The Kirov Ballet: ever faithful, ever elegant

Excitement over the North American tour of Leningrad's Kirov Ballet is based on the pursuit of an ideal. Like the hero in a 19th-century ballet, the dance community believes in a physical perfection, a nobility of soul, that has somehow survived from an earlier, purer time, and the Kirov embodies that ideal. It was the Imperial Russian ballet, of which the Kirov is the direct descendant, that crystallized classical ballet's technique -- its movement language -- and created its grandest theatrical works. The Kirov and its immediate predecessor, the Maryinsky school, have also produced some of the most extraordinary dancers, teachers, and choreographers of the 20th century, including Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, and George Balanchine, and the contemporary artists Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

The Kirov is where you go in the ballet world to look for impeccable training, elegance and expression in dancing, and faithful productions of the classics.

Philadelphia's sprawling, 5,000-seat orchestra shed, the Mann Music Center, was not the best place to savor a full-length Kirov classic, let alone assess the company after its 22-year absence from the United States. In fact, the whole rationale of the tour -- seven America and Canadian cities in just a month -- belongs to theater of the absurd: last minute bookings; no appropriate theaters available; no date in New York, the nation's dance capital; pressurized travel and rehearsal schedules; limited repertory.

Nevertheless, the performance I saw in Philadelphia did show off the Kirov resources and reveal some of its stylistic priorities.

Even though ``Swan Lake'' has been handed down in an unbroken line through the Maryinsky/Kirov ballet masters since its definitive form was reached in 1895, what we see today is only relatively authentic. Contemporary taste, politics, even the size of the stage can affect the look of a ballet, and the current Kirov ``Swan Lake,'' staged in 1950 by Constantin Sergeyev, is streamlined in several ways.

Modern ballet everywhere seems to go in for reduced clutter, and this ``Swan Lake'' has cut miming and dramatic byplay to a minimum. Siegfried's mother doesn't gesture to him that he must choose a wife, and Odette neglects to explain how she came to be under the spell of the evil magician Rothbart. The audience is informed about these things by a synopsis in the program. However superfluous, these mime passages can add depth to the characters and texture to the dancing. But character differentiation is not a major concern for the Kirov either.

The first act no longer mingles courtiers and peasants at the prince's pre-birthday party; everyone attending appears of equally high station. Perhaps even such an innocuous reference to a class system is not suitable for Soviet consumption, but throughout, this production goes for a more homogenous, less complicated cast of characters. The visiting delegations who entertain at the birthday ball with national dances of Spain, Italy, Hungary, and Poland retain very little ethnic distinction. The dances now seem mainly composed of ordinary ballet steps with a few typical gestures -- the arms and torso sweeping backward in the Spanish dance, the elbows folded and heels clicking together in the Czardas -- but no rhythmic emphasis or exotic fire.

On the other hand, more opportunities have been made for use of the standard classical vocabulary. Benno, the prince's friend, long banished entirely from American productions, has been reinstated as a jumping, twirling jester. The villain Rothbart (Elidor Aliev), usually played by a mime with mask and enveloping costume, is also a danced role, which makes him seem more like Siegfried's rival for Odette's affections than a demon who already possesses her.

These changes make for a certain theatrical blandness in the production, which was reinforced by the principals. Evgeny Neff, the Siegfried, made very little effort to project a character, and Lubov Kunakova was a monotonously tragic Odette and a uniformly triumphant Odile in the third act, where, as Rothbart's daughter, she tricks Siegfried into betraying Odette.

All this de-emphasizing of the theatrical elements had the effect of focusing attention on the dancing -- on the Kirov's superlative corps de ballet and attractive demi-soloists.

On a hot night in Philadelphia, with cameras clicking nearby, and neighbors humming familiar bits of the music, this dancing expressiveness came through to me and seemed to convey the whole argument for the tradition. It's not just that the Kirov corps is precise, that all the women's legs go up into the exact same angle of arabesque, or that they leave the ground exactly together for a jump. More than that, they seem connected to each other through space -- perhaps it's the music that links them, but the link is palpable. They can sense how far they are from each other even when moving backwards or in circles. They flutter -- you can feel the agitation in their feet -- when the music runs fast; they float when it slows. When Kunakova lifts her arms to simulate the wings of a woman-turned-swan, she makes me see an expanse of sky around her, with clouds and wind whipping past, an effect more real than what's painted on the backdrop.

In the last act, when Siegfried returns to the lake in remorse, eight black swans appear and thread their way through the lines of white swans. They seem to be Rothbart's envoys, symbolizing the presence of evil among the noblest spirits. And that presence overshadows a hokey, happy ending. This is metaphor without acting; perhaps it's the beginning of modern choreography.

This production was taped this week in performances at Washington's Wolf Trap-Filene Center and will be televised tomorrow at 8 p.m. (Check local PBS listings.) The company performs today through June 8 in Montreal and June 11-14 in Ottawa.

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