The first night of The Kirov's Diaghilev triple bill was remarkable for several reasons - not least the wholly unexpected sight of this normally imperious company dancing scared. From the first, strangely muted notes of Chopiniana, a sense of trepidation hung over the proceedings. Mikhail Fokine's abstract ballet was one of the highlights of the company's last visit to London. In lesser hands its gauzy insubstantiality all too easily turns to lint, but these dancers can be relied upon to float through the arrangement of Chopin waltzes, preludes and mazurkas, and create a waking dream of unfold- ing symmetries and effortless grace.
Except this time. There was an early tumble, which can't have helped, and for the rest of the ballet, Irina Zhelonkina and Daniil Korsuntsev gave furiously concentrated, frustratingly careful performances, as if the peak of their ambition was not to slip or topple over. Only Irina Golub danced with the familiar Kirov attitude that everything would be perfect as a matter of divine right - and in her case it was.
The cause of all the nerviness became obvious in the second part of the evening. Bronislava Nijinska's Les Noces, although it was created for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1923, and although it portrays a peasant wedding in Tsarist Russia, comes across as a Soviet Realist wet dream of stamping feet, honest, upraised fists and the sacrifice of individual happiness to the will of the proletariat. That it was never performed in Soviet Russia is probably less to do with the choreography than with Stravinsky's brutal modernist score, which incorporates four pianos, a ton of percussion and some lustily dissonant voices.
The Kirov brought Les Noces back to the Motherland for the first time in June of this year, and the novelty of the thing is still obvious in their performance. There have been weddings at Gretna Green that must have looked better rehearsed than the first two scenes of Nijinska's peasant nuptials.
On the opening night we even saw members of the most famously well-drilled corps de ballet in the world looking at each other for cues as to what they should do next. Fortunately, by the climactic celebration scene everyone had finally agreed on a beat, the singers of the Kirov Opera - especially Vladimir Felanchak and Gennady Bezzubenkov - were roaring defiance at the massed pianos and the production at last began to realise Nijinska's vision of the implacable power in a collective will.
Schéhérazade would normally be the over-sweet, slightly-unwanted complimentary dessert on a menu such as this. But after the trials and uncertainties of Les Noces, the feeling of relief among all the performers was palpable, and thoroughly invigorating. Fokine's playtime-in-the-harem fantasy is practically Burlesque, combining broad comedy, an orgy scene and odalisques, dressed only in wisps of pink and come-hither smiles. There were no smiles from Svetlana Zakharova, as the sultan's favourite, but even so there was no questioning the force of her come-hithering. Faroukh Ruzimatov, as the slave she sets free and then pounces on, was so smitten he forgot to toss his hair even once.
Or perhaps he did and I missed it, because it's hard to take your eyes off Zakharova at the moment. She was equally seductive last week, in Swan Lake, whether dripping a musky malevolence as Odile, or radiating a bruised but stoically uncorrupted innocence as Odette. Nevertheless, she owed a debt to the orchestra's lead violin, Ludmilla Tchaikovskaya, whose pure, lingering tone did as much as anyone or anything to turn every set-piece climax into a lump-in-the-throat experience.
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