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As the Mariinsky comes to the rescue of ballet-starved Londoners this week, we kick-off our series of features about ballet companies around the world, outlining their history, traditions and differences. Most readers will immediately associate the name Mariinsky to one of the premier ballet companies in the world but equally important are its links to the theatre, the city and the era where it originated, the regal and distinctive tsarist St. Petersburg.

The Theatre

Russia’s first theatrical events took place following a decree in 1742 by Tsarina Elizabeth, a patron of the arts who loved Italian opera and theatre. Initially, performances in St. Petersburg were given in the wooden stage of the Karl Knipper Theatre and in the Hermitage Theatre (for the aristocrats), but in 1783,  a bigger and better theatre, Antonio Rinaldi‘s Imperial Bolshoi (big) Kamenny (stone) Theatre, purpose built for the emerging ballet (see “The Ballet Company” below) and opera companies opened its doors with Il Mondo de la Luna, an opera by Paisiello.

The Bolshoi Kamenny theatre was renovated in 1836 by Alberto Cavos, who also conceived a neo-Byzantine building in Theatre Square (1849) first occupied by an Equestrian circus and later by Opera stagings. This other theatre burnt down in 1859 and re-opened one year later as the Mariinsky, a full-fledged opera house with more than 1500 seats and the biggest stage in the world, named after  its royal patroness Empress Maria Alexandrovna. Ballet productions alternated between the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi Kammeny (where La Bayadère and The Pharaoh’s Daughter premiered)  until 1886 when the Mariinsky underwent new works, finally acquiring its trademark blue façade and becoming the permanent home for both the opera and ballet companies.

The re-inauguration festivities were dedicated to Tsar Alexander II, and included the premiere of the first all-Mariinsky ballet, Marius Petipa‘s Les Pilules Magiques. In the years that followed, many other masterpieces would originate here: from the Petipa canon (The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, The Nutcracker in 1892, Raymonda in 1898 and Swan Lake in 1895), to a number of classic works by Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky.

The Mariinsky Theatre. Source: Books to the Ceiling. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The Mariinsky Theatre. Source: Books to the Ceiling. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

During the Soviet years, the Mariinsky Theatre changed its name to Kirov Theatre, to honor General Sergei Kirov, the well-known early communist leader and Lenningrad’s party chief, but the theatre went back to its former Imperial name in 1992.

You can take a virtual tour around the theatre here (Quicktime required).

The Ballet Company

The ballet company timeline goes back to 1738, before the Bolshoi Kammeny and the Mariinsky theatres existed. It was the year Tsarina Anna Ioannovna inaugurated  the Choreographic School of St. Petersburg, training dancers at the Winter Palace to form the first Russian ballet company. These dancers, initially children of the Palace’s servants, were the first generation of the Imperial Russian Ballet, the school which eventually became the Imperial Ballet School, and later the Vaganova Academy. The school and the company attracted some of the most influential teachers (Franz Hilverding, Gasparo Angiolini, Giovanni Canziani, Charles Didelot) and famous stars from abroad ( Pierina Legnani – whiz ballerina who first performed 32 fouettées, Carlotta Brianza – the original princess Aurora – and Enrico Cecchetti), performing between 1783-1885 in the Bolshoi Kammeny and from 1860 onwards in the Mariinsky Theatre.

During the 1830’s Maria Taglioni performed with the company and impressed audiences with her virtuosity and artistry, her presence having left a profound impact. Later in 1859, Arthur Saint-Leon was hired as the Imperial Ballet’s maître de ballet. Saint-Leon created various pieces, of which unfortunately only Coppélia and Pas de Six (reconstructed for the Paris Opera Ballet) remain more or less complete, and inscribed the first ballet notation method, documenting the movements of the upper body. He was succeeded by the legendary Marius Petipa who created more than 60 ballets and introduced novel academic views.

