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Ratmansky Head Shot

Alexei Ratmansky. Photo: MIRA / ABT ©

As long as there are choreographers like Alexei Ratmansky around our hopes for the future of classical ballet as an art form are renewed. Now one of the world’s most sought-after choreographers, Ratmansky started his career as a ballet dancer with the Kiev Ballet in the Ukraine. Dancing soon took him out of Eastern Europe to various companies in the West where he was exposed to different choreographers and styles. Absorbing all these influences he started developing his own choreographic language, a personal mix of influences by Petipa, Bournonville, Ashton, Balanchine and Tudor woven into narrative or abstract choreography.

His achievements as the Bolshoi’s Artistic Director and a winning streak of new works, including those for New York City Ballet (NYCB), put him center stage. This led to his recent appointment with American Ballet Theatre (ABT) as Artist in Residence, a role tailored so that Ratmansky can create new work for ABT whilst continuing to choreograph worldwide.

While we follow his ABT career with interest and keep crossing our fingers for more of Ratmansky’s work in London, we leave you with some interesting facts & web notes on him.

Alexei Ratmansky in a Nutshell

Alexei Ratmansky was born in St. Petersburg in 1968. He grew up in Kiev, Ukraine where his father – a former gymnast – worked as an aeronautics engineer and his mother as a psychiatrist.  At the age of 10 he was accepted into the Bolshoi Academy (Moscow Choreographic Institute) to train under the guidance of Pyotr Pestov and Anna Markeyeva. His classmates included former ABT star and current Berlin Staatsballett Artistic Director Vladimir Malakhov, current Bolshoi director Yuri Burlaka and Bolshoi star Nikolai Tsiskaridze.

From early on Ratmansky showed an interest in experimenting with choreography but despite his talents in performing and in creating dances he was not accepted into the Bolshoi. Instead, he joined the Kiev Ballet as a soloist, dancing leading roles in the classics. During this period he met his soon to be wife, fellow dancer Tatiana Kilivniuk and juggled his dancing career with studying at the Choreographers’ Faculty of GITIS (today, The Russian Academy of Theatre Art – RATI). There he had the opportunity to stage his first ballet, La Sylphide-88. Set to Shostakovich‘s music this was a short work given in one single performance.

In 1992 while on tour in Canada, Ratmansky and his wife were invited to join the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. He continued creating small pieces, mainly for Tatiana, and became familiar with the works of Tudor, van Dantzig, Neumeier and Balanchine.

He quit The Royal Winnipeg Ballet and returned to Kiev in 1995 as a freelance dancer but left again to join The Royal Danish Ballet in 1997. During his seven years in Denmark, Ratmansky immersed himself in August Bournonville’s works. There he continued to create choreography whilst also becoming a principal dancer (2000).

Nina Ananiashvili soon spotted his talent and asked him to create short works for her international tours (the Golden Mask Winner Dreams of Japan, set to taiko drumming and flutes). The touring of these works boosted Ratmansky’s profile and led to his first commissions by the Mariinsky Theatre and the Bolshoi.

In 2002, he staged Cinderella for the Mariinsky and, in 2003, The Bright Stream, for the Bolshoi, as part of their Shostakovich celebrations. The Bright Stream had been originally created in 1935 by Fyodor Lopukhov to Shostakovich’s music but immediately discarded given Stalin‘s disapproval of “peasants on pointe”. Because of this Lopukhov was fired and Shostakovich never wrote a ballet score again. Reinventing the choreography on top of the original libretto, Ratmansky turned this “rejected ballet” into a great success.

Ratmansky full

Alexei Ratmansky Photo: MIRA / ABT ©

The Bolshoi Years

Golden Mask Prize winner The Bright Stream led to Ratmansky’s appointment as the Bolshoi’s Artistic Director in 2004. His mandate was to focus on modernising the company and reconciling the new repertoire with the classics.

The Bolshoi’s five years under Ratmansky have been celebrated as a golden age. The company rejuvenated and regained artistic credibility with new works. For Ratmansky it must have been a draining period with a lot of compromising and pacifying different personalities and artistic egos,  leaving him with little time and energy to choreograph. He has said in the past that Russia is not very friendly to choreographers given its emphasis on the classics and inherited traditions, with certains dancers limiting themselves to new opportunities and holding on to the belief that they can only be creative within the boundaries of the old repertoire.

During Ratmansky’s tenure 25 new ballets were acquired for the company including works by Balanchine, Roland Petit, Twyla Tharp and Léonide Massine. In addition to The Bright Stream he also successfully restaged lost ballets such as Class Concert, The Flames of Paris and a lavish and critically acclaimed reconstruction of Le Corsaire.

In addition to developing dances Ratmansky is also credited with nurturing and creating opportunitities for such new talents as Natalia Osipova, Ivan Vasiliev, Ekaterina Krysanova, Nelli Kobakhidze and Denis Savin, while also showcasing the artistry of dancers Maria Alexandrova, Ekaterina Shipulina and Svetlana Lunkina, by casting them in new roles.

