Kirov History – II

20 Nov


Continuing the 1986 U.S. Leningrad Consulate Appraisal of the Kirov Ballet

7. When the Soviet capital was moved to Moscow, the center of the Soviet
dance world slowly but surely changed. Some of the most talented people from the Kirov were moved to the Bolshoi – the great ballerina Galina Ulanova in 1944, and in 1964 Ballet Master Yuriy [mscript spelling] Grigorovitch, who choreographed some of the best Soviet ballets while still at the Kirov. Grigorovich truly revived the Bolshoi and staged excellent productions of Spartacus and Nutcracker, although of his subsequent ballets have been less successful. His 1982 work, Golden Age, however, is brilliant. Under his skilled guidance the Bolshoi has shed at least some of its former athletic muscularity for a trimmer, more elegant look. Both Rostislav Zakarhov (Ballet Master at the Bolshoi, 1936-56) and Leonid Lavrovskiy (The Bolshoi’s Artistic Director, 1944-64) also started their careers at the Kirov. Before they moved to the Bolshoi, these choreographers created their finest ballets at the Kirov: Zakharov’s The Fountain of Bakhchisarai (1934) and Lavrovskiy’s Romeo and Juliet (1940).

8. As the birthplace of classical ballet and protection of its highest standards, the Kirov was still considered the final arbiter of taste. But Moscow had the Ministries, the Foreign delegations, and the need for display for both. The Kirov, whatever its excellence, could no longer compete in prestige. When the Bolshoi began to travel abroad in the Khrushchev era, the company accommodated itself slightly to the tastes of the international dance market, leaving the Kirov to uphold its strict classical standards.

Defections and Departures: Torment of the Gloomy 1950’s and early 1970’s

“When nothing new is permitted, a dancer can only
repeat himself, which is a form of cannibalism”
Ex-Kirov soloist Valeriy Panov

8. Then, starting in the early 1960’s, the best Kirov dancers began to depart:

Rudolf Nureyev, defecting in Paris on June 17, 1961:

Nikita Dolgushin voluntarily left the Kirov for Novosibirsk in 1961,
later joining Leningrad’s Maliy Theater:

Natalia Makarova defected in London in 1970:

Alla Osipenko voluntarily left the Kirov in 1971,
later working with Jakobson’s Choreographic
Miniatures Ensemble and Boris Eifman’s Troupe in

Valery Panov and his wife, soloist Galina Ragozina,
emigrated to Israel in June 1974, after a widely
publicized two-year struggle with the Soviet Authorities:

Mikhail Baryshnikov defected in Toronto on June 29, 1974:

Yuriy Solov’Yev shot himself on Janaruy 15, 1977: His
remains a mystery, but most believe it grew out of Kirov

10. Why have so many leading Kirov dancers defected? Most say that they left for artistic reasons. They felt that they had reached a dead end artistically at the theater – few performances, in a large company with many, many soloists, and nothing new permitted. Baryshnikov, with perhaps the greatest natural talent of them all, complained of the lack of any truly creative work at the Kirov; in 1974, when he left, he was dancing regularly on ly three roles – Basil in Don Quixote, Adam in The Creation fo the World, and Albrecht in Giselle. In contrast, a solo dancer in the West might learn several new and quite different roles in a single season.

11. And why so few defections from the Bolshoi? Alexander Godunov, who defected in 1979 in New York, remains the sole big name. With more foreign travel and less rigidity than the Kirov, less strait-jacketing of stage personalities, life at the Bolshoi was perhaps more interesting for many. Opening up to foreign tastes brought greater incentives to develop individual styles and personalities. Departments from traditional models were more likely to be tolerated when they made strong, favorable impressions on foreign audiences. And this spirit was also in keeping with the heritage of Moscow, whose public wanted colorful pageantry.

The Theater

12. The Kirov remains a sort of cathedral among theaters. It retains a near holy
faithfulness to the Imperial Era, when it was the center of world ballet. Minor alterations were made during the 1969-70 restorations, but the building still looks remarkably as it did a century earlier. It conveys a sense of royal grandeur and space despite its medium-sized seating capacity of 1,625. The color scheme has remained the same noble azure and gold. Chaliapin said he never a more beautiful theater in all his world travels. CG, [ consul-general] who may not have seen as many as Chaliapin but has checked out quite a few, agrees.

The Company

13. In the best imperial days the company consisted of 200 dancers. Apart from the 30 or so extras and the 50 Institute pupils who can be supplied when necessary, the present complement is only slightly smaller: about 183-190 dancers, with no more than 60 engaged in any single ballet. The 19th century tsars treated their beloved Mariinskiy Theatre as an adjunct of their court, lavishing on it a million gold rubles from their private purses. Today’s local party leaders lovingly preserve this arch symbol of class privilege, at times largely for themselves. The theatre takes in annually 1,200,000 rubles from ticket sales, and the state provides an annual subsidy of 2,600,000 rubles. Of the `625 seats, no more than 300-400 actually go on public sale for any performance, and often the number is much smaller. Every serious balletomane in Leningrad has his special “Kirov Connection” to be assured of a ticket to important performances.

