Review: Mariinsky Ballet in Homage to Balanchine at Royal Opera House

Performance: 12 August 09
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 13 August 2009

The relationship between performers, audience and critic is a fascinating trinity. The paying audience often casts doubt over a critic’s judgement; they wonder whether they actually saw the same performance. I’ve often heard this refrain, but I’ve also come to understand that even if they’re in the same theatre at the same time they may not necessarily be seeing the same performance.

Critics generally occupy the best seats in the house; looking directly forward from the middle of the auditorium, not sideways or downwards. They have an undistorted, unrestricted view to inform their assessment. The paying audience, especially at the Royal Opera House (where sightlines are awful for many of the seats) is not always so fortunate.

The first of these Balanchine works, Serenade’, is a ballet of patterns. But, seated in a balcony box directly above the orchestra pit and adjacent to the stage, I couldn’t possibly have deduced this since the dancers occupying a third of the stage were outside my vision. It was like watching from a raised platform in the wings. At first, I was annoyed, clear in my view that I couldn’t possibly do justice to performers I was either not seeing, or seeing in a wholly distorted way, literally head-first. But, this is how most of the audience see the ballet; not from the comfortable vantage point of K6 in the Orchestra Stalls but from the upper amphitheatre, the slips and the side of the stalls circle. So, how was it for this critic, seeing ballets that are meant to be seen in their entirety, from the same restricted perspective as hundreds of other audience members?

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It is essentially unfair to comment on only the extracts of dancers’ performances that came within my vision; and the close-up, downwards perspective certainly maximised every blemish and sweat stain. The lines of dancers and the spaces between them in the corps inevitably look ragged in this context, although I’m sure this would not necessarily be apparent from a straight-on view. Dancers’ lack of extension, poor line, flaws in technique, awkwardness in partnering and – worst of all – short-cuts to conserve effort are only too obvious at such close quarters.

Even with such intense scrutiny, it is amazing to report that I saw some of the best interpretations of these familiar ballets that I’ve ever seen.Uliana Lopatkina was breathtakingly brilliant in the second (adagio) movement of Symphony in C’; it was like putting a divinity under the microscope and still discovering she is flawless. It was also illuminating to observe, so closely, how undemonstrative is the total support she receives from Daniil Korsuntsev; behind this great woman, there is a very strong and attentive man. Viktoria Tereshkina is another who survived this sideways close-up utterly unscathed. Having reigned supremely in the Siamese symbiosis of Balanchine’s steps and Tchaikovsky’s music in Serenade’, she then tore through the allegro vivo first movement of __’Symphony’, brilliantly aided by Denis Matvienko, displaying a softer, less ebullient side to his virtuoso skills. To complete the record, the couples for the 3rd and 4th allegro movements (respectively Evseeva/Stepin and Obraztsova/Timofeyev) also played their part in a memorably sparkling ‘Palais De Cristal’ (the original name for ‘Symphony in C’), even from my own disadvantaged viewpoint. __

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The middle work, the Rubies’ __*mid-section of Balanchine’s full-length *‘Jewels’__, allowed an opportunity for a quick comparison with the home team, since it had been the final production in the Royal Ballet’s 2008/9 season. I’d call it an honourable draw. This version benefitted greatly from the presence of Ekaterina Kondaurova in the solo role, but although Irina Golub is a truly beautiful ballerina, I felt that she was inhibited from really projecting some of the wilder movements (backwards skipping, bent-arm pirouettes) in the way that Alexandra Ansanelli (admittedly a Balanchine dancer through-and-through) had gone to the very edge of risk, earlier this summer. The new wunderkind male at the Mariinsky, Vladimir Shklyarov, employed to the full his zestful exuberance of youth, which suited the choreography and its intentions very well.

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The most obvious concluding point to make is that NONE of these ballets work when they can’t all be seen. I’ve heard that Sir Frederick Ashton – once, the Royal Ballet’s long-time resident choreographer and therefore well used to the eccentricities of the Opera House seating plan – made it a requirement for his ballets to be seen from all over the House during their development, so that he could minimise the disruption to audience members with less clear views. His ballets were therefore made to fit the Covent Garden auditorium; Balanchine’s were not, a fact I found myself mulling over on each occasion that I was watching an empty stage whilst dancers were performing out of my sight (and there were several such times). The anticipated symmetry, the grandeur, the flow of his work was totally lost on me and many others seated in this tangential juxtaposition to the action. There is a certain deconstructive thrill to seeing only two-thirds of the intended pattern: after all, modern choreographers such as Trisha Brown and Bill Forsythe do this sort of thing on purpose, but I’m sure Balanchine intended for us to see the whole affair.

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