Corps de ballet in La Bayadère. Photo: The Mariinsky Theatre © Source: Exploredance.com

The Soviet Era

At the time of the Russian revolution, under the modernist/neoclassical influence of Fokine (resident choreographer since 1910), the Mariinsky repertoire had evolved beyond the 19th century Petipa classics. Many of its stars joined Sergei Diaghilev in his European tours, collaborating with new influential artists and musicians. The 1917 revolution not only stalled this burst of creativity (Fokine and Diaghilev having left for the West), it also brought difficult times for the company, perceived by the government as unwanted symbols of the tsarist regime and depleted of many dancers (who had emigrated).

Thanks to Anatoly Lunacharsky, then minister of culture, the 1920’s saw a gradual acceptance of ballet as an art for the people. Ballet school and company, now re-established as the Leningrad State Choreographic School and the Soviet Ballet respectively, were to observe the principle that dance was a collective expression of the spirit and new ballets based on Russian literature or the struggles of the working class were created. At that time, former dancer turned teacher Agrippina Vaganova “fought tooth and nail” to preserve Marius Petipa’s and the Imperial Ballet’s legacy. During her directorship Vaganova managed to preserve some of the traditions inherited from the former Imperial Ballet while also developing new ideas into a new form of training, the renamed “Vaganova method”, which now has become synonym with the style of the Company.

The Mariinsky Ballet performs Swan Lake. Photo: Natasha Razina ©. Source: The Independent.

The Mariinsky Ballet performs Swan Lake. Photo: Natasha Razina ©. Source: The Independent.

The Soviet Ballet became the Kirov Ballet in 1934. During the Soviet years, many notable dancers emerged, including Lydia Lopokova, Galina Ulanova, Ninel Kurgapkina, Yuri Soloviev, Galina Mezentseva, Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. It was also during this time that Petipa’s choreographic texts were replaced with Konstantin Sergeyev‘s new versions: classics such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Le Corsaire underwent cuts, such as those made to mime passages, and in the case of Swan Lake (1950), a happy ending was adopted.

During the 70’s, with defections aplenty (Nureyev, Makarova, Baryshnikov) and the Company’s morale at a low, director Oleg Vinogradov (1977) sought to retain and appease his crop of dancers by expanding the repertoire. Bournonville‘s La Sylphide and Napoli were brought in and staged by Elsa Marianne von Rosen, founder of the Scandinavian Ballet. Maurice Béjart and Roland Petit were invited to create new works. The Tudor Foundation allowed Lilac Garden and Leaves Are Fading to be performed, while Jerome Robbins staged In the Night. The current repertoire also includes ballets by George Balanchine (given his direct links to the Mariinsky), Kenneth MacMillan and William Forsythe and the debated yet acclaimed Sergei Vikharev reconstructions of Petipa’s original masterpieces which now coexist with Sergeyev’s Soviet versions.

The Style

The Mariinsky dancers have always distinguished themselves in their beautiful port de bras and upper body épaulement, both features of the Vaganova training method. The overall feel is of aristocratic elegance (think Petipa’s princesses), with fluid arms and expression (even if acting is not the main priority),  perfect coordination between head, shoulders, neck and torso. Attention to the smallest detail such as positions of the fingers in the hands – that meticulous – give us a sense of movement with musicality. The corps are always praised by their unity and purity of style. Their principal dancers prioritize lyricism and nobility over bravura, qualities that set the Mariinsky apart from its peers.

Ulyana Lopatkina & artists from the Mariinsky Ballet in Le Corsaire. Photo:The Mariinsky Theatre ©. Source: Exploredance.com

Ulyana Lopatkina & artists from the Mariinsky Ballet in Le Corsaire. Photo:The Mariinsky Theatre ©. Source: Exploredance.com

Their work day

Under the supervision of newly appointed artistic director Yuri Fateyev, dancers are given three-day schedules listing their activities. They attend class first thing in the morning. There are four classes, two for men and two for women with teachers switching between both. Members of the corps de ballet attend a specific class whilst soloists can attend either and then it’s rehearsals for the rest of the day. The Mariinsky continuously rehearses all the ballets in their repertoire, since the company usually stages two performances of one production in a row and then switch onto another ballet. There may be five different ballets staged in a week, sometimes with half of the company at home and the other half performing on tour (thanks to their roster of over 200 dancers). Corps members often carry on rehearsing until the last minute and end their day around 10 pm (as they appear in all ballets),  while for the soloists it’s a mixture between rehearsal-only and performance-only days.

