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Exploring Prokofiev's back pages

The Kirov, the Bolshoi and the Paris Opera troupe delve deeper into the Russian composer's ballet repertoire.

November 06, 2005|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

AS a ballet composer, Sergei Prokofiev is best known for "Romeo and Juliet," "Cinderella" and "The Prodigal Son." But three recent releases on DVD feature three of the world's greatest companies performing lesser-known full-evening works by him.

In composing for dance, Prokofiev liked to use preexisting folkloric and ballroom forms, but he made them part of the specific instrumental landscape of each work -- witness the weighty tarantella in "Romeo and Juliet," the surging dream-waltz in "Cinderella" and the imposing Gypsy dances in "The Stone Flower." Orchestral might mattered to him, and it can be a challenge for dancers to match the sheer density of his music whether through technical bravado or acting intensity. These DVDs feature a number of approaches to just that issue.

Danced by the Kirov Ballet on Kultur ( and by the Bolshoi Ballet on Arthaus Musik (available from Naxos at, "The Stone Flower" (1957) was the last of Prokofiev's nine ballets -- and the first big success for Russian choreographer Yuri Grigorovich. Based on a folk tale about a craftsman's longing to become an artist, it can be considered a metaphor for Grigorovich's deepest personal ambitions at the start of his career.

Danced by the Paris Opera Ballet on TDK (available from Naxos), "Ivan the Terrible" (1975) was originally composed as a film score, but Mikhail Tchoulaki adapted the music for Grigorovich and the Bolshoi. Based on Russian history, the ballet depicts a tyrant's ruthless consolidation of power in a dangerous era and can be considered a metaphor for Grigorovich's iron-fisted leadership of the Bolshoi for 30 years.

The Kirov and Bolshoi "Stone Flowers" date from the early 1990s and offer an irresistible opportunity to compare Russia's highest-profile classical rivals. Simon Virsaladze designed both productions, but there are major differences in costume colors (especially in the jewels divertissements), stage properties (starting with the blossoms in the first scene) and the steps that Grigorovich assigned his troubled hero, Danila.

As might be expected, the Kirov capitalized on elegance, with Aleksandr Gulyaev remarkably pure in line as Danila but also persuasively torn between his character's love for Katerina (the dewy Anna Polikarpova) and the secret splendors revealed by the supernatural Mistress of Copper Mountain (the forceful Tatiana Terekhova).

Gulyaev expresses a genuine yearning for creative transcendence, but Nikolai Dorokhov -- his boyish, virtuosic Bolshoi counterpart -- just concentrates on the steps, often flashier than in the Kirov edition. His Katerina (Ludmilla Semenyaka) brings welcome complexity to her mournful solos, and his Mistress of Copper Mountain (Nina Semizorova) an edge of glee to her twisty vocabulary.

The Bolshoi looks strongest in the lengthy folk divertissement of Act 2, but director Moroko Sakaguchi doesn't always point his cameras in the right direction, especially during the horrifying death of the evil Severyan (an overwrought Yuri Vetrov).

Director Colin Nears makes the destruction of the Kirov's Severyan (the powerful Genady Babanin) appropriately startling and provides more artful transitions between scenes. Both performances seem to have been shot without an audience. Applause is dimly, briefly heard throughout the Bolshoi version, but it seems a post-production addition and never sounds like a genuine Moscow ovation until the curtain calls.

"Ivan the Terrible," by contrast, was shot two years ago in live performance, but it suffers from director Thomas Grimm's nervous switches of camera angles: too many too often for the dancing to make its full effect.

The work itself is pretty much delirious tosh, with scheming boyars, menacing jesters, Tartar hordes, scythe-bearing skeletons, secret police with whips and desperate bell ringers all running amok.

Unifying this nonstop choreographic excess, Nicolas Le Riche gives a heroic performance in the title role, whether crushing a palace conspiracy with fearsome intensity, stylishly executing the turning leaps that Grigorovich assigns virtually every character in virtually every ballet or suavely partnering the rather colorless Eleonora Abbagnato as his doomed wife, Anastasia.

Karl Paquette solos strongly as Kurbsky, the arch-conspirator with arched back, and whenever Grimm or Grigorovich makes the production unwatchable for any other reason, it's always fun to see aristocratic Parisian style confronting a rougher, cruder balletic reality.

The Paris and Bolshoi DVDs include booklets with detailed synopses and background essays. The Kirov set, alas, provides only a chapter list and brief plot summary, without the insightful essay on Prokofiev that accompanied the same performance in its VHS incarnation.

Special features? Cast biographies? Extras? None, unfortunately, for any of these releases.

Segal is The Times' dance critic.

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