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BALLET REVIEW : Kirov Stars Invade ABT ‘Swan Lake’

Times Music Critic

Adore it or deplore it, the new production of “Swan Lake” staged by Mikhail Baryshnikov for American Ballet Theatre has a point of view. In fact, it has several.

The most striking innovations involve the central ballerina who plays the Swan Queen. Like her feathered friends, she favors a long, Romantic tutu. It remains stubbornly white, even when in Act III--this used to be called the black act--it is worn by the innocent heroine’s evil alter ego.

Baryshnikov’s Odette, moreover, indulges in a reasonable amount of story-telling. At key points, she illuminates the dance with elements of mime.

Anyone seeing the production for the first time Sunday night at Shrine Auditorium wouldn’t have guessed much of this. The heroine on display--an emphatically gorgeous heroine--turned out to be Altynai Assylmuratova.

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At 27, she is the most glamorous, most promising and, in the West, best publicized ballerina of the vaunted Kirov Theater in Leningrad. For this fleeting guest appearance, she brought along her own style, her own mannerisms, her own habits, her own concept, her own traditions and her own white and black costumes.

She even brought along her own attentive, accommodating partner, Konstantin Zaklinsky. He happens to be her husband.

This, without question, was a star turn. Unfortunately, it was a star turn that damaged the integrity of the production. Worse, it was a star turn that sometimes faltered even on its own, isolated terms.

Assylmuratova looked stunning, her short circus tutus accentuating her long, perfectly proportioned limbs. One had to admire the purity of her line, the dramatic arch of her spine, the expressivity of her arms. One had to surrender, temporarily at least, to the gaze of her huge, soulful eyes.

She knows all about the legato phrasing of Odette’s lyrical passages. She also musters the staccato climaxes of Odile (even with no such character identified in the program) with elan.

When she danced the same role(s) in the same cavern with the Kirov in 1986, she conveyed both the pathos and the glitter of the challenge in muted terms. Unlike her Bolshoi cousins, she flirted with noble abstraction rather than overt theatricality. It worked.

This time it didn’t work so well. In the emphatically foreign, even contradictory surroundings, she looked jittery. She delineated a wan swan and a gingerly temptress.

She miscalculated some effects. She seemed to disagree with the conductor about the tempo of a very slow adagio variation in Act II. She attacked the fouette marathon of Act III with lightning bravado that threatened to unwind before the climax.

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She did project wounded pathos in the finale. This probably was the first time she has been asked to execute an unhappy ending in this ballet.

Most of the time, however, she resembled a stranger in the wrong paradise. One wondered how much time, effort and energy had been expended in the practical art of assimilation.

Zaklinsky partnered her with noble sympathy as Prince Siegfried. Tall, slender and easily aristocratic in his Kirov costume, he brooded nicely in the first act, telegraphed proper wonder in the second and conveyed ample ardor in the third. He didn’t even seem disconcerted by the mighty offstage crash--the latest in a silly series of Shrine Auditorium contretemps--that punctuated the Black Swan pas de deux.

With his high cheek bones, muscular torso and flowing locks, he looks a bit like the young Nureyev. Unfortunately, he doesn’t dance like a young Nureyev. His technical skills must be described as modest.

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As Benno, the prince’s friend, Jeremy Collins projected rough-edged, eager virtuosity. Although still listed as a member of the corps, he is scheduled to take over the hero’s duties on Wednesday. It will be interesting to observe his rise.

The swan corps seemed understandably tired in Act II but made much of the poignant, willowy formations devised by Baryshnikov for the denouement. The excellent corps de ballet was trained, not incidentally, by Susan Jones, who was inadvertently denied credit in a previous review.

PierLuigi Samaritani’s sets remain problematic. The lake scene is especially ungainly and illogical. In Orange County last December the decors at least enjoyed the advantages of better lighting and better sight lines.

The resident orchestra played untidily for Jack Everly in an apparently steamy pit. Sensibly, the musicians doffed their dark jackets. Although the sartorial indulgence must have enhanced their comfort, it created a distracting sea of white shirt sleeves in front of the stage.

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