Tuesday, February 19, 2008

St. Petersburg Ballet presents "Russian Seasons"

The Mondavi Center was packed on Friday night for the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s presentation of “Russian Seasons”. The company opened with “Chopiniana,” choreographed by Mikhail Fokine, which first premiered in St. Petersburg in 1908. At first, it took me awhile to adjust my eye to the pace of the romantic ballet and to the style of the company in general, as I have become accustomed to the “Western” ballet style dominated by Balanchine’s neo-classical aesthetic of precise athleticism, or more recently by William Fortsythe’s pyrotechnic articulations. Set to the music of Chopin, the piece consists of a series of gradually shifting tableaus, or frozen scenes that come to life slowly and subtly. The corps moves as a unit in architectural formations while several soloists emerge to portray “a young man’s dream”. But, it is far more abstract than the program notes led me to believe, and is best appreciated as a stylized movement poem of evolving landscapes, and a historical glimpse into the style of the world renown Russian Ballet company.

The next piece, “Scheherazade” with music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and choreography by Yuri Petukhov is based on the tale of a sultan, his wife (Scheherazade) and the story she weaves to escape her execution and win the sultan’s heart. Relying heavily on pantomime, the ballet follows the star-crossed lovers of Scheherazade’s fairytale in a series of pas de deuxs. The young couple is fierce and spunky in their movement vocabulary, while Scheherazade and her Sultan are portrayed with a more lush, luxuriant movement style. The dancer portraying Scheherazade, while exhibiting impressive flexibility and facility, did not carry the emotional weight or phrasing depth I wished for in such a role. The young couple and the executioner infused the ballet with a shot of adrenaline, and displayed the great technique and energy I expected from the legendary Ballet Company.

The highlight of the evening, however, was Petukhov’s “Bolero” set to Maurice Ravel’s famous score. The dancers start hunched over and bunched tightly in a dim pool of light. A cappella, they circle slowly while beating out the familiar opening rhythm with their feet. As the melody begins, a single male dancer breaks away from the group. He is barely distinguishable at first, but his solo becomes more clearly defined as the ever brightening downward spotlight highlights his presence. More dancers begin to break away in a reverse circle, creating a whirlpool effect. The corps maintains the rhythm and the weight of the music on the perimeter, while the soloists articulate the melody with their fluid and dynamic movements on the interior. The back curtain slowly opens throughout the piece, revealing a bright red backdrop as the dance and music builds, culminating in a mass unison flourish. The original soloist exuded a clear charisma coupled with a powerful technique that was not seen from the company until this point. He took his superb technique a step further to transcendence. His phrasing choices and intense focus left me feeling energized and inspired.

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