14. While the size of the company has remained nearly constant, the supporting and administrative staff have multiplied into a huge enterprise of 1500 people, only slightly smaller than the Bolshoi. Metal fabrication, carpentry, and elaborate special effects are designed and produced in superbly equipped workshops. A large staff located outside the theatre painstakingly creates the costumes. Fifteen men work in the props department alone, and more put together the sets. A small army of assistant directors works in the wings of each performance. Soloists are pampered as if they were the elite’s special pets, just as dancers in tsarist days had been. Each soloist has a private dressing room, complete with shared makeup assistant, costumes, and wardrobe mistress. Physiotherapists look after the dancers, and a detachment of gynecologists attend to the ballerinas as if each monthly period (for which each gets three days off with pay) were an affair of state.

Note: the Russian spelling of names is retained.

An Historic Exchange About the Kirov – I

14 Nov


My friend Dan Henry, a former couples partner with the Ice Capades and Pilates Instructor at the Buchanan Street YMCA, shared a 1986 document with me which he received as the executor of a friend’s estate. It was written about the Kirov as it planned a 1986 tour of the U.S.

I thought readers might enjoy the 1986 perspective of what once again is the Maryinsky Ballet, particularly in light of its recent U.S. appearances with the 1877 Petipa La Bayadere. The full document, written by the then cultural attache in the U.S. Leningrad consulate, I probably will print in stages. The comments were printed in all capitals and represent a telegram to the U.S. State Department in Washington with a copy to the Embassy in Moscow. The format and clearances some thirty-three years ago is on telegraph paper with punched holes on either side and accompanied by a couple of cover letters interesting in themselves. I have italicized titles where I consider it appropriate.

Subject: The Kirov Ballet – Torment and Courage: Mirror of a Great City’s Soul.

1. Summary: It is especially fitting that the Kirov Ballet – which has not visited the U.S. since 1964 – will be the first major Soviet Dance Troupe coming to the States under new U.S.-Soviet Cultural Exchanges Agreement. From mid-May to early June the company will perform in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington (Washington dates are expected to be June 1-5 at Wolf Trap). American audiences will see an ultra refined Swan Lake – possibly the best around.  They will also see Artristic Director Vingradov’s exciting new ballet, Knight in a Tiger Skin, which represents a departure in Kirov choreographic style and a genuine search for new artistic expression by the company best known for presenting the great 19th century classics.

2. If the Kirov currently has no male dancers who can match Nureyev, Soloviev, or Baryshnikov in their prime, they have several dazzlers among the female soloists – Asylmuratova, Chenchikov, Terekhova – who could quite confidently take the measure of a young Makarova. And the most polished female corps de ballet in the world will perform some of the pinnacles of classical dance, such as the “white act” in Swan Lake. Part old-fashioned and part new breed, they are Petipa’s diamonds set in Vaganova’s gold.

3. The Kirov in 1986 is a company in transition. Vinogradov is cautiously experimenting and seeking new artistic directions, after nearly two decades of demoralilzation in a company wracked by the defection, emigration, and suicide of some of tis best dancers. We see some encouraging signs of change – toward acceptance of a slightly broader, “Neo-classical” Balanchinian style of dance, and toward the development of some more contemporary choreography.  Creatively the Kirov is slowly beginning to open a window to the West.
End Summary

4. It has been 22 years since the Kirov Ballet last performed in the United states. With the Company’s American tour now set from mid-=May to early June in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington (The Washington dates are expected to be June 1-5, at Wolf Trap), this may be an appropriate time for an in-depth look at the present state of the legendary organization that is often referred to as the cradle of classical ballet. Consul General Magee has been following the Kirov closely for over two years and has seen some 75 performances of the 25 ballets in the current repertoire. These are his first hand observations.

Background: Fountainhead of the Classical Style

“The Kirov corps does not explain, but does land you squarely
in front of the ultimate mystery of the academic ballet: now
an essentially abstract code, a system of movements only
glancingly related to ordinary human action, can send a message
to the heart.”  Dance Critic Joan Ross Acocella

5. The Kirov Ballet- bright spring of classicism, and the source of much that is sturdiest and most beautiful in Western Ballet– is in its 283rd season [note: that makes it, in 2019, 316 years of operation] It is the second oldest dance company in the world, after the Paris Opera. Until at least the 1960’s the Kirov was generally regarded as the finest ballet company in the Soviet Union. For many decades the company’s style of dancing was found nowhere else. Just as art reflects environment, so does the Kirov reflect Leningrad’s severe, classical architecture. The dancing is severe and refined. The style of performing is similarly restrained, compared to the relative flamboyance of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, where things tend to be done with of a flourish. The precise style of the Maryinsky – as the theatre was long known and as many older Leningraders still refer to it today – mirrored the tastes of the St. Petersburg Court and the aristocracy whom it was intended to entertain. Down in the sprawling city of Moscow the Bolshoi used to cater to expansive merchants who liked gypsy girls in their taverns and emotional excitement and grand spectacle in the theater.

