When I see them at the opera house, it is always for opera, and never for the ballet. Repeatedly and consistently, they have told me they can't watch American ballet companies, even one as good as ours, having been raised on the Bolshoi and Kirov. They're adamant about it to an amusing extent. Want to get a rise out of a Russian? Start talking to them about ballet and tell them how much you like San Francisco's company.
All of this was in the forefront of my mind as I stood in the lobby of Zellerbach Hall last Thursday night, watching the audience filter in to see the Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov) Ballet and Orchestra perform Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. The émigrés, unsurprisingly, were out in force and I saw a few familiar faces. It was my first time seeing a Russian ballet company, and I was curious to see if they were really as superior as their former countrymen claim.
The Mariinsky Orchestra got off to an alarmingly slushy start under Mikhail Agrest, though he soon brought it all into focus and for the rest of the performance a rich, lush sound emanated from the pit. The floor of the stage was covered in plastic or something, it wasn't wood, and the dancers visibly worked against this, creating a constant squeaking all night. At one point, Vladimir Schklyarov (Prince Siegfried) landed from a turn, grimaced, and grunted loudly, as if he'd hurt something, but he kept on and betrayed no sign of injury afterward. I'm certain the culprit was the floor. Apart from that, the performance was as magical as one could wish for, including the fairy-tale sets by Igor Ivanov and the exquisite costumes by Galina Solovieva.
Oksana Skoryk's Odette was one of the most graceful physical performances I've ever witnessed. Her arms indeed moved like wings, especially when she unfolded them, in an uncanny way, and she executed the fouettée with awe-inspiring precision, drawing perhaps the loudest and most sustained applause from the appreciative audience. As the black swan Odile, Odette's evil doppelganger, her face and movement took on a steeliness and determination, but she possessed the same beguiling grace.
Schklyarov, whose face has a wonderful openness to match his physical expressiveness, was convincing from his first moments during the birthday party through the end, never flagging, and his series of jetés produced audible gasps from the audience, justifiably so, but curiously I don't recall one lift of Skoryk.
Alexander Perish struggled with the floor more than anyone else, noticeably hedging some steps throughout the evening, and he seemed uncomfortable during the trio with Ekaterina Ivannikova and Nadezhda Gonchar (both, again, marvelous dancers), but he also had many fine moments. Siegfried's mother was the stately and beautifully costumed Elena Bazhenova, whose strong resemblance to Maria Callas gave her non-dancing role an additional presence and authority. The Evil Sorcerer Rothbart, whose costume topped them all, was well-executed by Andrey Solovyov with a highly menacing presence. The Jester was Ilya Petrov, whose lively spins and engaging manner made the most of the unnecessary role.
The swans were exceptional, almost always perfectly in sync, forming one gorgeous scene after another, and the national dance sequences were a delight, especially the Spanish one featuring Anastasia Petrushkova, Yulia Stepanova, Kamil Yangurazov and Karen Ionessian.
The Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra is part of the Cal Performances season.