On the Dnieper 2

Veronika Part, Marcelo Gomes and Paloma Herrera in Ratmansky's On the Dnieper. Photo: Gene Schiavone / ABT ©

From Bolshoi to ABT

Early in 2008, rumours started circulating of Ratmansky departing to NYCB as resident choreographer, to follow in the steps of Christopher Wheeldon. But the terms of NYCB’s offer would have restricted his ability to create work outside the company so, instead, he decided to join ABT as an Artist in Residence, a role that gives him enough freedom to pursue other collaborations.

Ratmansky’s Ballets

For Ratmansky, classical ballet can be kept alive as long as its human content is relevant, narrative being a particular trait in his works. Ratmansky often mentions that while for George Balanchine, one of his influences, it was all about the steps and abstraction, for him the steps are part of a conversation that blends craft and passion.

His works are considered musical and fluid, probably a direct influence from his experience with Bournonville. He considers his choreography to be instinctive, the product of an analytical reaction to the score and physical response to the music (he used to put on music and film himself to observe how his body reacted naturally). That explains his preference for a more naturalistic port de bras, open chested stands, patterns that are circling, dynamic and constantly shifting, with suggestions of folk dance, as is the case with his Russian Seasons.

Some of Ratmansky’s works

  • A Fairy’s Kiss (Tchaikovsky, 1994) – Kiev Ballet
  • Capriccio (Stravinsky, 1997) – Bolshoi
  • The Charms of Mannerism (Strauss, 1997) – Postmodern-Theatre
  • Poem of Ecstasy (Scriabin, 1998) – Mariinsky
  • Middle Duet (Hanin, 1998) – Mariinsky
  • Turandot’s Dream (Hindemith, 2000) – The Royal Danish Ballet
  • Bolero (Ravel, 2001) –  International Ballet of Copenhagen
  • Flight to Budapest (Brahms, 2001) – International Ballet of Copenhagen
  • Nutcracker – Re-staging after Petipa (Tchaikovsky, 2001) – The Royal Danish Ballet
  • The Firebird (Stravinsky, 2002) – The Royal Swedish Ballet
  • Cinderella (Prokofiev, 2002) – Mariinsky
  • Le Carnaval des Animaux (Saint-Saens, 2003) – San Francisco Ballet
  • The Bright Stream (Shostakovich, 2003) – Bolshoi
  • Leah (Bernstein, 2004) – Bolshoi
  • Anna Karenina (Schedrin, 2005) – The Royal Danish Ballet
  • Bolt (Shostakovich, 2005) – Bolshoi
  • Russian Seasons (Desyatnikov, 2006) – NYCB
  • Middle Duet (Hanon, 2006) – NYCB
  • Le Corsaire – Restaging after Petipa, with Yuri Burlaka (Adam, 2007) – Bolshoi
  • Jeu de Cartes (Stravinsky, 2007 ) – Bolshoi
  • The Flames of Paris – New staging with use of original choreography by Vasily Vainonen, based on original libretto by Nikolai Volkov and Vladimir Dmitriev (Asafiev, 2008. )
  • Pierrot Lunaire  (Schoenberg, 2009) – For Diana Vishneva as part of her show Beauty in Motion
  • Concerto DSCH (Shostakovich, 2008) – NYCB
  • The Little Humpbacked Horse (Schedrin, 2009) – Mariinsky
  • On the Dnieper (Prokofiev, 2009) – ABT
  • Scuola di Ballo – Restaging after Massine (Bocherini, 2009) – The Australian Ballet
  • Seven Sonatas (Scarlatti, 2009) – ABT
  • Don Quixote – Restaging after Petipa (Minkus, 2010) – Dutch National Ballet

Awards and Honours:

  • Golden Mask  for Dreams of Japan (1999)
  • Golden Mask for Best Choreographer, The Bright Stream (2004)
  • Knighted in Denmark (order of the Danish Flag) for his contribution to the arts (2002)
  • Benois de la Danse for Anna Karenina production for the Royal Danish Ballet (2005)
  • Golden Mask for Best Choreographer, Jeu de Cartes (2006)
  • Critics’ Circle National Dance Award for The Bright Stream after the Bolshoi’s London tour (2006)
On the Dnieper

Paloma Herrera as Olga and Marcelo Gomes as Sergei in Ratmansky's On The Dnieper. Photo: Gene Schiavone / ABT ©

Videos

The following short extracts should give you an idea of how rich and varied Ratmansky’s choreography is and how widespread it has become.

