Magazine article The New Yorker

A Tale of Three Cities

Magazine article The New Yorker

A Tale of Three Cities

Article excerpt

The Kirov Ballet, of St. Petersburg, is now at the Metropolitan Opera House, courtesy of the Lincoln Center Festival, and the company has brought us a nice bouquet of Russian classics--"Swan Lake" and "Don Quixote," together with a very sumptuous, very long new production of "La Bayadere" that supposedly reproduces the 1900 version. The thing to see this season, however, is not a Russian ballet but an American one, George Balanchine's "Jewels," from 1967.

Russia's dancers look different from ours. For one thing, their teachers spend as much time on port de bras--the carriage of the arms, shoulders, and head--as they do on steps, with the result that there is almost as much action in a Russian dancer's upper body as in the lower. Russian ballet also has a great deliberateness. When the dancers are about to go into a pirouette, they do a big, squatty preparation. When they hit a pose, they often hold it, so that you'll have time to admire it. (They don't mind taking bows in the middle of a number.) Finally, Russian dancers see acting as part of their job. In St. Petersburg, when people describe a dancer's performance as "artistic," what they are saying is that it was dramatic. Anyone who has seen Mikhail Baryshnikov onstage will know what this means, and, of course, it is consistent with the fact that most Russian ballets have been story ballets.

None of these traits would be so clear to us if Balanchine, when he left the Soviet Union and came to the United States--where he basically created our national ballet style--had not set himself against them. Actually, he had no quarrel with port de bras; he taught it. But, at least in his later years, he didn't spend a lot of time on arms. He was too busy with legs, which he was training to maximum speed and virtuosity (forget Russian deliberateness) and to a kind of musical responsiveness that would be the vehicle of meaning (forget Russian acting). "Don't worry about your soul," he said. "I want to see your foot." It's not that he didn't care about the soul. He just thought that the soul was in the feet. He was a mid-century American abstractionist.

Compared with Balanchine's style, which we are now so used to, the Russian way of dancing looks old-fashioned, but beautifully so, when it is done right. Those arms are gorgeous, and the deliberateness, too, can be a lot of fun. (When Russian dancers break a number for ovations, they get them.) But going from pose to pose detracts from musical responsiveness--and also from through-line, the sense of a single unfolding. It can make the dancers look stagy, and stodgy. As for the acting, it is sometimes wonderful, as with Baryshnikov, and at other times it's the corniest thing you ever saw.

In ballet, as in all arts, national styles are now being eroded by globalization. Russian dancers lived poor for a long time. Now they want DVDs and outfits from Dolce & Gabbana, and they can make a lot more money in the West than in Russia. Hence their steady migration to America in the last decade. This is terrible. A hundred years ago, Russian artistic culture was one of the glories of the world. Stalin destroyed it, but the Russians will surely find their way back to it, and then move forward again. When this happens, the dancers should be there, for ballet was a central part of Russian culture. For those who remain, a very important figure has been Valery Gergiev, the current, charismatic director of the Kirov. He makes his artists proud to be members of his theatre, performing Russian works. Gergiev's prestige has also earned the Kirov companies extensive tours in the West, where the performers can pick up hard currency. Last fall, Michael Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C., closed a deal to present the Kirov Ballet every year for the next ten years. It was during the first of these visits, in February, that I saw the American premiere of the Kirov's "Jewels."

The piece is hard for the company. …

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