There were no national anthems this time. Without pausing for anything that might suggest socio-political niceties Wednesday night, Evgeny Kolobov bathed the packed, 6,600-seat house in the brooding, surging, plaintive tones of the "Swan Lake" prelude.
In the process, he reminded us that Tchaikovsky was a great composer--something few ballet conductors in the West seem to know, or seem able to project.
Then the curtain opened. And opened. And opened.
The proscenium at Shrine Auditorium stretches roughly from Pasadena to Santa Monica. The full Cinemascopish stage of the musty old cavern is used, we were told, only for the circus. Ordinary ballet companies concentrate on the central half of the playing area and mask the sides with curtains.
The mighty Kirov of Leningrad, is, of course, no ordinary ballet company.
Some say it is the finest in the world. Leaving that useless hyperbole aside, it is easy to recognize that the Kirov is one of the finest companies, certainly one of the most refined and, as regards the wondrous corps de ballet , one of the most prodigious.
After a painful Cold War hiatus, the Kirov returns to America exemplifying a proud and noble tradition that goes back two centuries. One may not agree with every detail in this "Swan Lake." One may not admire all of the principals. Still, one must recognize the fundamental elements of greatness.
This is a company that seizes an ancient ritual and performs it with unparalleled conviction, urgency and elegance. This is a company that knows and savors the meaning of style.
Indoctrination is everything.
Igor Ivanov's ultra-romantic picture-book sets obviously were not designed for a stage of such ridiculous width. Undaunted--perhaps challenged--our Soviet visitors decided to stretch the scenery to the limit, at least in the exterior scenes.
The results turned out to be a bit disorienting to those who had seen the company within the more conventional scenic confines of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver last week. The dancers sometimes seemed to be communicating with each other from unaccustomed long distances.
Nevertheless, it was exciting, for once, to see that vast expanse of the infernal Shrine stage fully utilized.
The first act followed familiar patterns. The corps of Renaissance aristocrats--no peasants allowed here--performed with abiding grace. The pas de trois, in which the potentially flamboyant Aleksander Lunev partnered the exceptionally fleet Irina Chistiakova and Zhanna Ayupova, epitomized airy savoir-faire.
That pesky arch-Soviet Jester, Vitaly Tsvetkov, provided the wonted athletic diversions. The exceptionally eloquent Tutor, Aleksander Matveyev, exuded starchy melancholy. The Queen-Mother, Nina Mikhailova, looked too young and too bored.
Konstantin Zaklinsky, the Prince, looked like a tall, innocent, charismatic, muscular matinee idol and, fortunately, didn't have much fancy dancing to do.
Then came the White Swan episode. The stuffed birds floated serenely above their mirror-images across the watery backdrop. Elidar Aliev flapped his funny winglet-sleeves nastily as Rothbart.
The 32 swan maidens--count 'em, 32!--enveloped the scene with languid poetry, with willowy ardor, with degrees of formal precision and kinetic perfection that validated the loftiest Kirov legend at one incredulous glance.
Then came the great Ivanov pas de deux, and, with it, trouble.
Zaklinsky once again proved himself a virile and attentive porteur and a danseur with distinct limitations when the time comes for virtuosic flight.
The Odette was Galina Mezentseva, a ballerina who, for some unfathomable reason, is favored with the central assignment at most Kirov openings and on other gala occasions. Although a decent technician, she is eminently mannered in demeanor, scrawny in line, brittle in phrasing and monochromatic in emotional projection.
Her White Swan resembled nothing so much as an anorexic sparrow. As the Black Swan, she did muster the climactic fouettes neatly enough, but the only significant change in the image she projected involved the change in the color of her feathers.
The national dances, which other companies treat as an ennui marathon, are dispatched by the Kirov with dazzling speed and elan. However, on Wednesday a few jarring elements compromised the ball scene.
The Hungarian divertissement was led by the agonizingly thin-limbed Vladimir Kolesnikov (who, surprisingly, is listed as a Kirov principal). The evil upstart Rothbart took the unlikely liberty of sharing the royal throne with the Queen. And the final episode, in which the backcloth is supposed to become transparent to disclose a visionary panorama of expiring swan maidens, was botched.