‘Saison Russe’ worth the wait

Times Staff Writer

Ballet history is full of strange accidents, of masterworks somehow lost in their countries of origin but preserved far from home. “Giselle,” for instance, remained unseen in France for the better part of a century. And the most daring achievements of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes became well-known everywhere in the ballet world except Russia during the Communist era.

The three-part Kirov Ballet program that opened Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center represents the company’s attempt to reclaim its heritage much as French ballet has reclaimed “Giselle.” As it happens, an accident delayed its presentation here for eight years.

In 1994, the Kirov mounted a “Saison Russe” program designed to restore fabled early works by Mikhail Fokine to the consciousness of St. Petersburg dancers and audiences. His “Petrushka” was soon dumped in favor of the company’s long-standing production of the classical, plotless “Chopiniana” (a.k.a. “Les Sylphides”), but “Scheherazade” and “The Firebird” displayed Fokine’s storytelling skills and mastery of character-dance ensembles in high relief.

“Saison Russe” was scheduled to be danced the following year in Costa Mesa, but that Kirov tour fell apart, so only now are the productions on view locally, performed by a new generation of Kirov dancers.


With up to 50 of them sometimes storming the stage, the program offers a level of spectacle virtually unknown these days. And you may never again hear ballet accompaniment of the stylistic authority and passion delivered by the Kirov Orchestra under Mikhail Agrest.

A tale of forbidden lust and mass slaughter set amid exotic oriental decor by Leon Bakst, “Scheherazade” is weakened by the Kirov’s inclusion of an aimless pas de deux created long after the work’s 1910 premiere. But Uliana Lopatkina dances the faithless Zobeide with such sinewy flair, and Igor Zelensky brings so much unexpected nobility to the Golden Slave’s feats of elevation, that the work’s dramatic center holds.

All the swirling hordes maintain a sculptural clarity and refinement of technique that may be the most remarkable aspect of current Kirov style.

Certainly, that clarity and refinement have transformed the women’s corps in “Chopiniana,” a ballet that used to be danced with an all-purpose classical attack. Now, the 18 sylphides float as if on a single breath.


In the Pavlova role, Irina Zhelonkina seems unable to reconcile the choreography’s technical challenges and its prevailing softness. Irina Golub (the Prelude solo) also stays too obsessed with steps, but Yana Selina (the first Waltz) soars through them. And, after a prosaic opening sequence, Danila Korsuntsev settles into the proper moonstruck sensitivity in the Nijinsky role.

In “The Firebird,” temptations and adventures galore await a Tsarevich hunting in forbidden territory. What he finds includes a luminously lyrical Princess (Yana Serebriakova) and an impossibly grotesque master of monsters (Vladimir Ponomarev) but not, alas, the Firebird of 1910 -- legs turned in, hair in braids, paneled Middle Eastern tunic. Instead, she’s costumed in a conventional red tutu designed in 1926 for a production Fokine disavowed.

The steps he created for one kind of firebird don’t suit the expectations raised by a dancer dressed like a scarlet swan, even when those steps are performed with the precision and fervor of Tatiana Amosova. And her performance isn’t helped by the rough partnering of Victor Baranov as the Tsarevich.

But Agrest and the orchestra supply sizzling Stravinsky, and the corps dances with great authority. Thus, when Alexander Golovin’s vista of red onion domes rises in the final scene, your heart is there with them because you know you’ve seen something of genius -- something once lost and now a glorious part of the landscape.



Kirov Ballet

Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Today, 8 p.m. (Fokine program); Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. (“Jewels”)


Price: $25-$100

Contact: (714) 740-7878