Videos

Legends

The current generation

* Indicates dancers who are due to perform in 2009 London tour

Sources and Further Information

  1. Mariinsky Theatre Main Webpage [link]
  2. Step-by-step guide to dance: Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet by Sanjoy Roy. The Guardian, September 2008 [link].
  3. Mariinsky Theatre Wikipedia Entry [link]
  4. Mariinsky/Kirov Ballet Wikipedia Entry [link]
  5. Superstars of Dance: The Mariinsky Ballet by Zoe Anderson. The Independent, August 2009 [link]
  6. The Mariinsky Theatre by Nick del Vecchio at Living at the Opera [link]
  7. Interview with Ekaterina Osmolkina by Margaret Willis. Dancing Times Magazine, August 2009.
  8. Kennedy Center information about the Mariinsky Ballet. [link]
  9. Light Steps from Leningrad by Martha Duffy. Time Magazine, May 1982. [link]

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Veronika Part. Source: ABT. Copyright Ballet Theatre Foundation ©.

Veronika Part. Source: ABT. Copyright Ballet Theatre Foundation ©.

On one side her admirers and knight-in-shining-armour defenders. On the other those who see her as an inconsistent performer. It doesn’t matter on which side one stands,  all this debate  has helped American Ballet Theatre‘s newest Principal dancer Veronika Part become the equivalent of a ballet cross-cultural phenomenon. Other than achievements such as her success whilst still a soloist-doing-principal roles,  being hailed by London critics in the most recent ABT Coliseum season and forming together with ABT guest artist Roberto Bolle one of Ballet’s most picture perfect partnerships, Veronika has also  managed to electrify jaded ballet-goers, bring new audiences into the theatre, and bag an invitation to The Late Show with David Letterman, one of the US’s hottest talk shows, giving ballet a much needed mainstream boost, charming audiences with her grace and personality, not to mention her gorgeous face.

Londoners had the pleasure of seeing Veronika last March before her promotion to Principal dancer. She performed here amid rumours that she might be leaving the company in the absence of an overdue promotion. The British critics fell under her spell and she wowed me too: watching Veronika as one of the three odalisques in ABT’s Le Corsaire, it was not only clear that she outshined the other two women (ABT soloists Maria Riccetto and Kristi Boone), but she also commanded the stage like few do. It was no surprise to learn shortly after Part’s London stint that she had finally been promoted.

Product of the Vaganova machine, Veronika exhibits all the traits that  are so distinctive in Russian dancers: wonderful port de bras, a musical and plastic upper body, regal and elegant lines. She might not be so much the technical whiz as some of her ABT colleagues (like Gillian Murphy, Paloma Herrera or Michelle Wiles), nor did she get to the top as fast as her former classmates Svetlana Zakharova and Daria Pavlenko, however, as a tallish (5’8” = 1.72 m) womanly bodied dancer, she  knows how best to use her physical gifts to convey artistry: she makes you feel Odette’s pain, follow Odile’s flirtatious face and make the audience, rather like prince Siegfried, forget about everyone else on stage.

The best description I found of what Part brings as a dancer and why she has gathered so many admirers is by Tony Mendez, a former professional ballet dancer, turned guest finder for Letterman, who is, of course a huge Veronika fan:

Inconsistency kind of gives a dancer an edge. When I go and see Gillian (Murphy) and Paloma (Herrera), I know they’re going to be perfect… So when I see Veronika Part, there’s a little more of a human thing about her—you don’t know how well she’s going to do, and when she does really well, it’s exciting. And her beauty onstage— she’s beautiful to look at. I don’t think that Veronika Part looks like a ballerina. She looks like a beautiful woman who dances.

Veronika Part in a Nutshell

Born in St. Petersburg, 1978 into a family with no ballet connections. A nurse mentioned to her mother that she had pretty and long legs, so she might make a great ballerina, though before taking up ballet, Veronika trained in artistic gymnastics.

She started ballet at age 10 after being accepted at the famous Vaganova Academy to study under the guidance of Inna Zubkovskaya.