  • Extract of Russian Seasons as danced by Dutch National Ballet [link]
  • Pas de deux from Anna Karenina, danced by Gitte Lindstrøm and Mads Blangstrup from The Royal Danish Ballet [link]
  • Nina Ananiashvili in Leah, from Ratmansky Gala at the Bolshoi [link]
  • Le Jardin Anime scene from Ratmansky’s Le Corsaire, with Svetlana Zakharova as Medora and Ekaterina Krysanova as Gulnare [link]
  • Extract of Bolt, featuring Denis Savin, Anastasia Yatsenko and Andrei Merkuriev [link]
  • Diana Vishneva and Andrei Merkuriev in Cinderella [link]
  • A short feature on Scuola di Ballo for The Australian Ballet [link]
  • Alina Somova and Vladimir Shklyarov in an extract of The Little Humpbacked Horse [link]

Extracts of Reviews and Selected Praise

Of The Bright Stream:

The final offering of the season was The Bright Stream. In 1935, when Shostakovich’s sunny score was staged in Moscow with choreography by Fyodor Lopukhov (and initially much liked), it drew down Stalinist wrath as “balletic fraud”, wholly irresponsible in portraying the nature of collective farming. It has been Alexey Ratmansky’s achievement to rehabilitate the piece, by rescuing the score and taking an amused look at its narrative and, most significantly, at the aesthetic and political conventions of ballet in the 1930s. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times (2007) [link]

Alexei Ratmansky, who completely rechoreographed it for the Bolshoi in 2003, didn’t have to worry about toeing the party line and was free to do whatever he wanted with Shostakovich’s jolly music and Piotrovsky and Lopukhov’s lighthearted libretto. His new production honours them both with wit and compassion, and a stream of wonderful — and very funny — choreography…All in all, the best new ballet to come out of Russia in years. Debra Craine at the Times (2006) [link]

Of Bolt:

Though I hope other choreographers will give sharper visual style to this unusual and instantly appealing music, I feel that Ratmansky deserves the highest credit here. He may not have produced a definitive new Bolt, but he has given the full ballet score to the world to play with, a marvellous gift. Ismene Brown at The Telegraph (2005) [link]

Of The Little Humpbacked Horse

This ballet is life-affirming and rich in humanity. Ratmansky’s choreography is masterly, and has a clear form and shape. His narrative is clear, and each scene is of the right length. The final transformation scene of Ivan into a young tsar is effective and witty. The two classical duets are full of heart-warming tenderness. The duets for Ivan and the Humpbacked Horse in Act I are spirited and lively. Kevin NG at The Saint Petersburg Times (2009) [link]

Of On the Dnieper:

Ratmansky, as always, produces lovely movement—the solos for both men are particularly telling. And he never loses his touch with groups of dancers, their extended passages both coherent and effective in themselves and reflecting the emotional trajectory of the story. Robert Gottlieb at The New York Observer (2009) [link]

Mr. Ratmansky gleans every bit of story possible from the Lifar-Prokofiev original and makes the most of it. (…) What Mr. Ratmansky captures beautifully with these characters (and less eloquently with Natalia, described in the program as “grief-stricken yet noble”) is what it is like to be torn by opposite emotional impulses. The choreography’s other felicities include some lovely subtleties of ensemble and striking instances of dancers standing or moving with their backs to us. Alastair Macaulay at The New York Times (2009) [link]

Of Russian Seasons

His “Russian Seasons” finally received its world premiere on Thursday evening at the New York State Theater, and it was worth the wait (…) It would be too easy to say that the choreography owes its originality to its inspirations from folk dance, though it does make happy use of such dancing. Mr. Ratmansky is a fountain of movement ideas, with sweeping stiff arms and vigorous floor-stamping and clapping and every sort of catlike pose, from freshly funny to deeply tragic. Intimations of character and personality never get in the way of pure dance. John Rockwell at The New York Times (2006) [link]

Leaving the theater, I could have danced for joy, especially if I had been choreographed by Ratmansky. A new choreographer has come to light – and the dance world is a better place. Clive Barnes at The New York Post (2006).

Of Concerto DSCH

Concerto DSCH is an endlessly suspenseful choreographic construction, with passages of breathtaking dance brilliance. Again and again, you find yourself thinking, “I didn’t realize this was going to happen after that,” and “What exactly were those steps that flashed by just now?” Better yet, it’s marked by tender pure-dance poetry. Alastair Macaulay at The New York Times (2008) [link]

Certainly “Concerto DSCH” seems at first glance – even second glance – a weird name for a ballet, but Alexei Ratmansky’s new work created for New York City Ballet on Thursday night is a gold-plated, copper-bottomed hit. Clive Barnes at The New York Post (2008) [link]

