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Taking tragedy to new heights

The Kirov Ballet shines in 'Romeo and Juliet' at the Mariinsky fest.

October 19, 2006|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

SERGEI PROKOFIEV never intended to compose a three-act, three-hour "Romeo and Juliet." He wanted something shorter, swifter, more surprising -- perhaps something like the one-act "Prodigal Son" that he and George Balanchine had created for the Diaghilev Ballets Russes.

But the Soviet ballet police insisted on a monument to Socialist Realism and, mindful of the government oppression of Dmitri Shostakovich earlier in the 1930s, Prokofiev quickly recomposed and padded out his star cross'd score.

The result -- as choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky for the Kirov Ballet in 1940 -- opened the dance component of the Mariinsky Festival at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Tuesday.

Pinched strings and squally brass kept the performance by the company orchestra problematic despite the authoritative conducting of Pavel Bubelnikov. And some of Lavrovsky's choreography used Prokofiev badly -- especially those elephantine pseudo-tarantellas of Act 2, in which the Kirov corps dancers never clapped their hands or slapped their fake tambourines on the beat.

Influenced by Italian Renaissance painters, Pyotr Williams' opulent but heavy sets and costumes sometimes looked like an old color film that had faded to nothing but acid reds and golds, but the idea of placing the tomb scene outdoors, under the night sky, lent a welcome breath of fresh air to an increasingly over-curtained production. (Incidentally the Kirov doesn't tour with the black-and-white diamond patterned floor that Williams designed; the Bolshoi, however, does.)

There are better versions of "Romeo and Juliet" on international stages -- shorter, swifter, more surprising -- but, in the first of three different casts, the Kirov offered the magnificent Diana Vishneva as Juliet, and her performance not only broke your heart (which is what you want any Juliet to do), but also managed to neutralize some of Lavrovsky's most grandiose dance rhetoric.

Working beautifully with Andrian Fadeev as Romeo, Vishneva found a core of feeling in each scene that made all the upward / outward-reaching poses of the role not just monumental body-sculpture but a yearning for the freedom that this love would never enjoy.

The bedroom scene was exquisitely played by both dancers as a tragic farewell, as if they knew there was no chance for them whatsoever.

And though Fadeev isn't a dancer of Vishneva's distinction, he always supported and shadowed her devotedly as well as exuding impressive technical refinement.

Lavrovsky gave Mercutio a spectacular death scene but no coherent role before that -- nothing but superficial attachments to the other characters. So you can't blame Leonid Sarafanov for a cute bravura performance that left Romeo with no more motivation for vengeance than if the cute bravura Joker (Andrei Ivanov) had been killed.

Too many of the other supporting roles emphasized an obnoxious pantomime style akin to the most melodramatic silent-film acting, with Ilya Kuznetsov so over-the-top as Tybalt that he ceased to be a credible threat.

As Juliet's father, Vladimir Ponomarev began at the same level but artfully varied and even softened his characterization.

Pyotr Stasyunas remained a blank as Friar Laurence, Natalia Sveshnikova a more energetic blank as Juliet's nurse. Elena Bazhenova embodied chilly glamour as Lady Capulet until required to run amok atop Tybalt's corpse.

But more important than most of the roles with Shakespearean names were those nameless figures in white dancing at the ball or in the bedroom -- the collective embodiments of Kirov style and, as such, the trustees of a glorious tradition.

Unlike "Boris Godunov" or the symphonies of Shostakovich -- other components of the OCPAC Mariinsky Festival -- Lavrovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" is no imperishable achievement of Russian culture.

But the Kirov Ballet is exactly that. For more than 70 years of government meddling, a ruinous imposed aesthetic and the resulting hack choreography, it not only sustained the highest standards but also completely reconfigured and modernized Western classicism. Where it dances, whatever it dances, greatness reigns.


The Kirov Ballet

Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

When: 7:30 tonight ("Romeo and Juliet"). 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday ("Swan Lake").

Price: $25 to $110

Contact: (714) 556-2787,

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