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Kirov, revived

The famed ballet troupe owes much of its resurgence to its dazzling ballerinas.

October 12, 2003|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — Diana VISHNEVA is tired. The glamorous principal ballerina of Russia's Kirov Ballet has just flown in from Finland, where she danced Juliet opposite the Romeo of international star Vladimir Malakhov. It was a long flight, with stops in Paris and Atlanta.

Vishneva is catching up with colleagues, 120 of them, who came on torturous 24-hour flights from St. Petersburg, Russia, the day before for a three-week, six-city tour that began last week in Berkeley, continues this week in Los Angeles, then goes on to Costa Mesa, Detroit and Boston. The company has alighted in 150 rooms in a marina hotel. Sixty-six Kirov musicians are due the next day. Valery Gergiev, director of the Maryinsky Theater -- the company's home -- and conductor of the orchestra, will arrive in two days. Some crew members have driven from the East Coast.

Vishneva's long black hair tumbles over a purple cape tightly wrapped about a black sweater and casual pants sporting an impish bird print. Although it is nearly 10 at night, she is wearing dark glasses.

But when she starts talking about dance and the Maryinsky, she shakes off her fatigue and becomes animated and excited.

"Some people say, 'Enjoy your life, enjoy your dancing on stage and just be happy,' " she says, speaking through an interpreter as she relaxes in the back of a limousine speeding to Berkeley. "That's not enough for me. My concept of dance is pretty far from just enjoying it. I need to express my internal feelings, and this is more important than just enjoying being on stage."

As for stardom: "I never can do that alone. I have behind me the whole company, the coaches, the teachers, the partners with whom I am dancing. I always remember I represent the Maryinsky Theater. All that I have is because I am from there. It's an honor for me to be one of the presenters of the Maryinsky Theater."

Yet a star Vishneva most definitely is. She also is a symbol of the revitalized Kirov, a company that traces its lineage to the mid-18th century and that some say now is the greatest in the world, with new headliners who are exemplary in spirit and training and who dance with an unparalleled expressive depth and detail.

Unlike Moscow's splashier and more athletic Bolshoi Ballet, the Kirov has dominated ballet history simply by being the birthplace of 19th century classicism: the house where choreographer Marius Petipa's masterpieces -- "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty" and "Don Quixote" to name just a few -- were created and nurtured. It also was the training ground for such 20th century choreographic giants as George Balanchine and Mikhail Fokine.

A short list of the great dancers who have emerged from the Maryinsky Theater -- from Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina in the first half of the last century to Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov in the second -- is staggering. In recent years, the company has begun reaching out to embrace more modern Western choreographers -- not only Balanchine but also William Forsythe and Jerome Robbins, among others -- as well as cultivating younger Russian choreographers. This has led to a surprising result: Alexei Ratmansky, who created a "Cinderella" for the Kirov last year, has just been appointed artistic director of the Bolshoi beginning in 2004.

It's a troupe largely unknown to Angelenos, because the Kirov as a whole hasn't been here in 11 years.

The company will be dancing the full-length warhorse "La Bayadere" on Wednesday through Sunday at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood and then two programs -- Fokine's "Chopiniana" (a.k.a. "Les Sylphides") on a triple bill with his "Scheherazade" and "Firebird," and Balanchine's "Jewels" -- at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Oct. 21-26.

Vaziev shows the way

The resurgence of the Kirov after a decade of financial woes and artistic stagnation is credited widely to Makhar Vaziev, a former dancer who at 42 is the youngest director in the company's history. "The art of ballet, for me, is first of all the ballerina," he says, and when he took over in 1995, he recalls, his most immediate challenge was the Kirov's lack of female stars.

"For me, there was a question whether I would invite in the renowned ballerinas who had left or just start building up my own ballerinas," Vaziev recently said through a translator from the company's offices in St. Petersburg. "I knew the public wouldn't wait a long time. While I was bringing up the new ballerinas, people would blame me. But as soon as the results would show up on the stage, everybody would be satisfied. I made a choice. I knew what I wanted. And now, remembering those days, I know that was the right choice."

In fact, Vaziev nurtured three vastly different women -- Vishneva, Uliana Lopatkina and Svetlana Zahkarova -- who provided the new Kirov with a glittering diadem.

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