Veronika graduated in 1996, joined the Mariinsky as a member of the corps de ballet and was promoted to Soloist in 1998. Her first major role was Myrtha in Giselle, which she danced just months after having entered the company (January 1997).

Veronika Part as Myrtha. Source: Broadwayworld.com. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Veronika Part as Myrtha. Source: Broadwayworld.com. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Coached by Gabriella Komleva she danced her first principal role: Swan Lake’s double act of Odette/Odile, but her favourite classical role is  actually Raymonda, where she drew favourable comparisons with former teacher (and coach for the role) Inna Zubkovskaya.

In 2002, during a Mariinsky tour to New York where she received glowing reviews for her performances as the second soloist in Balanchine’s Emeralds, Veronika accepted Kevin McKenzie‘s invitation to stay in the US and join ABT as a Soloist.

Veronika has mentioned several times that those initial years in NY, with no friends or family, made her a stronger person. Word is that she learned English while watching episodes of the popular TV series Seinfeld.

A string of uneven performances in 2006/2007 (including Nikiya in ABT’s 2007 Paris Tour) prompted much discussion about Veronika’s stamina, technique, and whether or not nerves were getting in the way, reviews shifting between positive and negative from one season to the next (For instance, this review by Alexandra Tomalonis and this one by Gay Morris, both from Danceviewtimes).

Her big break with ABT happened in 2007, when she was cast as Aurora in the opening night of the McKenzie/Kirkland/Chernov new production of The Sleeping Beauty. Although she still got mixed reviews for this notoriously challenging role and some questioned her technical suitability for it, she generally started to get more attention in soloist and principal roles alike.

Despite the overall good reviews and an ever increasing fanbase, ABT still seemed reluctant to give her a promotion or to throw more principal roles at her (besides Odette/Odile, Nikiya and the Sugar Plum Fairy), so rumours were that she would leave in 2008. Luckily for her fans this never materialized and it is thought it was perhaps the appointment of Alexei Ratmansky as ABT’s resident choreographer which contributed to Veronika’s change of heart.

Veronika performed Odette/Odile during ABT’s London tour to outstanding reviews, rekindling the debate amongst critics and audiences about her overdue promotion. Veronika was finally made a Principal dancer in April 2009.

She is often partnered by Marcelo Gomes a tall, handsome dancer and a good match for her physique. Recently she also found another match for her “in looks” as a much commended sold out performance of Swan Lake alongside Roberto Bolle was labeled by avid fans “the best looking partnership in the history of ballet”.

Veronika is a spokesperson for Gaynor Minden Inc. and a wearer of their pointe shoes since 2002.

Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes in Le Corsaire. Photo: Gene Schiavone/ABT ©. Source: Danceviewtimes

Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes in La Bayadere. Photo: Gene Schiavone/ABT ©. Source: Danceviewtimes

Videos

  • A very young Veronika dances a Fairy Variation [link]
  • 1992’s 4th Year class of the Vaganova Academy. We can see her taking class together with future Mariinsky Star Daria Pavlenko. [link]
  • Veronika’s recent appearance in The Late Show with David Letterman [link]
  • Part dances the lead role in the Mariinsky’s production of Raymonda. Performance videos, parts 1 [link] and 2 [link].
  • Veronika as Odette with Marcelo Gomes as Siegfried in ABT’s Swan Lake. [link]

Extract of Reviews and Praise

Of her Odette/Odile

Ms. Part, whose clean style is tinged with an intriguing blend of languor and voluptuousness (…). She offered a superbly tender and sad Odette. With eyes down, lips parted and head thrown back, she evoked a spellbound princess. Her adagio in Act II was conventionally lyrical in the best sense: she wreathed Mr. Korsuntsev’s head with her arm with the softness that colored all her gestures. Yet sharply bent forward, she was a swan maiden with a broken wing, wounded by love and fate. Anna Kisselgoff at the NYTimes [link]

