Homage to Fokine – Mariinsky Ballet: Covent Garden, 29 July 2011

The Mariinsky are good for Fokine

If you've got it, flaunt it. Diana Vishneva shows what she's made of for Scheherazade.

After an opening salvo of four sold-out Swan Lakes the Mariinsky Ballet have chosen a Mikhail Fokine triple bill as their next assault on the Covent Garden senses. Chopiniana (usually known as Les Sylphides in the West), The Firebird and Schéhérazade all show different aspects of Fokine’s prodigious talent and make for a rather enticing prospect when programmed together.

Can ballet get more classically froufrou than Chopiniana? As pretty as a ribbon on a wedding dress, this ensemble piece brings tears to the eyes of purists at its very mention. With the extraordinary timing of the Mariinsky dancers, the delicate balance and devastatingly intricate footwork of Yana Selina, Maria Shirinkina and Ksenia Ostreikovskaya and, to top it all, the spiritual homecoming of ex-Royal Ballet Xander Parish this performance had those purists reaching for their hankies well before the end.

Whereas Chopiniana is a lesson in control and restraint The Firebird is a demonstration of hyperactive restlessness. Ekaterina Kondaurova was outstanding as the lady bird, flitting in and out of sight, her yearning for freedom was forcefully realised and she simply dominated the stage. As a ballet though The Firebird is a strange beast and the clumsy triumph of feminine beauty over male brutishness appears old hat, especially when the victors immediately submissively reel themselves in to the chests of their handsome princes.

Schéhérazade is a colourful piece of Orientalist nonsense but Rimsky-Korsakov’s swirling score, Bakst’s dazzling costumes and Fokine’s erotically-charged choreography weave their Arabian spell to overcome the feeble plot. It helps having Diana Vishneva and Igor Zelensky in the lead roles. Zelensky may not quite have the virility in his leaps any longer but he remains a stunningly elegant dancer; he performs his pirouettes and turns with a grace and beauty rarely displayed by a male dancer and is simply a joy to watch. Vishneva’s riveting Zobeide is delicately poised on a cusp between naivety and sexual predation; the sensuous arch of her back when Zelensky runs his finger along her body was powerful enough to make even the most avid internet-user blush. The contrast with the asexual Chopiniana could barely be more pronounced.

Despite some unusually ropey playing from the brass section of the Mariinsky Orchestra and some odd spotlighting from the lighting crew, the quality in depth of the dancing across Fokine’s varied choreographic leanings showed the Mariinsky are still at the top of their game. A fitting homage to Fokine indeed.

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