Sources and Further Information

  1. Alexei Ratmansky’s Biography from the Bolshoi’s Website [link]
  2. Alexei Ratmansky’s Biography from the Benois de la Danse Website [link]
  3. ABT’s Alexei the Mild? by Robert Greskovic. The Wall Street Journal. June 2009 [link]
  4. Interview with Alexei Ratmansky by Natasha Dissanayake. Ballet.co Magazine. July-August 2004. [link]
  5. Freelance Freedoms. Alexei Ratmansky in conversation with Marc Haegeman. Dance Now Magazine. Vol. 17, No. 4. Winter 2008/09.
  6. Ballet’s future Russian Ahead by Leigh Witchel. New York Post. October 2009. [link]
  7. Ratmansky Takes Manhattan by Marina Harss. The Nation. September, 2009. [link]
  8. Bolshoi Director May Take Job at City Ballet by Gia Kourlas. The New York Times. February 2008 [link]
  9. For Bolshoi Ballet, Two Steps Forward, One Step Back by Nora Fitzgerald. The Washington Post. February, 2007 [link]
  10. Alexei Ratmansky and the new Bolshoi by Margaret Willis. Dance Magazine, November 2004. [link]
  11. New Home, New Job and New Moves for Alexei Ratmansky by Roslyn Sulcas. The New York Times, May 2009. [link]
  12. The Bolshoi in Paris: An interview with Alexei Ratmansky by Patricia Boccadoro. Culturekiosque, February 2004. [link]
  13. Alexei Ratmansky by Roslyn Sulcas. The New York Times. November, 2009 [link]

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Marie Taglioni. Coloured Lithograph, circa 1831. From the V&A Theatre Museum © Source: Wikipedia

Marie Taglioni. Coloured Lithograph, circa 1831. From the V&A Theatre Museum © Source: Wikipedia

From the moment Marie Taglioni put on her ballet shoes and stood on pointe the cult of the ballerina took flight. The ballerina, the female expert in the art of ballet who lives and suffers for her art, is forever associated with intrinsic qualities of lightness and grace. But just like Mr. Darcy’s remarks on truly accomplished women (“no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with… she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved”), should we not also comprehend a great deal in our idea of a graceful dancer?

A while ago we were asked by one of our Facebook group members to write a comment on what makes a dancer graceful. This post attempts to approach this delicate topic (since not every ballerina is a synonym for gracefulness) from an audience perspective. Technique, which forms the basis, the backbone of a dancer’s art, is an objective measure. But grace, like artistry, is subjective and largely depends on the eye of the beholder. For evidence of that one only needs to take a tour of ballet on YouTube.

Pick a male or female dancer you like, watch a selection of videos featuring that dancer and try to form your own views. Then read the various comments in reaction to his or her performance: for every person who finds your chosen dancer graceful there will always be a dissenting voice. The FT critic Peter Aspden made interesting remarks on this when he wrote a very interesting article about the Mariinsky’s Alina Somova, a controversial dancer who continues to spark inflamed debate on YouTube and on ballet related web boards because of her use of extreme extensions in classical ballet. Some, like Aspden, perceive her as extremely graceful, while others see exactly the opposite.

Ballet is a contemplative art and to use another visual art parallel, there is no way to convince someone who prefers Impressionism to Cubism that Picasso is artistically superior to Monet. There are ways, however, to draw an observer’s attention to details they might have previously overlooked in a painting, to steer his or her eyes towards features which might lead to a reassessment of that work of art. So whilst we cannot define grace, here are some elements which we think would naturally emanate from a graceful dancer:

  • Good Line – as Robert Greskovic notes: “true ballet line has little to do with the dancer’s limbs and everything to do with the harmonious coordination of each part seen as a totality.” A good line emanates from the dancer’s centre to reach out to all compass points of his or her body, think a beacon irradiating from the lighthouse. For an example of a good line see Anthony Dowell executing Des Grieux‘s first act solo [link]

  • Port de Bras (carriage of the arms) – of course a good dancer must display perfect coordination between legs, feet, torso, arms, hands, neck and head, but soft, pliant arms help accentuate the gracefulness of the whole movement, to emphasize its poetry. Here one can draw an interesting comparison between male and female dancers: male port de bras is simpler and sharper to make them look more virile, stronger, their line more visible, while the female arms are more laboured, making them look more delicate (see this post for more Port de Bras comparisons). For an example of graceful arms, see Ulyana Lopatkina in Swan Lake [link]

  • Musicality – the most obvious way to define a musical dancer is to think of the music box ballerina cliché. A highly musical dancer will trick you into forgetting about the orchestra pit and thinking that his or her movement is creating the music, so well they are matched. It goes beyond being technically precise. Of course, it should be noted that choreographers will treat music differently and the dance can either be on top of the melody or purposefully dissociated from the music, as is the case in certain modern choreography (ie. Merce Cunningham). A dancer that is often acknowledged as having been extremely musical was Balanchine‘s muse, Suzanne Farrell.

  • Physical qualities – one cannot underestimate the importance of well proportioned limbs and a beautiful face in ballet. On the other hand there are dancers who have broken the mold, redefining the concept of perfect proportions. These can be some of the most exciting dancers to watch because they transform what might have been perceived as a drawback into strength and create a form of unconventional grace. For examples of dancers who break the mold, see Alina Somova and Edward Watson making the most of their elastic and slender physiques in, respectively, Ratmansky’s The Little Humpbacked Horse [link] and Wayne McGregor’s production of Händel’s Acis & Galatea [link].

