The Berlin Ballet captures moments from Dostoevsky

In the beginning of Valery Panov's ballet "The Idiot," based on the novel by Dostoevsky, two men meet on a train. One man is small, dark, fiery, with burning eyes, and seems to clasp the other too tightly. The second man is a listener, although he too makes known his condition freely.

Panov played the role of Parfyon Rogozhin, and Vladimir Gelvan was Prince Myshkin, in the recent performance by the Berlin Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House. By the strength of their characterizations, evident from the opening scene, the focus of Panov, as in Dostoevsky, was the relationship between the two men, despite the myriad of action still to unfold in the three-hour-long ballet.

Although this first scene seems to follow the literary creation of Dostoevsky , except for the omission of Lebedev, the aspects that transmute one artistic form to another were present. There are no words, but movement, gesture, and facial expressions, highlighted by the men's eyes. The setting is a three-dimensional set pice of a train compartment with a moving landscape projected on the window, backed by a second level where the dialogue is mimed as if the two men were speaking visions.

It is this sense of the pictorial that delineates Panov's viewpoint of "The Idiot." Panov himself is known to his friends as an artist who expresses himself in small sketches. He has made a work in which the essence of Dostoevsky's novel is distilled in a swiftly movng series of stage pictures, animated by the larger-than-life characters of Rogozhin, Myshkin, Nastasya, and Aglaja, rather than chains of dancing.

His is a visualized "Idiot," as if the themes of the book and relationships of the characters can be caught in stage tableaux and frozen for an instant in one's memory. The climactic moments are framed on stage: the carnival in Act II with the huge Mother Russia Babushka doll, the charming country dance that opens Act III, with the small children seated on the rim of the stage, the ending, with the distillation of Myshkin's feelings symbolized by the enormous bell ringing out his personal doomsday. Over this hands the atmosphere of 19 th-century Russia, a combination of nostalgia and despair slightly askew, made more poignant by the real-life story of Panov's flight from his homeland.

Panov's conception of the pictorial and scenic designer Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's understanding of movement explain the success of the many elaborate settings. The scenic elements move, the choreography has been staged for the visual effect, so that the settings are almost a fifth major character in the action.

Panov's other artistic decision was to direct attention to the four major characters, diminishing the rich world of the secondary people in Dostoevsky's novel. Myshkin, Rogozhin, Nastasya, and Aglaja move through the three acts as if in frames of space separating them from the ordinary members of Russian society. The leading characters cannot be contained, in their passions, their attachments to one another, their involvement in the problems that bind them together. These are not people who rationalize, compromise or forget. They are ruled by their passions and see life in these terms -- and death, if necessary.

The German ballerina Heidrun Schwaarz portrayed Nastasya and Galina Panova played Aglaja in the performance I saw (there are various castings for "The Idiot" during the New York run, and for the performances at Kennedy Center in Washington, beginning July 30). Schwaarz's character was a full portrait of the complex woman, with her Act III solo at the doors of the church most expressive of the conflicts within her. Panova had less to do until the third act, but evoked sympathy for the resolution of her fate.

Perhaps these extravagant characters are harder to deal with in three dimensions than on a printed page. America in the 1980s is not accustomed to letting its passions rule -- "playing it cook" is more the standard. It may be this excessiveness and the acting that it requires that has made Panov's work, and his daring to attempt to change the novel into a ballet, so controversial.

There is no controversy about the audience reaction, however. On the night I was there they sat still during the three hours, then gave excited ovations at the end, as if to echo and participate in what they had seen.

The score, a melange of music from various works by Dmitri Shostakovich, was perfect for this large stage piece. Panov compiled the score over a period of time as he worked on the ballet.

"The Idiot" will be performed July 24-25 here, then in six performances at the Kennedy Center. Rudolf Nureyev, Panov, Panova, and Eva Evdokimova will be in the opening night cast in Washington.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.