As the Soviet Union was dissolving, it became something of a fanciful game for ballet lovers to fantasize about the possibilities awaiting Russia’s storied cultural institutions.
What would happen when the manacles came off at the Kirov Ballet? For starters, the Soviet-era name Kirov was jettisoned. But more important, which pieces, previously forbidden, would be admitted onto the hallowed stage of the Mariinsky Theatre?
George Balanchine’s works were at the top of the list. New York City Ballet’s co-founder was a product of the Mariinsky Theatre’s school and company, making his posthumous “return” natural and significant.
That’s the background for the Mariinsky Ballet’s presentation of “Jewels,” Balanchine’s three-act, abstract masterpiece from 1967, which the ballet company and its orchestra opened Thursday at the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the first time. The St. Petersburg dancers performed “Jewels” in 2003 at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. It’s said to have become a home-audience favorite, and the younger dancers who filled the immense cast (90 dancers) at the Chandler grew up with Balanchine’s genius finally appreciated and his ballets a respected part of the repertory.
Still, it’s not so easy to be raised and steeped in one style and then subsume it in order to accomplish another one. It’s like speaking a foreign language without an accent. The Mariinsky style is revered — it’s fundamentally their way of “talking” — and it’s what makes these dancers unique. But it also inhibits their ability to fully articulate this neo-classical ballet.
Their rendition of “Jewels” is a mix of contradictions. It’s gorgeously and passionately interpreted, and yet proper and tentative in places where it should be sweeping and off balance. Musical accents are sometimes missing or placed incorrectly. The facial mugging that accompanies the turned-in feet and crumpled arm gestures of “Rubies,” turns this otherwise thrilling ballet into a joke.
“Jewels” can be a beauty, and things go better when the Mariinsky focuses on its elegant, sparkling essence.
The French-perfumed opening segment “Emeralds” gets some of its romanticism from its musical selections by Gabriel Fauré. The ensemble posed with upright, doll-like delicacy and long necks and pinched-waist placement. The corps de ballet here and throughout the evening was deliberate about spacing; the “Emeralds” principals were lovingly framed by perfect rows of women curling around them and unfolding, the larger stage picture shifting like a kaleidoscope.
Lead couple Daria Ionova and Maxim Zyuzin played a bit of hide and seek in the expansive pas de deux. Maria Iliushkina’s well-timed steps and balances of her solo had a rare spontaneity, and she brought her own take to the music. Her walking-on-pointe pas de deux with partner Roman Belyakov, on the other hand, was clearly a challenge, as were those robotic and jerky arm gestures timed with the deep lunge.
The cast for “Rubies” is given free rein to let loose and have fun, Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (with the excellent Alexandra Zhilina at the piano) acting like a signal to ready, set, go. Yekaterina Chebykina joyously pushed out those jutting hips and skimmed her head with her toe in the backbend leaps. She seemed to be saying “watch me do this!” each time she walked on her heels. As the four male soloists bent down to grab each one of her limbs, the audience chuckled, such was the sincerity of their moves.
Renata Shakirova and Kimin Kim were equally unbound in the central duet, she sending her leg 180 degrees skyward and he bounding off the stage like a spring. In a night that favored restraint, their risky physicality was exciting, even when it led to a near stumble toward the end.
“Diamonds” is the big hurrah — a corps de ballet of 32 and principals of royal demeanor, all to Tchaikovsky (parts of his Symphony No. 3 in D Major). Alina Somova was the queen-like ballerina, with her consort the excellent Vladimir Shkliarov. Off all the principals, Shkliarov has best mastered the tightrope walk of pairing humble bearing with athletic virtuosity that this part requires.
Somova, who last week starred as the sinuous Nikiya in “La Bayadere” at Segerstrom, here threw herself into the fast spins and high extensions of her variations. Shkliarov was a steady partner and impressive soloist, letting the steps surprise and delight us, minus any storytelling. That’s all that was needed.
Conductor Alexei Repnikov was an equal partner for this evening, shifting expertly from section to section, keeping his 60-some musicians in sync with the dancers.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $34-$138 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 972-0711 or musiccenter.org