And here we feature some of our favorite graceful dancers who combine all the elements above. Feel free to post yours if you have one!

Sarah Lamb as Princess Florine (Bluebird Pas de Deux)

Sarah seems to be floating on a cloud of dance, her movements so light and fluid, every step a music note.

Alina Cojocaru as Cinderella

This is probably one of the most enchanting ballet videos on YouTube, Alina is simply radiant, never exposing to the audience the pitfalls of Ashton’s choreograpy (which demands from the dancer coordination between a soft upper body and fast feet)

Gelsey Kirkland as Giselle

This is a beautiful rendition of the famous Spessivtseva solo (Giselle’s first act variation) in which every single movement is linked into a whole. Notice how softly she gets down from arabesque into penché, her arms lingering with the music.

Viktoria Tereshkina as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty

While the dancers above represent the “ethereal and petite ballerina” we have a contrasting example in Tereshkina, a tall dancer who looks poised, elegant yet delicate in one of the most graceful choreographies in classical ballet.

Natalia Makarova as Odette (Swan Lake)

Around 3:39 you can see Odette’s variation. Makarova was the quintessential ballerina, a perfect match between technique and artistry: every step is used as a means for conveying emotion. A really graceful and touching performance.

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Igor Kolb. Source: Mariinsky.ru Copyright Mariinsky Theatre ©.

Igor Kolb. Source: Mariinsky.ru Copyright Mariinsky Theatre ©.

If you follow us on Twitter or Facebook or if you have been reading our posts here you will know that, balletwise, the past two weeks have been “all about the Mariinsky in London, their stylish dancing and the impressive array of performers they have fielded to wow us in the classics Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Romeo & Juliet and in sexy Balanchine.

We were particularly impressed with the very charismatic Igor Kolb, a 32 year old principal dancer, now in his 13th season with the Mariinsky. Igor’s artistry is remarkable, he’s blessed with an expressive handsome face, strong dramatic skills, effortless and fluid dancing and a beautiful line. His naturalistic Romeo left us at the edge of our seats and dying to know where all this dramatic juice comes from. We were delighted when he agreed to spare a few minutes between rehearsals to talk to us:

How do you cope with the mix of different roles on tour?

IK: It’s very interesting for me to dance a mix of roles on tour because they are all different roles from different eras. If I were to do Swan Lake every day it would be in some respects easier but psychologically, just impossible. Having said that, as a dancer you always want to make something more interesting out of the same role, even when you’ve danced it for a long time.

How long have you been with the Mariinsky and when did you become a principal dancer?

IK: This is my 13th season with the company. I started dancing principal roles very early, Prince Désiré from “The Sleeping Beauty”, the central adagio in Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony, and the poet in Chopiniana [Les Sylphides] so in a way the appointment to principal a few years later was a mere formality as I was already dancing all these big roles from the start.

You began your career dancing in the classics but how have you matured into a more dramatic dancer – the critic Jeffery Taylor said last week your Romeo was “heart-piercing” – lately?

IK: I really like the theatre, I go when I can in St. Petersburg, old plays new productions, I go see them all. I also like cinema and literature too [Igor is currently reading Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov]. Maybe it’s because I am a bit older now but I refused to dance Romeo initially. I had Zeffirelli’s Romeo in my mind’s eye and in this film there is a pretty girl and a pretty boy [Leonard Whiting]. I used to look at myself in the mirror and did not feel I was like that at all, the movie is like a beautiful fairy tale and I was definitely not like the boy in that film!

But then there was the [Baz Luhrmann] more recent version with Leonardo DiCaprio and I did not like him in the role. I started to compare both versions and that’s when I began to think maybe I could tackle the role. I understood that I just had to be myself, that I should behave as if I would behave in that situation. I am not as naïve as the boy in the first film, naivety is such a difficult thing to show on stage. For me it’s the tragic side that comes more naturally and I want people to believe in me. If you go onstage and you are not convincing then people can feel it, and as a dancer you can feel when the audience does not believe you, it shows in their reaction, in the atmosphere. Here I felt people were looking forward to seeing me as Romeo, as the London audience knows me already.

What are your favorite roles & your dream roles?

IK: I like everything that I do in the Mariinsky repertoire, I am very lucky because I haven’t had to dance things I don’t enjoy! Of course there have been roles that I have tried and did not like as much but then the Company is ok if I don’t want to revisit those.

Outside the Mariinsky repertoire there are very many dream roles, of course. I would like very much to work with Mats Ek’s wife, Ana Laguna. She came to see me perform as Romeo and I was so glad as I greatly admire the Ek piece she has danced with Baryshnikov. Other than Ana and Mats Ek, I would love to work with Jiří Kylián.

