the male and female dancers, who were visibly enjoying their roles as slaves and concubines, in all of the casts. During the show on 23 October, a small problem became a talking-point when the four lads in red carrying the statue of Bacchus failed to walk in step, tipping it over. Well, we should put it down to the side-effects that come with attending on the god of wine.

Tereshkina is unequalled

In the years and a half since its premiere, Sylvia has had 14 performances on the Mariinsky’s historic stage, and several more are scheduled in coming months. The company has already presented five artists for each of the principal roles, and much the same for the secondary roles. But even if one can debate the other roles, as regards that of Sylvia herself, there is no doubt at all that Viktoria Tereshkina is unequalled. The other ballerinas, even if they have more or less mastered the technical difficulties, do not show so much freedom in their movement. It’s not for nothing that people at the Mariinsky say, “Vika can do anything.”

She cracks the problems invented by Ashton with a disarming lightness, while makes us believe that she has spent her entire life launching grands jetés with alternate legs without preparation, or making those distinct renversés that end in an arabesque without anything inbetween. Viktoria is even capable of dancing the pizzicato variation with a broken toe shoe without us realising she’s in trouble, as happened during the first night. Happily, on 20 October, which reunited the premiere cast, it all went by without any similar incident.

One descent from pointe at the beginning of the adage in Act 3 was probably the only little flaw that Viktoria permitted herself. In Act 1, where certain ballerinas may show themselves too lyrical prematurely, which doesn’t at all work with the story, Tereshkina has the virtue of having found a perfect balance between a wild warrior-nymph, cursing Eros’s statue and the young carefree girl enjoying the sweetness of life in the sacred forest. Her heroine stays believable in every circumstance: angry when a mere mortal tries to take advantage of her, seductive when she has to find a ruse to save herself, humble before Diana, happy at the side of her lover.

Skorik fighting technical problems

On the face of it, our warrior heroine was well suited to the personality of Oxana Skorik who performed Sylvia on 23 October, but this dancer, despite being propelled to the summit of the company’s hierarchy, still hasn’t achieved the artistic maturity that would be legitimately expected of a prima ballerina of the Mariinsky. The technical component was decently performed, even if not flawlessly, but the ballerina stayed too visibly focused on the technical difficulties, often with a vacant expression on her face, which neutralised the credibility of her character. During the third act variation, where Tereshkina give the impression of bathing in the music, Skorik at first seemed to be fighting the technical problems, not entirely successfully, but towards the end, realising that the challenge was nearly done, relaxed a little, and a smile lit up her faces and she sped up as if she wanted to race away from the music.

The adagio with Kimin Kim was not very well done, and appeared laborious in the pairwork. Skorik and Kim don’t make a well-assorted couple on stage. Kim gives Aminta’s character an unusually romantic cast while Skorik has rather a closed way with her. If one adds to that the shortages of rehearsal, the result is inevitably well below that which one would have found if they had each been cast with different partners.

With Alina Somova, his partner in May 2014 when they made their Sylvia debuts, Kim made a much more harmonious match. At the same time, Skorik, whose debut as Sylvia was last July, looked much better alongside Timur Askerov. Kim managed very well with his third act variation, during which he literally flew over the stage to thunderous applause from the audience, but was a little careless in the first.

Vladimir Shklyarov, who was Tereshkina’s Aminta, was slightly lacking his usual panache - much in demand outside St Petersburg nowadays, he has an intense performance schedule ranging far and wide in geography, which must be proving challenging - but still this did not change the quality of his dancing, technical and rich in nuance. His pairing with Tereshkina has history and works pretty well.

The contest for best Orion was carried by Yuri Smekalov (on 10 October). He has a better height for the role than Konstantin Zverev (23 October), and a stage sense that allows him to create unforgettable characgers in a very varied range (from Spartacus to Chambellan in The Little Humpbacked Horse, via Abderahman, the Dancemaster in Cinderella, or the soloist in Le Parc). His Orion, very emotional, interpreted with a large sense of self-parody, seemed to come straight out of a cartoon. Having said that, Zverev’s Orion, lighter, more callow, with nothing like the temperament of Smekalov’s black hunter, is still convincing in its own terms.

Alexei Tutunnik, the new darling of St Petersburg’s female balletomanes, has a body that leaves no doubt that he’s made for the role of a classical god. Handsome, ironic, he was perfect for the character of Eros (20 October). Alexei Popov, not having such an advantageous physique, compensated by his dancerly qualities - his chiselled steps and perfect jumps with cat-like landings.

The Mariinsky ballerinas aren’t used to showing their biceps on stage, which is probably the reason why they were for the most part unconvincing in the role of Diana. Some were insipid, others were exaggerated to the point of grotesque. Tatiana Tkachenko, appearing as Diana on both evenings, remains to date the only artist to find the balance to look natural in the role, which may be small but is obviously hard to perform properly.

Both shows were sold out and were conducted by Gavriel Heine, the orchestra’s director of American origin, whose name intrigues spectators. A lover of Tchaikovsky and Delibes scores, he has a habit of making play better by singing, but this time he made great efforts to make his voice practically inaudible, and conjured the lovely score from the depths of the pit with the powers of his hands and charisma like a mythic god. It’s so much better that way.

Ashton well integrated

For St Petersburg dancers, Sylvia has been their first experience of the choreography of Frederick Ashton, an experience that has certainly been very enriching to the dancers, but also for the audiences. We are led to believe that it was only thanks to the year of the Russia-Great Britain cultural exchange that all of a sudden in 2014 the repertoire of the city’s two greatest ballet companies were enriched with ballets from the celebrated British choreographer. The Mariinsky, as well as Sylvia, showed later in the season his Marguerite and Armand, which they didn’t hesitate to give in London as well on their tour, just as the Mikhailovsky Theatre had rights on La Fille mal gardée. All three ballets have been appreciated by the public (more for some than others), and have been well integrated now into the artistic life of St Petersburg.