6. In the early 19th century, The Russians gleaned the best brought in by the great foreign ballet masters and improved on it. By the late 19th century a body of work had been created that was destined to become world famous. Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Raymonda, La Bayadere, Nutcracker – all these were created for the Imperial Ballet, as the Kirov was then called. (It received its present name in 1935, a year after the assassination of the Leningrad Communist Party head.) It had a historic reputation with figures like Petipa, Fokine, Pavlova, Nizhinskiy [document spelling]. And the best ballet school in Russia was the Institute in St. Petersburg.

“Some of the best people go from the Kirov to the Bolshoi. But
it’s a one-way street.” Kirov Soloist Alla Sizova

The English National Ballet’s New Giselle

12 Nov

Except for a probable funding caveat requiring James Streeter to dance as Albrecht in the filming of Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet, under Tamara Rojo’s direction, that company dances up a true international storm, including her presence as principal dancer and artistic director with her commissioning this stunning reinterpretation of the 1841 Romantic classic.

Thanks to Judy Flannery, the San Francisco International Dance Film Festival screened Khan’s Giselle November 3 at the Delancey Street Screening Room. She stated we were seeing it ahead of general release. I felt like giving her a grand curtsy for making such stellar connections.

Dance Tabs has reviewed this production so I was aware Khan placed it in a Bangladesh clothing factory with the men and women workers, in semi-dark to just above gloaming, first-class, unrewarding atmosphere. Albrecht here is slumming and Hilarion is some sort of low rung supervisor, with his eye, of course, on Giselle. Hilarion’s distinguishing mark is a bowler hat which, at one point, he places on Albrecht’s head to distinguish him from the workers.

American-born and trained, Jeffrey Cirio dances Hilarion. Cirio’s Hilarion smacked of the street-wise operator, clearly in love with Giselle, deeply competitive with Albrecht, raising the grim hand-marked wall, allowing the aristocrats to emerge. I saw Cirio earn the junior bronze at the USA IBC in Jackson’s VIII’s Competition where Isaac Hernandez earned the junior gold. [Hernandez created the role of Albrecht in Khan’s production.] I remember particularly Cirio shook the hand of each juror after learning of his award.

Rojo, like the other women, is dressed in romantic length tutus which appeared ready for the discard bin – uneven hems, mottled light blues or blush tones as I remember, dirt-poor creatures who have found once diaphanous frocks. The men wear faded shirts, sleeves rolled up, if my impression is correct, well-worn nondescript trousers. The costumers must have had grim pleasure weathering the apparel.

Rojo’s hair was partially drawn back in either a braid or coil from the temples. As she danced opposite Albrecht she frequently placed a hand on her abdomen, signaling they were actual lovers, his dancing confirming it. The camera frequently moved in as Rojo/Giselle danced, her glance steady on Albrecht, lips moving slightly in anticipation of contact, additional passion.

Musically, the score only faintly, sporadically referred to Adolph Adam’s lyricism, More frequently, there was dissonance and a lengthy sequence where the entire ensemble moved left and right beating, a repetitive rhythm with their feet. With the sense of filtered light in a grimy place, the effect riveted one’s reaction, wondering just how the betrayal can occur. Among the other actions, the ensemble, Giselle and Albrecht placed their hands on the wall’s hand prints covering the entire back wall at human height.

Effective theater, the gesture carries Indian historical precedence. When Rajput warriors were defeated or killed in battle, rather than submitting to rape or alien zenana life, their Rajput women chose to die by fire. Before flinging themselves into the fire, their pressed hand print against one of the citadel walls was their life testimony. I understand some prints are still visible.

If I were in the theater, I would know how Hilarion managed to lift the wall so that the Duke and Bathilde come forward. Haughtiness is an understatement for the pair. Both wear black, the Duke braid embellished with silver accents, a constant profile gaze and a near unmoving gesture of disdain. Bathilde, an oval-faced blonde, wears a gown whose stiffness resembles Elizabethan style, its pink-toned bodice revealing her upper torso to below the breasts, crusted with twinkling accents. And of course there are gloves. The contrast with the workers could not be more stark.

Still more interesting is the behavior of Albrecht and Bathilde. Still an utter facial mask, she almost cuddles him like a poor baby gone astray. Giselle’s inspection of Bathilde’s gown is  made, if diffidently, straight forward, touching the embroidery, almost as if she were saying, “I worked on this pattern.” The mad scene happens is rougher than the traditional;  Giselle rushes around after clutching her stomach and knocks against her fellow workers, physically pushing them, making me wonder if her madness might be connected with a miscarriage. This all occurs as the Duke and Bathilde have retreated in their icy dignity to the wall which closes behind them. When Giselle dies, the sordid setting of mill workers could not have been more effective, a telling subtext on English history with cotton mills and industrialization.