How about MacMillan roles?

IK: Yes, very much. Manon for instance is one of two ballets I only danced once in my life  [the other being Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony which the Mariinsky is set to perform again next season]. I debuted as Des Grieux at the Bolshoi theatre just as the Mariinsky’s performance rights for this ballet were expiring so that was a double tragedy for me, onstage and backstage, as I knew I could not do it again!

Igor Kolb in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone ©. Source: geneschiavone.com

Igor Kolb in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone ©. Source: geneschiavone.com

Do you think there is a right balance at the moment between old and modern repertoire at the Mariinsky?

IK: I think the old repertoire, ie. Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, are like the calling cards of the Mariinsky theatre, they are the face of the theatre and that tradition should not change even though there might be other versions in other companies. It’s our tradition, like tea in London. When you look at Balanchine for instance, all companies around the world are expected to dance his works in exactly the same way as the NYCB. I think it’s fine if done in small chunks but if overly done it feels like everyone out there is eating the same dish over and over again.

How important is it to have new works created for the company?

IK: We’d like someone in demand like Christopher Wheeldon for example to come over to create new work for the company, original pieces of work tailor-made for us. I think that in England it’s very good that the Royal Ballet uses the smaller theatre, the Linbury studio to get new work tried and tested. There’s also a similar project at the Wiener-Staatsoper, you see lots of different choreographers, see what you want to do, try different things out. Over in St. Petersburg we don’t have anything like that or like choreographic workshops.

When Marc Haegeman interviewed you a few years ago you mentioned having auditioned for the Mariinsky 6 times within 6 months, what is about this particular company that made you perseve?

IK: I studied ballet in Minsk and was not planning to go anywhere then as I liked the city and because it’s my country [Belarus]. Then I was invited to take part in the Vaganova Prix in St. Petersburg [where Igor took third prize], after which I understood that if I wanted to do something serious in ballet I ought to leave Minsk. As a result of the competition I was also asked to consider joining the Royal Ballet so everything could have turned out very differently! But I wanted to be close to home and to me the Mariinsky seemed like the top.

Speaking of the Royal Ballet, you danced Swan Lake with Tamara Rojo last year, how did you find dancing with her?

IK: It wasn’t difficult for us to dance together. Right from the first rehearsal we understood each other immediately, so it was in a sense, very easy for us and we danced together again last April in Tokyo, we did Roland Petit’s Proust (“Proust ou Les Intermittences du Coeur”) as part of the “Roland Petit Gala”. There might also be future opportunities to dance with Tamara again.

Tell us about Tokyo!

IK: I adore Tokyo, it’s my favourite city, along with London and St. Petersburg. I had a gala there ealier this year, Igor Kolb & Friends, where I danced Christian Spuck’s spoof “Le Grand Pas de Deux”, [Ukranian choreographer] Radu Poklitaru’s “Two on a Swing” a one act ballet he created for me and longtime Mariinsky principal Yulia Makhalina, as well as some more Roland Petit.

And the Japanese fans?

IK: I am so grateful to them, they spoil me when I am in Japan, they keep sending huge boxes of food, coffee, tea, sugar, everything, to the hotel, but lovely messages too. I always make a point of writing back to thank them, it’s pleasant that people take the time and it’s nice to feel that people appreciate me as a dancer, that they appreciate what I am doing as an artist. In Japan and England fans are really polite, very gentle. There was this lady over here, a long time ballet regular from Oxford, who knitted two matching vests with the initials IK, one for me, and the other for [soloist] Ilya Kuznetsov.

It’s a sharp contrast to St. Petersburg, the most difficult place to dance, the coldest public. It’s not just my opinion but people who work in the theatre generally feel that the public has changed, become more jaded. The tickets are now very expensive and it does not seem to draw the real enthusiasts anymore, they have been driven away, the theatre may be full but it’s now a very different crowd.

What’s in your Ballet Bag?

IK: When I came into the Mariinsky 13 years ago I did not even have a bag, only a towel, I was so badly off! But now I do have one and I carry around some knee tape, towels, a stock of fresh t-shirts and some foot rollers, plus any goodies that people give me!

With a big Спасибо/Spasibo to Igor from two appreciative and admiring Bag Ladies & kudos to Alice Lagnado for her impressive simultaneous translation skills!

Igor Kolb in a Nutshell:

He was born in Pinsk, Belarus (then Belorussia) in 1977 and started dancing at age 13. He attended the Belorussia State Ballet School in Minsk where he trained with Alexander Kolidenko & Vera Shveisova, and graduated as part of the 1996 class. During his final years at school, he was already dancing for the company in Minsk and under the tutelage of Kolidenko, he participated in the 1995 Vaganova Prix, where he won the third prize.

The prize brought him some deserved attention and motivated him to audition for the Mariinsky. It took him several attempts to obtain a contract, which he finally did just as he was graduating.

