There are two great, rival ballet companies in the Soviet Union, and they are very different. Everybody knows that.
The mighty Bolshoi of Moscow exults in flashy bravura, in high-class athletic indulgences, in generously gilded razzle and vulgar pyrotechnical dazzle.
The mighty Kirov of Leningrad, on the other hand, is a historic bastion of taste and refinement, a proud stronghold of academic purity, a vaunted sanctuary of muted classicism.
You have to forget it when the Kirov puts on "Le Corsaire." The visiting Soviets did just that Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and the result was a jolting revelation.
This "Corsaire," the first full-length approximation of Marius Petipa's elusive romantic milestone to be seen in the United States, is, if nothing else, a bona-fide kitsch spectacular. It out-Bolshois the Bolshoi, and does so with irresistible cheer and infectious conviction.
See the fragile ship tossed by ferocious waves, the picturesque passengers clinging to the boards for dear life. Pity their fate as the ill-fated vessel crashes upon a nasty rock. Listen to the thunder. Watch the lightning.
You ain't seen nuffin yet.
Ogle the pretty harem inmates in their spangled bras and bare midriffs, all dancing daintily and quaintly on their tippy-toes. Observe the sophisticated hootchy-kootch maneuvers. Laugh at the lecherous pasha, sneer at the greedy merchant, check out those riotous pirates.
Wait. There's more.
Sigh for the lovely, lovesick heroine who just happened to bring a spotless white tutu with her to the deserted island. Giggle at her adorably pert counterpart. Sigh, again, for a matched pair of heroes--one a swashbuckling charmer, the other a noble savage.
That's just the beginning, folks.
Watch the assembled crew fly and soar and duel and spin and kiss and wiggle through multilayered, hopeless convolutions of intrigue, mystery and adventure. Enjoy the colorful diversions, share the excitement of the uplifting derring-do.
All this just for the price of one admission. . . .
While you're at it, savor the lavish, faintly stylized, quasi-Technicolored scenery. Admire the hysterical rainbow costumes. Gasp as you witness a veritable orgy of ever-moving scrims and veils and plumes and tassels and laser lights and genuine water fountains and drifting clouds and dancing flowers and countless other manifestations of postcard exotica.
The Kirov "Corsaire" is thoroughly, unabashedly, whole-heartedly, shamelessly, passionately, unrepentantly tawdry. And it is wonderful.
It is easy to love. All one has to do is refuse to take it seriously.
The dancers have to take it seriously, of course. That is the secret of their success. We don't.
The production dates back, after a fashion, to 1856. Over the years, however, many hands have had their way with both the choreography and the score.
What Oleg Vinogradov, current guardian of Kirov virtue, assembled in 1986 for this version is a sprawling pastiche--a.k.a. mishmash or hodgepodge or jigsaw puzzle or free-for-all or patchwork. It acknowledges the confused contributions of four librettists (not including Lord Byron, who wrote the poem that inspired the subsequent variations) and six--count 'em, six--all-purpose composers: Adam, Pugni, Minkus, Delibes, Drigo and one Prince Oldenburg.
Only two choreographers are credited: Petipa and Pyotr Gusev. However, informed sources also cite contributions of Joseph Mazilier (who preceded Petipa), Jules Perrot, Agrippina Vaganova, Yuri Slonimsky, Konstantin Sergeyev, Alexander Chekrygin, Vakhtang Chabukiani and Vinogradov himself.
Despite the participation of so many cooks, this "Corsaire" represents a modest broth. The ballet is delightfully skimpy--even with two intermissions, the final curtain falls at 10:30--and the action is brisk.
The mime is minimal. What else is new? Expressive gesture has once again been allowed to supersede formal narrative communication. The dancing isn't exactly expansive, either.
The set pieces familiar in the West are placed in unexpected contexts. The beloved pas de deux that Rudolf Nureyev brought with him from Leningrad turns out to be a pas de trois, the most flamboyant choreography assigned to the secondary cavalier. The "Pas d'esclave" serves as comic relief--we used to think it was an amorous statement. The exquisite "Jardin anime" ensemble irrelevantly embellishes the harem scene, to tunes borrowed from "Sylvia."
Lots of busywork surrounds these highlights. At least it is engaging busywork. And one striking discovery does emerge from the frantic excess: a delicate, mercurial trio in the last act for demi-soloists masquerading as Odalisques.
The dancing, for the most part, re-affirmed the lofty Kirov tradition. Tatiana Terekhova was visually radiant, dramatically urgent and technically brilliant (those fouettes!) as the innocent yet rapturous Greek maiden, Medora. Tall and dashing, Evgeny Neff partnered her with deferential security as Conrad, the titular pirate. His thunder was stolen, however, by Farukh Ruzimatov as his long-limbed slave, Ali.
The young firebrand from Tashkent brooded, smoldered and glowered, his bare chest thrust out, his chin held high, his dark locks streaming with studied nonchalance. He gobbled the air, writhed in superbly controlled ecstasy, flung himself to the floor magnificently in mock self-subjugation. It was a fabulous, narcissistic performance and, with push-button precision, it brought down the house.
Elena Pankova glittered unevenly but always charmingly as Gulnara, the central soubrette. Vitali Tsvetkov rumbled fleetly as Lankedem, the slave-merchant (one saluted the removal of ancient anti-Semitic elements in the character).
Dmitri Korneyev blustered nicely as the corsair lieutenant who didn't even flinch when his second musket refused to fire (the audience liked the unintended joke). Gennadi Borchenko bumbled benignly as the raunchy pasha. Best of all, perhaps, were the exquisitely stylish Odalisques of three junior ballerinas--Veronica Ivanova, Zhanna Ayupova and Irina Chistiakova.
Teimuraz Murvanidze's sets created a delirious, flexible never-neverland milieu. Galina Solovyova designed slinky Turkish bloomers and fluffy classical tutus with equal flair.
In the pit, Victor Fedotov, a veteran of many Kirov wars, coaxed remarkable verve and precision from the Pacific Symphony,
It was a splendid camping trip.