Apparently the film was being made in a theater for the camera recorded some members of the orchestra, the scarlet decor of the auditorium and the boxes.

Act II follows essentially the 1841 story line, but with little physical setting change. Myrthe is a tall, blonde whose hair is accented by the lighting. Her costume and that of the Wilis haven’t changed all that much except that they look cleaner. Instead of wings, these creatures carry long slender sticks, the type one uses in cabinet work. When they are pounded, the sound is insistent.
The sticks get used with great effect against Hilarion who tries to duck or elude them, but they slowly entrap him, his body captured against an imprisoning pattern, another of Khan’s arresting stage devices.

Myrthe bids Giselle to employ her stick after there has been the most tender of contacts with Albrecht. Instead, devoid of the dawning sun, Giselle takes the stick against her diaphragm, maneuvering it on Myrthe’s chest, and, steadily, the two move backward on the stage until the wall of hand prints swallows the two wraiths, leaving Albrecht frantically feeling the hand prints on that miserable factory wall.

It was to make one feel wiped clean.

Kim Kimun, Solor, in the Maryinsky’sLa Bayadere

8 Nov

As I start these comments on Sunday afternoon, Kim Kimun [Korean style placement] is doubtless taking class, gearing up for his role as Solor, the Indian nobleman, in the final performance of the Maryinsky Ballet’s La Bayadere. It also features the lovely first soloist Olesya Novakova as the fated bayadere, a dancer dedicated to the temple. Together, they make the crazy plot believable.

Perhaps the Wednesday October 30 performance was ice-cutting for the company with the Berkeley audience. The major artists from the Maryinsky’s last appearance in Berkeley were not listed. When I saw the November 1 performance, the company was energized beyond belief; and I believe the Berkeley response was partially responsible. I also believe the dramatic commitment and energy of the two principals, Novakova and Kim played their part in the dynamics. As Dora Stratou said of Cyril Atanasoff, “He believes -Il croire.” For nineteenth century fantasy that’s going and then some.

Novakova and Kim off stage must be small; on stage the pair is just right, height bringing a freedom to attack, hurl or fling themselves, most correctly of course, into their variations. When necessary, they are deliciously delicate in gesture, the refinement enough to blow one away.

When Kim enters, his eyes alert, gestures naturally commanding, one swallows appreciatively.  For all the regal manner he conveys eagerness to see Nikiya; with the skill of the slave [Konstantin Zverev] their flavor of conspiracy is strong. He mimes authoritatively, although the quality in his hands reminds me of Asian calligraphers and their connecton with the brush.

When it comes to elevation, Kim’s is high, clean, true to the impulse being expressed choreographically. Watching him concentrate when supporting Novakova in turns, there is a no nonsense dispatch. Seeing the two of them together with their excellent chemistry, I wondered what they would do in a ballet like Manon or even in that protracted farewell, Lilac Garden.

Soslan Kulaev as the High Brahman seemed more believable in his mime and reactions and Andrei Yakovlev more lofty in his designs. Nadezhda Batoeva made Gamzatti calculating and nuanced in her confrontation with Nikiya and Nikiya’s reactions in Scene 2 setting the stage for Act II, where the Rajah had shifted the ceremony [minus the catastrophic Act IV] to the Palace gardens.

I did not note the entrees in Act II previously, but the Rajah arrived in a palanquin, followed by a smaller one, with a topping of white feathers, for Gamzatti. The Golden Idol was borne a tapestry wound around two poles, exiting right; a howdah on a wheel-drawn elephant conveyed Solar from right to left, the three principal males emerging from the right seems comme il faut.

If Petipa desired to dazzle  the Imperial Romanovs with numbers he succeeded in Act II. There are six dances listed, including the supporting couples for the Gamzatti-Solor pas de deux, the would-be Indian dance backed by several men, and a bevy of young women bearing parrots as well. Having witnessed several public events in India, it’s entirely appropriate, but one wants to get on with the central pas de deux, where Kim covered the stage and the air with authority, Batoeva dispatched the necessary fouettes nearly sur la place, before Nikiya’s mournful solo, watching Solor fidget, wishing he was anywhere but in this current dilemma, Rajah Dugmanta supporting Gamzatti after her attempts to calm Solor receiving zero response. Kim conveys surprise and distress with his gestures, his body as well as his eyes. Novakova, in her plum-hued choli and pajamas, seemed to convey her desperation in her naked torso fully as much as her required, mostly bourreed solo, her eyes looking beseeching to Solor, who manages to acknowledge her, seeming to prompt the vigorous passes preceding the fatal gift of flowers. Concurrently the Rajah directs the attendant to procure the fatal flower basket; the all-knowing slave picks up on the impending disaster, tugging at the hem of the High Brahmin, who is ready with the poison antidote; Nikiya refuses and dies.