Arriving in St. Peterburg, Igor worked with Yuri Fateyev (though his current coach is Gennadi Selyutski) who helped him adapt his skills to the company’s style. Soon he was seen in principal roles, making his debut as Prince Désiré in The Sleeping Beauty in June 1997, as Swan Lake’s Siegfried in 2000 and as Solor in Vikharev‘s reconstruction of Petipa’s La Bayadère in 2002. In 2003 he was promoted to Principal Dancer.

Igor is known for his impeccable classical style and admits feeling closer to the company’s classical repertory (Albrecht in Giselle, Prince Désiré in The Sleeping Beauty, Siegfried in Swan Lake, etc.). He was filmed in Fokine‘s Spectre de la Rose, which is available as part of the DVD The Kirov Celebrates Nijinsky (Arthaus-Musik 2004).

He does not have a regular partner at the Mariinsky, having danced throughout his career with Diana Vishneva, Svetlana Zakharova, Sofia Gumerova, Daria Pavlenko, Zhanna Ayupova. Some of his more recent partners include Alina Somova, Ekaterina Kondaurova, Yevgenia Obraztsova and Irina Golub.

Videos

  • Igor dances Solor’s Variation in La Bayadère (Vikharev’s Reconstruction) [link]
  • As the “poet” in Chopiniana, partnering Svetlana Zakharova [link]
  • Igor Kolb and Diana Vishneva in the Paquita Grand Pas. Links to parts [1] and [2]
  • As Romeo in Lavrovsky’s version of Romeo & Juliet. With Yevgenia Obraztsova. Links to parts [1] and [2].
  • Igor Kolb and Ulyana Lopatkina, perform in Christian Spuck’s “Le Grand Pas de Deux” [link]
  • Igor Kolb and Zhanna Ayupova in Fokine‘s Le Spectre de la Rose [link]
  • As Siegfried in Swan Lake, partnering Royal Ballet Principal Tamara Rojo [link]
  • As Albrecht, in Giselle, partnering Alina Somova. Links to parts [1] and [2].

Extract of Reviews and Praise:

Of his Solor in Vikharev’s reconstructed La Bayadère (Covent Garden, 2003)

They were, however, having to follow the superb act of Kolb. His huge jump and flaring line are pure Kirov, but it’s his unusual modesty that clinches his power. Kolb’s technical feats look all the more amazing because he never tries to juice up the audience before he whirls into action or hog the applause when he has finished. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link]

Kolb is an immensely appealing Solor, a honey of a warrior who declares his undying love for Nikiya yet falls under the spell of Gamzatti, the Rajah’s beautiful, scheming daughter. So appealing, in fact, that you almost forgive him. His dancing, meanwhile, is splendidly realised, strong and flexible. Debra Craine at The Times [link]

Of his Prince in Ratmansky’s Cinderella (Kennedy Center, 2005)

Kolb’s dancing is strong, clear, pure to the point where it might provide textbook illustration, and yet informed with grace.  He does a dutiful job of creating a character, but you can tell that his real raison d’être is to display the abstract beauty of classical dancing, step by step. Tobi Tobias at ArtsJournal [link]

Of his role in Ballet Imperial (Covent Garden 2005)

Ballet Imperial, which closed their Balanchine triple bill, looks back to Imperial Russia, its grand sweeping contours matching the massive chords of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2. It demands huge and virtuoso dancing, which of course the Kirov delivers, led by Igor Kolb, who has perfect lines, amplitude, power – perfect everything. Nadine Meisner at The Independent [link]

Of his role in Steptext (Forsythe Programme, Sadler’s Wells 2008)

Steptext, a quartet, sets out Forsythe’s stall. Here is the essence of his drastic style: the provocative blend of nonchalance and intense commitment in the moves; the impatience with the strict rules of classical technique; the annoying eccentricity in presentation (switching lights on and off, playing games with Bach). Igor Kolb brought muscular grace to his dancing, while Ekaterina Kondaurova brought assertive glamour to hers. Debra Craine at The Times [link]

Of his Romeo (Romeo & Juliet, Covent Garden, 2009)

…the evening’s saviour is Igor Kolb’s Romeo. His performance is passionate and breathlessly enthusiastic; Kolb just dances the steps as Prokofiev’s music tells him to and pierces all our hearts. Jeffery Taylor at The Daily Express [link]

Sources and Further Information

  1. Biography written by Marc Haegeman, Igor Kolb’s Official Website [link]
  2. An Interview with Igor Kolb, by Marc Haegeman. First published in Dance International, Fall 2003 and reproduced at For Ballet Lovers Only. December 2002 [link]
  3. Wikipedia Entry for Igor Kolb [link]
  4. Interview with Igor Kolb by Cassandra, at Critical Dance. August 2003 [link]
  5. Danila Korsuntsev and Igor Kolb. Kirov Stars. Interview by Kevin Ng. Ballet.co Magazine, December 2000. [link]

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Thinking of Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet as completely obsolete is like saying German Expressionist cinema has no more value in a post Hitchcock world.  The latter could not have existed without the former and it is always interesting to revisit original works and old schools, observing where choreographers like Cranko and MacMillan would have drawn inspiration from. With that hat on I went to see the Mariinsky’s Romeo and Juliet on Thursday, also thinking back about how much I used to enjoy Galina Ulanova in the Bolshoi’s filmed version, a staple in my hometown’s art house cinemas as I was growing up.

