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The Boston Globe

Saturday, June 7,  1986







A ‘Swan Lake’ like no other


Kirov puts its legendary touch on a classic


By Christine Temin

Globe Staff


     VIENNA, Va. – The name of the ballet is virtually synonymous with classical dance.  The name of the company performing it is revered by balletomanes.  For those reasons alone you should spend tomorrow afternoon watching “Swan Lake” as danced by Leningrad’s legendary Kirov Ballet.  (The program airs on Channel 2, 1:30 -4 p.m. and is repeated June 15 on Channel 44 at 5 p.m.) But this performance is more than a historical curiosity: it displays a level of ensemble dancing that doesn’t exist elsewhere.

     The company from which Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Makarova defected is a bit short on stars at the moment, but there is a collective star – which seems appropriate for a troupe from a communist country – in the form of a corps de ballet without peer.

     This “Swan” was videotaped by Maryland Public Television on Tuesday at a performance at Wolf Trap Farm Park, where the Kirov danced this week as part of its first North American visit in 22 years.  The hastily arranged, instantly-sold-out tour was the result of the recent cultural exchange agreement between the US and the USSR.  It is a political as well as a cultural coup, and realizing that, Ronald Reagan introduces the TV show.  (Reagan’s remarks were pre-taped.  Unlike a lot of other politicians seen at Wolf Trap this week, he didn’t actually attend the ballet.)

      The program is straightforward.  The producer, Phillip Byrd, said he didn’t want to gild the Kirov’s lily with television’s technical tricks: “I wanted to be as faithful as possible to the Holy Grail of ballet.”

      He was.  The program, which was shot by seven cameras placed around the theater, and edited over the next two days by a crew working around the clock, is about as good as a video miniature of a mammoth-scale ballet can be.  I saw both live and taped performances.  The taped version offers a fine balance between long-range shots of the magnificent human geometry of “Swan Lake’s” patterns and satisfying close-ups of the principals. 

     It also offers a breathtaking glimpse of the company many call the best in the world.

      In recent years there has been talk that the Kirov had slipped.  Tuesday’s performance proved that the 200-year-old troupe, the second oldest classical dance company, (the Paris Opera is first), is still great – especially at corps level.  Most of these dancers have lived and studied together from the age of 8 or 9, and the result is a group bound together in an almost mystical way, the antithesis of a big American ballet company that may include dancers from a dozen states trained in as many different ways.

     The “Swan Lake” the Kirov dancers performed is rooted in tradition.  Some Western companies have made drastic changes in the ballet, from the Sadler’s Wells production that opens with the funeral of the king to the Boston Ballet version set in the late 19th century. The current Kirov version, a 1950 adaptation by Constantin Sergeev of the Petipa/Ivanov choreography, incorporates some minor changes: the evil magician, Von Rothbart, is a dancing role here instead of the customary character part, and Prince Siegfried’s friend Benno is turned into a jester, played on Tuesday by Vitaly Tsvetkov, who nearly stole the show with his astonishing airborne antics.

     The one major change in this Soviet version is the happy ending.  In most “Swan lakes,” the Swan Queen gains release from the spell that has changed her into a bird by jumping into the lake, with Siegfried joining her in a double suicide: You see the lovers reunited in heaven.  The Soviets don’t have heaven.  So Siegfried is allowed to kill off Von Rothbart and resuscitate his beloved.  The two presumably go on to live happily in this world, disregarding the next.  A prosaic finale, that.

     As Tuesday’s Swan Queen, Olga Tcheytchikova was not the usual languid bird-maiden, but a strong and majestic woman who actively fought her fate.  She looked as if she could balance on pointe forever, perform an infinite number of pirouettes, and do in Von Rothbart all by herself.  In the Black Swan pas de deux, she sailed through the famously treacherous 32 fouette turns: in the coda, she worked herself into an agitated, ready-for-blast-off frenzy.

      The casting of Tcheytchikova as the Swan Queen of record for millions of Americans disappointed fans of the Kirov’s most exquisite ballerina, Altinay Asylmuratova.  Rumor, unconfirmed by the Soviets, had it that Asylmuratova, whose lyricism thrilled audiences in Wednesday’s performance of an excerpt from “La Bayadere,” vacillates greatly, and that the Kirov didn’t want to take a chance on her giving a poor performance on the air.

     Tcheytchikova’s Siegfried was the movie-star handsome Konstantin Zaklinsky, who displayed elegant line and landed from jumps with a panther-like softness.  His style was softer than hers, though, and it was clear that this Swan Queen was going to dominate her Prince.

      The most astonishing thing about the Kirov corps was their arms.  No Western dancers move their arms, necks and heads with such fluidity and detail.  No Western corps achieves such a perfect, and delicate, unison. And no Western ensemble hurls itself into the balleticized folk dances of Swan Lake’s ballroom act with such gusto.

     These amazing dancers are short on contemporary choreography to dance, though: Their most impressive repertory is from the 1800s. But the Kirov now wants to acquire works by one of its most famous alumni: George Balanchine, who created all of his masterpieces in the west.  One wag suggested this week that the executors of Balanchine’s estate should give the Kirov Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes.”  Whatever Balanchine ballets the Kirov does eventually acquire will help to bring this “Sleeping Beauty” of a company, with its breathtaking ensemble, into the 20th century.