Following the 20 minute intermission, The brief Scene I of Act III leads us into Solor’s cavernous inner chambers where he rushes in, garbed in blue, having worn white in Act II; the ever present slave is adjusting his water pipe, so it is clear when Solor uses it, a dream state on his down stage left divan is not far away, assisted by a cross-legged flute player just right of center stage.

With the beginning strains of the haunting melody, Scene two  unfolded its glories. Even with the stage limitations, the emergence of the 32 shades progressed as it usually does down a ramp, one shade executing her arabesque to the audience, the next away from us, the lines weaving first left and then right until all thirty-two are assembled. Despite the lack of the ramp, this entree is a ravishing sight, clearly a definitive mark of Petipa’s knowledge of stagecraft and use of dancers. When they are all through with their orderly movement, an adjustment ripples and in depths of four with nine across, the sur la place bourrees begin as well as the bends and stretches. The purity of technique and oneness of impression is magical. When the ensemble moves into lines stage left and right, permitting Solor to come rushing from upper stage right, four dancers vanish due to Zellerbach’s stage limits.

Solor enters from upstage right, swiftly reaching downstage left with grand jete’s “Where is she?”; there she is upstage right, eyes down cast, shimmering as she bourrees sur la place. Solor makes a bow, contrite, and they move off stage to make room for the three shades ensemble and variations.

The remainder of Act III, Scene 2 proceeded as planned, danced like a remembered dream, which it is for Solor; I sat, like the others, reveling in the clarity, the fleeting purity mirrored in the danced conception of doomed class disparity. Perhaps only Sleeping Beauty realizes tribulation morphing into love and union, where no class divisions sully the emotions, only the wrath of Carabosse.

At the end Novakova and Kim shared the bravos with Gamzatti, the Rajah and the High Brahmin, coming out of the blue curtain to acknowledge the ovation, the shouts and applause.

Finishing this, I watched Kim’s dancing on You Tube, not remembering him so much from the 2010 USAIBC singly, but the fact that he and Chae Ji Young, now a principal with Boston Ballet, won best junior couple in addition to her junior gold, KIm won junior silver, the junior gold going to Marcellino Sambé of Portugal, now with England’s Royal Ballet. There was something endearing in the Korean demeanor, a mixture of confidence and diffidence placing the outpouring in perspective. It’s gratifying to reconnect with the promise seen nearly a decade ago and witness its exhilarating fulfillment.

The Kirov’s La Bayadere at Zellerbach

1 Nov

Despite smoke and fires north of San Francisco Bay and off-and-on-again power problems , Cal Performances presented the first of six performances of the famed Maryinsky Ballet in the Marius Petipa ballet La Bayadere October 30. It was a feat of accommodation for the St. Petersburg company; its physical set and the company’s roster of dancers were presented with operating problems absent in that venerable theater in northern Russia. Met them they did for an audience ready to roar, holler bravo and provide a standing ovation at the final curtain, making up in appreciation for the empty seats in the back of the orchestra.

There were three casts for the principals, each dancing two performances, the Kondaurova-Yermokov 10/30 and 11/2 matinee; Khoreva-Shklyarov 10/31, 11/2 evening; and Novikova-Kim, 11/1 and 11/3 matinee.

While I data recite, let me state this traveling ensemble lists four principals, six first soloists, eight second soloists, two character artists, five coryphees, 30 women and 34 male corps de ballet, total: 109 dancing artists. Add 64 for the orchestra, thirteen administration staff [ including the conductor ]with 22 technical personnel the traveling roster numbers 227. While the Maryinsky resident roster is probably double, that’s still a formidable lot of luggage and humans to shift from location to location.

This 1877 tale parallels Giselle’s fate in would be Hindustani costume, with a kinder post-mortem fate. My introduction came in 1995 with the Korean National Ballet, the production set by retired Bolshoi ballerina Marina Kondratieva. The Royal Ballet presented the Kingdom of the Shades when they danced at San Francisco’s Opera House. The second was Natalia Makarova’s production for American Ballet Theatre with Bissell, von Hamel [Gamzatti] and, I think, Gelsey Kirkland as Nikiya. San Francisco Ballet also mounted Act III at least twice under Makarova’s direction, once with Muriel Maffre and Pierre-Francois Villanoba in the Nikiya-Solor roles.

With this familiar plot line, Zellerbach was hosting the company most associated with this tale of woe and transcendence in far-off regal Injah. Those familiar with the chronology can recognize Petipa’s capacity to interject, in much laundered fashion, one of the big European power struggles of the nineteenth century, sometimes sub-titled The Big Game. England and Russia vied for dominance and influence in central Asia; from this period comes the Khyber Rifles, a history of the disastrous results of attempted English incursions in Afghanistan. Russia got its chance under the Soviet Union, but it too foundered in that mountainous country; one knows all too well what’s been happening with the U.S. presence there.