While I side with those who think the Lavrovsky version feels like pantomime blended with dance, that the market scenes and the sword fighting are too tidy, the balcony pas de deux not passionate enough and the constant change of scenery & props distracting (do they really need all those tables and chairs at the Capulet’s ball when these are cleared away within minutes?), there are many things to admire here. The clearer narrative, for instance, which shows us the moment where Romeo learns of Juliet’s death – the MacMillan version always makes me doubt the logic of Romeo getting to Juliet’s tomb so quickly, poison-in-pocket – and an extended wedding ceremony where Romeo covers Juliet’s path with lilies, the young couple mirroring each other’s movements in the balances they take and in the display of their line, in readiness for life together.

First night reviews (such as this one by Mr. Clement Crisp), while critical of production values and dated text, have been unanimous about Vladimir Shklyarov’s ardent Romeo. I don’t think the reviews exaggerate Shklyarov’s abilities, having seen him dance last autumn in London, but I do suspect there’s more to it and that some of this Romeo outpour is connected with Lavrovsky’s shaping of his romantic hero, as again on Thursday it was Igor Kolb‘s performance which registered the most.

Kolb has been on my “to watch” list for sometime. Generally praised for his classicism and technical abilities, coupled with strong dramatic skills, he seems on a league of his own. During the Mariinsky tour to London he will be dancing Romeo and then princes Siegfried & Desiré. Not being able to treat myself to multiple performances due to the somewhat steep prices for this tour, and wishing to limit my exposure to the opening night Juliet, the controversial Alina Somova whom I intend to see in the Balanchine triple bill (perhaps the ideal habitat for her much discussed edgy line), I decided to go with Kolb’s date, more so as his Juliet was initially supposed to be the lovely Evgenia Obraztsova.

Igor Kolb and Yevgenia Obraztsova in Mariinsky's Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Marc Haegeman /Mariinsky © Source: Mariinsky Theatre

Igor Kolb and Yevgenia Obraztsova in Mariinsky's Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Marc Haegeman /Mariinsky © Source: Mariinsky Theatre

But the same unmerciful casting gods which did not allow Evgenia to be paired with Shklyarov in the London tour (she was cast and then withdrawn from his matinee performance of The Sleeping Beauty) also took her out of Kolb’s performance. Instead I saw soloist Irina Golub, a lovely dancer of expressive eyes, beautiful line and fast feet who does not make liberal use of extensions unlike some of her colleagues. Never trying to bend Lavrovsky’s regimental choreography, Golub dances Juliet understatedly and as true to form as I would imagine it to be, but while the style is pure it exposes the choreographer’s basic sketch of Juliet. Over and over again she is seen dancing the same steps, the dance not revealing much about her character. At least not until the final act when Juliet finally shows her determination to be with Romeo at any cost.

Kolb’s presence on the other hand is never understated and all the better for it. It is a shame that Lavrovsky did not give Romeo any dancing until the balcony pas de deux (which is more of a reserved, bodies apart kind, not the emotional powerhouse we know from MacMillan) and that he and pals Mercutio and Benvolio interact mostly through pantomime. Kolb is vivid in acting (though slightly over the top in the Mantua scene, which requires him to throw a tantrum), gentle and romantic with Irina’s Juliet yet with a powerful sense of the tragedy which is to unfold (flaring up those exotic eyes!); his dancing is fluid, with sharp lines and complete commitment to the steps – including a “leap of faith” collapse to the ground which made me fear for his safety and wonder how amazing he must be in Albrecht’s variation- his are the evening’s most instense moments. I can’t wait to see him again – hopefully paired with Obraztsova – in The Sleeping Beauty next week.

Mariinskys Romeo & Juliet. Source: Mariinsky Theatre. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Mariinsky's Romeo & Juliet. Source: Mariinsky Theatre. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Choreographic shortcomings aside, it is a delight to see the stylish work of the Mariinsky corps and to hear the superb orchestra under Gruzin’s conducting (the brass never sounds that sharp in the Royal Ballet’s performances). The costumes have been much criticized in the press and true, Tybalt is almost a cartoon character lost in a ballet and Lady Capulet shifts from intense grief over her nephew’s death to complete inertia upon discovering her daughter’s. But neither of these things, nor the ugly polyester wigs worn by some of the men, spoiled my enjoyment of this vintage ballet classic, which still has so much to say about Shakespeare’s timeless story.

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