Times Music/Dance Critic

The mighty Kirov Ballet of Leningrad opened its first North American tour in 21 years Wednesday night, courtesy of Expo 86.

The audience was ecstatic. The company was nervous. The performance, despite technical mishaps and rather cool principals, was brilliant.

Thursday morning is the time for artistic post-mortems, and the time to get on with business.


Oleg Vinogradov, casually spiffy in a scarlet jogging suit, presides over an 11 a.m. press conference that happens to be open to the public. The artistic director is brutally, disarmingly frank about the introductory “Swan Lake.”

“There were pluses and minuses,” he says through a tireless interpreter. “The audience was wonderfully responsive. The performance suffered certain distractions.

“It was really just rehearsal. The dancers were very nervous. They found the stage very hard--and flat. At home, in the Kirov Theater, the stage is raked. We had no lighting rehearsal, and many technical details had not been worked out.

“At one point the lighting computer broke down. The scrims didn’t go up and down. The audience couldn’t even see the vision of Odette in the ‘Black Swan’ scene.

“I thought I would die.”

Konstantin Zaklinsky, the incipient matinee idol who had danced Prince Siegfried, complains of a lack of depth on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Olga Chenchikova, the steely perfectionist who had danced Odette-Odile, smiles and disagrees. “I felt completely comfortable,” she purrs.

Vinogradov fields some questions.

He defends the Kirov version of the Tchaikovsky-Petipa-Ivanov patchwork as definitive--happy end and all.

“Art must change for modern audiences, but only to a degree. We must respect tradition, and we must continue to use what has proven to be effective.”

The muscular Zaklinsky, who had encountered a little trouble tearing off the evil Rothbart’s Soviet-realism winglet in the last act, says he would welcome certain liberties.

“It would give me great pleasure,” he says whimsically, “to kill Rothbart in a different way.”

Zaklinsky’s boss, Vinogradov, allows himself a little what-if speculation, too.

“If I could rewrite the story,” he says, “all the swans would disappear, fly away, at the end. After all, they are dream creatures. One cannot catch and hold a dream.”

There is much earnest discussion about the idiosyncrasies of the Kirov version.

“The Prince,” says Vinogradov, “has no variation in the first scene because he is still passive. He only dances when he sees Odette, when he becomes excited, involved in this possibly fatal relationship.”

The happy end, he says, “is justified by the music. Tchaikovsky depicts optimism.”

The bottom line, and the repeated explanation for all oddities, is simple:

“It is always done this way at the Kirov. Always.”

The local papers have been making a fuss, understandably, over the fact that the Kirov dancers were not invited to tour the Expo 86 site. Tickets, at $20, lie beyond the financial reach of corps members. Officialdom insists, however, that only performers who appear at the actual fair site--as opposed to downtown theaters--get in free.

Private Samaritans have been donating tickets to the dancers. Under pressure, Vinogradov admits surprise that the Expo administration was not so hospitable.

Evgeny Kolobov, the tempestuous 40-year-old conductor, sits down for a chat.

He has nothing but praise for members of the Vancouver Symphony, with whom he has communicated “with hands, eyes and heart, and in the universal language--music.”

He does concede, however, that the conditions have been rather frustrating.

“We had only 5 1/2 hours of rehearsal, and these were in the symphony hall, not the theater. The acoustic is very different. The pit is very deep, but I must stand quite high to see the stage.”

A friendly representative of the Soviet Ministry of Culture chimes in. “It would have been better, of course, if we could have brought our own orchestra. Our hosts rejected this. It was a matter of finances.”

Vinogradov is rehearsing his own ballet, “The Knight in the Tiger’s Skin,” in a practice room. A tape recorder blares neo-Straussian bombast by Alexei Machavariani. The boss quietly supervises some stretching, leaping and quasi-erotic contorting by a cadaverous ballerina, Galina Mezentseva, and a macho danseur up from the corps, Eldar Aliev.

This is the current Kirov bow to modernity. In this context, it doesn’t look or sound very modern. But judgment must be suspended until Sunday night.

The ballerina everyone is waiting for is the young Altynai Assylmuratova. She was the sensation of the Kirov season in Paris three years ago, and the central attraction in the film “Backstage at the Kirov.” For some reason, she had not been scheduled to dance here, but now, after wholesale cast-shuffling, has been given the Friday night “Swan Lake.”

She is scheduled to give an interview just before the Thursday night performance. She shows up at the appointed hour, looking gorgeous but wan. She begs to be excused, says she cannot talk until after her debut.

Irina Kolpakova, however, can talk. The most celebrated ballerina of the previous Kirov generation is, at 53, winding down her career on the stage by serving as a revered teacher and coach.

She was to have danced in “Les Sylphides” in Los Angeles next week, but says that will not be possible. She has been ill.

Laconically, she remembers Los Angeles and Shrine Auditorium from two tours in the 1960s.

“Bad air. Strange theater.”

She has interesting thoughts about the Kirov, its changing profile, the passage of time, and her various partners from Vladilen Semenov (whom she married) to Baryshnikov (with whom she was dancing in Canada when he defected). More about all that later.

It is time for the second “Swan Lake.” This one goes swimmingly. There are no obvious technical glitches.

The corps is, again, magnificent. The principals are, again, problematic--more so than the night before.

Lubov Kunakova introduces a small-scale Odette-Odile. She is very musical, very tasteful, very correct, very traditional and, apart from a dazzling explosion of high-velocity fouettes, bland.

Evgeny Neff, amazingly limp as Siegfried, is the epitome of vapidity.

There will be other Swans, other Princes. . . .