That said, we are ushered into a lush tropical temple compound where an evening ritual is to commence at a central fire in front of a Buddha statue [!], the entrance to the sanctum upstage left, with a imposing carved door, and introduced to a slave [Konstantin Zverev] dashing in from stage right, half bent over, arms outstretched. Soon, Solor  [Andrei Yermakov] enters with a retinue of hunters bearing the carcass of the hunt. The retinue of hunters are dismissed with carcass, and Solor mimes he wants to see the water pot bearing maiden; the slave indicates she will come for the evening ritual. I’m certain Petipa implied slave was another word for the untouchable caste.

Out come a cadre of priests and bayaderes from the temple; from the back stage bushes a tidy little group of slaves who follow the correct classical paces of the bayaderes, whirling energetically around the sacred flame after The High Brahmin (Soslan Kulaev) has raised his arms in ritual drama. Nikiya emerges alone, as principal bayadere, bearing a water pot like the others supplying drink to the slaves.

Ekaterina Kondaurova as Nikiya appears tall, slender, brunette, is deliciously classical in a costume baring her torso from diaphragm to mid-hip. Extensions, attitudes and arabesques are high; she leans forward a bit excessively, but there is simply no question about her suppleness. When she is dancing you can sit back letting the visual pleasure pour over you, nary but one slight wobble in the Shades.

After her initial dance High Brahmin confesses his love; she rejects him; not once but twice when he importunes her. A tall man, golden headdress and scarlet robe, he takes it hard. [To my knowledge Brahmin/Hindu priests as well as historical Buddhist priests are bare-headed. Change occurred when Buddhism moved north along the Silk Route.]

Once the entourage has marched back into the temple, the slave manages to signal Solor; he and Nikiya meet, greet, and Nikiya gets Solor to pledge his love. The program notes indicate Solor wants Nikiya to run away with him; that didn’t seem clear .

Act One’s Scene two is largely mime, advancing the nasty plot at Rajah Dugmanta’s palace; daughter Gamzatti is informed she will meet and marry the man to whom she was betrothed in childhood; apparently portrayed on the left of this cavernous domicile; initial moments happen around chairs and a table downstage right. Gamzatti and Solor meet; he likes what he sees, but remembers Nikiya.

Dugmanta (Andre Yakovlev) requests the High Brahmin to officiate and have Nikiya dance; the Brahmin objects, spilling Solor-Nikiya’s relationship. Dugmanta declares Nikiya will die, and the Brahmin warns the danger in killing a servant in the temple.

Eavesdropping Gamzatti gets Nikiya brought to her, tempts her with a bracelet, displays Solor’s portrait, announce the impending marriage. Gamzatti tries to get Nikiya to relinquish the pledge, Nikiya refuses, grabs a nearby knife; bloodshed is prevented by Gamzatti’s attendant.

Act II provides the full-fledged razzmatazz, ensemble variations galore capped by a pas de deux for Gamzatti and Solor, finished off by Nikiya’s forlorn solo, the fatal snake bite, the Brahmin’s attempt to save her and Nikiya’s death. The Golden Idol variation was danced by slender David Zaleyev, his elevation from standing position impressive, his space covering equally notable. His appearance was almost in and out, none of the eclat given the two other productions I’ve seen. Four bayaderes preceded him; their’s were the costumes with draped white panel speaking to sari drapery.

Included were a drum player [Oleg Demchenko], a bevy of dancers bearing parrots on one hand, a would-be Indian dance, unrecognizably North American or sub-continent, and a pas de six, four women, two men preceding the pas de deux for the betrothed. Here Yermakov made up for his required formalism in his brief variation, covering the stage with long, swift strides, a glow and smile on his face. As Gamzatti Yekaterina Chebykina, a shapely blonde, provided fouettes almost sur la place, finishing with a tad of the show man.

Nikiya’s mournful dance was lush, the orchestra’s plaintive notes echoed in bourrees, port de bras, Nikiya’s bent head, drooping shoulder lines, broken by a frenzied series of stabbing passes. Being humiliated having to dance before her lover and his intended bride, it remains an affecting solo. With Nikiya’s death by an asp, we are prepared for Act III, the Kingdom of the Shades. But first, there was a curtain and Chebykina  was given a floppy bouquet.

The Kingdom of the Shade demonstrated how cramped Zellerbach is for large productions; no ramp, and when the 32 shades finally line up four deep nine across, its dazzling white got cut to 24 when the ensemble lines up down stage right and left, the other twelve assembling where space does not compromise sequence. With out question this is the Maryinsky’s native heath, and Ekaterina Kondaurova was what one wanted in a classical ballerina, amply supported by Yermakov. The three shades, physically smaller, made their impression as well, the third variation by May Nagahisa particularly appealing.

Throughout the audience responded to technical brilliance and at the end, as Kondaurova received her bouquet, she responded with a lovely smile. For all the
history of U.C.’s agitations, this audience really liked this vestige of imperial Russia which has been nurtured and performed into the 21st century.

Fall Trio at Z Space for Axis

29 Oct

The second of three performances of Axis Dance Company’s fall season at Z space in San Francisco October 26, the program started a little late because of late ticket demand. Not a bad thing for an interesting evening, followed by a Q&A adroitly handled by Rita Felciano.

For those unfamiliar with Axis, it is a, if not The dance company to pioneer where dancers with disabilities appear with fully active dancers in works created for the ensemble. Marc Brew joined Axis as Artistic Director in 2017 with the retirement of Judith Smith, the founding director. Former Axis dancer Sonsherée Giles has recently returned to the company as Rehearsal Director and Artistic Advisor.

First up was Flutter, a revised Robert Dekker trio, with marvelous, thoroughly fringed cream-toned unitards, danced by Bradford Chin, Yuko Monden-Juma and Del Marco Sleeper. The work, originally created in 2009 for three women, has also been performed by three men. All versions were set to Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music” and the “D Minor Partita for Solo Violin” by our friend J.S. Bach.

Special to the swooping arms and supple torsos were the additional swift turns and tilts to Del Marco Sleeper’s wheel chair, his ability to stop abruptly and to lift Monden-Juma when required. His presence amplified the qualities and gravitas of Bach.

Jennifer Archibald’s Petrichor-the smell of earth after rain was the first of two world premieres, set to music by Byron Metcalf and Steve Roach and Fennesz’ In My Room, costumes by Julie Bell. Utilizing all six company members with portions utilizing the considerable circus techniques of A. J. Guevara, there was a progression from the ensemble starting recumbent and curled. Some sections I felt were less about the smell of earth than winds scattering dampened leaves, the music reaching too many peaks as emphasis before the final grouping,  but served to display the skills of all six dancers.

For these two works Production Manager Walter Holden served as lighting designer.

Without question, the evening’s biggest draw was Arthur Pita’s latest choreographic scenic work, Alice in Californiland, designed by Yann Seabra, lit by Allen Willner to Maurice Ravel’s  “La Valse” and “California Dreaming” by Jose Feliciano.  Pita’s works last seen were with San Francisco Ballet, Salome and  Bjork Ballet for the 2018 Unbound Series..

The production was a stand out, opening with a canvas cloth stretched on the floor depicting San Francisco’s bridges in black and some orange. At stage back was a scruffy banner which rose at strategic points with a message, sounds of traffic emanating from some overpass, and odd shaped signs dotting both sides of the stage with messages, ranging from “Help Me!” to “Too ugly to prostitute, too stupid to steal.” The signs were whisked away for what we witnessed as Ravel’s score progressed from low rumbles to frenzied finish.

Commencing the work, every one is seen inert, sonomulent, Lani Dickinson and Yuko Monden-Juma in the center, curled against each other. The scene evolved with Dickinson in a short full skirt and bodice of blue, A J. Guevera in a pail green sack moving caterpillar like, Yuko Monden-Juma in a fluffy-textured pink tunic picking her way on her elegant legs, head encased in a beaked bird mask I attributed to Telegraph Hill parrots, but was meant to be a flamingo, Bradford Chin sporting a gilded cardboard crown, all whirling around to Ravel’s “La Valse.” Dickinson was tossed around, Monden Juma shed the tunic, her leotard body sporting a carryall with the word Hamilton on it, wandering or curling up disconsolately when not being buffeted by the male characters. In that fetal position she reached into her kit and withdrew, you guessed it, a length of small rubber hose, shooting up before wandering in a drugged daze. The frenzied sound of Ravel accompanied Dickinson’s loss of her blue gown, the work ending as the two young women curled, clinging to each other to the sounds of “California Dreaming”.

During the action, the once white canvas stage back was raised progressively, each line matching the action. At the finale, the entire message raised the question, Have You Ever Felt Invisible? In the program a small square of paper offered audience members a guide suggesting behavior when encountering the homeless.

No question an , in your face work on the situation besides the Golden Gate and
elsewhere in sunny California, blessed with remarkable visual reinforcement and six committed artists, who plunged, turned, left, covering space wholeheartedly and effectively.

What missed the mark was character development, more than shivers by Monden-Juma, the astonishment of Dickinson. We simply did not become acquainted with a street sleeper, only postures, habits, situations. Given the choice of Ravel, I also wonder whether that would have been possible. Still, the production and subject matter had a distinct effect on the  warmly receptive audience.

After a brief statement by the Axis president, Abbie Dutterer , a Q and A followed led by Rita Felciano. She initially thanked Arthur Pita for making a work about S.F.’s lesser occupants and asked him how he had come to select the subject. Pita recounted having seen a recumbent homeless woman en route to his dinner when he was mounting a work for San Francisco Ballet. He said she was inert, and also observed how she was ignored by other pedestrians. When he finished his dinner she was gone.

Artistic Director Mark Brew commented the work had been two years gestating,  Axis collaborating with Hospitality House and other organizations involved with the homeless to be certain the production rang true.  Mary Rogus, acknowledged in the program notes, thanked Axis for being so attentive to this marginal population.

One woman in the audience with experience with the homeless spoke eloquently of the need to acknowledge their existence, enforcing the emotion of that grungy canvas.

Flamenco, Jerez Style

29 Oct


Jerez de la Frontera to me has been associated with sherry and probably in connotations of many others. Clearly a part of Andalusia, Nina Menendez, artistic director of Bay Area Flamenco Society in the San Francisco Bay Area has seen to it Jerez displayed an additional gem amongst the Flamenco enclaves of that area so entwined with Moorish and Sephardic influence.

The evidence came to San Francisco’s Brava Theatre October 25 in the person of Maria del Mar Moreno and four other artists in their tidy, warm quintet featuring Maria, the singer Agujetas and guitarist Pepe del Morao. The audience adored the opportunity, standing after the singing as well as at the finale. The program, listed as Fall for Flamenco 2019, was titled Cante Gitano Andaluz, in the program featuring Agujetas and Morao. The quintet appeared close knit, familial, deeply attuned to each other.

Unusual to me was the presence of two younger women, singers of great energy from one, sustained passion from both in their remarkable rapport with Maria, Zaira de la Malena and the younger Tomasa Pena Santiago. For additional spice Luis de la Tota, tall and spare, possessed of an abundant head of shoulder length white hair, contributed steady palmas and at least two infecting bursts of taconeo.

The guitarist, Morao, small and tidy of frame with wavy hair, was mesmerizing, his opening chords remarkably resonant. Carlos Carvajal mentioned the guitar was larger than usual and flamenco strings are entirely gut, adding to the power in its sound. I have no idea what the names are for the techniques of guitar playing, but from delicacy, evoking twilight of a warm day to swift, violent, repeated strokes, accented by brief strokes on the guitar wood, Morao wove an environment where nothing mattered but the music he was producing.

Then there was Maria del Mar Moreno. She is soul sister to the late Bharata Natyam exponent Balasaraswati in spirit and in demeanor, tall, on the matronly side, matter of fact in entrance, clearly in charge of her small enclave, minus fussy about said fact, comfortable in her limits, a definite, generous spirit. When she began to move, there was none of the swish usual with the bata de cola. Front, center and a barrage of taconeo, thank you very much, face slightly frowning in her declaration. One or two bursts, and she left the stage to de la Tota and Pena Santiago, the former who cavorted a bit, grasped the ends of his shirt elegantly as he turned.

Tomasa Pena Santiago favors a sartorial style proclaiming glamor with a slit to the knee and a plunging neckline at the breast with strands of hair falling at the sides of her temples. Seated, she sang with a mike, accompanied by del Morao’s guitar.

Next, Moreno returned from stage right, her body clothed in red, a pretty costume, spectacular only because the chiffon-like full skirt was accented by a plethora of ruffles. To the voice of Zaira de la Molina, statuesque in black standing profile mid-stage left close to Morao’s guitar, Maria de la Mar Moreno alternately stood or paraded in a self-chosen small circle thundering away with taconeo, occasionally lifting those cherry hued skirts displaying slender legs and shoes with well-shod insteps. She looked at the audience, paid attention to Zaira as if voice and taconeo were in familiar conversation, q and a, and just once or twice smiled at the audience, or shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “So there!” Once or twice she awarded the audience with a smile the essence of friendliness. We were all captivated.

After Maria acknowledged fan-laden applause, it was intermission before Pepe del Morao demonstrated his sensitive command of guitar and the flamenco idiom following our break for conviviality. The range from aching delicacy to thundering, repeated emphasis was reassuring that the tradition was in appropriate hands, and was doubly emphasized when he accompanied Diego Agujetas arrived to sing.

Confessed ignoramus as I am, I don’t remember ever hearing the tonal range of a singer that Agujetas poured forth. What ever words he uttered seemed to be surrounded by a shifting amplifier, the sound slightly nasal but vibrant in delivery, gently tuning or pushed urgently, impatiently as if the meaning of the words simply were inadequate to the emotion. The closest analogy was the manipulation of an pipe organ,  coming from a single human voice Agujetas’ accomplishment was like hearing the organ’s stops manipulated from softest pianissimo to full throttle; the effect profound, never mind the words.

It also was obvious the two men shared more than music.

Maria’s second appearance was in black, accenting the somber passionate lament and anger in her taconeo, the use of her arms, her expression as she exchanged regards with Zaira de la Malena was an exchange deeply intimate. The passion of her taconeo along with the inward swoop of her arms emphasized the gravity, frustration and sorrow she had assembled with her posture and the concentration on her face. The exchange was clearly beyond the usual cantina explosion, something profound if fleeting.

And that was it, save for a standing ovation, a brief bulerias for the ensemble to acknowledge our enthusiasm. Leaving the Brava feeling I felt a witness to intimate flamenco.

Thank you Nina Menendez.