Ms. Part’s performance is always about the irreducible structural components of classical ballet. She pruned away mannerism as much as is possible or desirable to do an art form that is itself somewhat manneristic. She was technically sound, but her “Swan Lake” was not technical acrobatics; nor was it about realistic drama or animal imitation. She preserves the stylistic imprint of the role without a lot of flapping or pecking. She maintains a rare equilibrium between the linear and sculptural elements of classical ballet. Joel Lobenthal at the NYSun [link]

Veronika Part, with her broad-shouldered Joan Crawford looks, gave the most assured and intense performance I have seen from her in a major ballerina role. Her Odette, full of yearning backbends, is awash with feeling; her Odile glamorously exultant. Alastair Macaulay at the NYTimes [link]

Part offers dancing and interpretation of a voluptuous grandeur, Odette’s tragedy saturating movement and pose, Odile’s malevolence an intoxication of the spirit that will dazzle Siegfried utterly. The role is luscious in phrasing, ever expressive, true. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link]

Of her debut as Nikiya in ABT’s La Bayadère (May 2007)

Ms. Part is a great adagio technician, perhaps the greatest in Kirov lineage since Natalia Makarova and Alla Osipenko 40 years ago. During her lamenting variation in the Pas d’Action… we saw a marvel of scale, ease, and refulgence. No one onstage today better demonstrates the Russian ideal of movement originating from the back, radiating to the extremities and beyond… She is part of an epic ballet spectacle, and her outpouring of emotion is as lush and grand as her physical production. Joel Lobenthal at the NYSun [link]

and of a more recent performance of the same role (2008)

Ms. Part is a highly individualistic dancer who represents several traditions in addition to her own individuality. She epitomizes the Russian emphasis on legato movements, a bel canto all its own… Very few others have succeeded artistically as well as Ms. Part. She lets her height and flexibility expand, but not traduce, the architecture and poetics of classical ballet; her taste is exemplary. Joel Lobenthal at the NYSun [link]

Nikiya the temple dancer – or bayadere – was the St. Petersburg-born Veronika Part, dancing with poignant eloquence and impeccable style. Clive Barnes at the NYPost [link]

Of her roles in The Sleeping Beauty:

First, as Aurora

Veronika Part’s lush, emotionally eloquent dancing as Aurora in the Vision Scene was the sole unarguably wonderful element in ABT’s new version of “The Sleeping Beauty”…The Kirov-trained ballerina’s work in the arduous first act had been admirably strong and clear. But here — seemingly impalpable, yet making it clear that she is longing for the Prince as much as he is for her — Part worked the real ballerina magic of transforming steps into atmosphere and feeling. Tobi Tobias at Bloomberg [link]

and as the Lilac Fairy

She (Part) reclaimed her rightful role as the Lilac Fairy, for which she’s perfect and in which she has lengthy experience. Ms. Part danced and declaimed magnificently. As exciting as the sweep and aplomb of her movement were the many shades of character she brought to the role, appropriate for a deity who should ideally encompass all the attributes that are presented to the infant Aurora in the Prologue by Lilac’s attendant fairies. Joel Lobenthal at the NYSun [link]

Clement Crisp comments on Part’s various appearances in London:

Balanchine’s Symphonie Concertante

…The corps was nattily exact, much given to eager smiles as if trying to jump a queue, and it was the presence of Veronika Part (as the viola’s representative) who brought the piece, and the evening, to glory. We remember her as a young divinity with the Mariinsky Ballet and the dignity and amplitude of her St Petersburg style, the voluptuous, luscious grace of her every action, pouring some noble and heady wine for us, breathed life, meaning, into her role. She was a diamond set amid rhinestones, Pouding Nesselrode as an alternative to water ices. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link]

and as one of the three Odalisques in Le Corsaire, last March:

Veronika Part appeared, a divinity in exile, as an odalisque. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link].

Sources and Further Information

  1. Veronika Part’s Official Website [link]
  2. Profile for Kirov Ballerina Veronika Part by Marc Haegeman, from For Ballet Lovers Only [link]
  3. Gaynor Minden Dancer Profile, written by Eliza Minden and Karen Lacy [link]
  4. Veronika Part interviewed by Graham Watts. Ballet.co Magazine, March 2008 [link]
  5. A Reason to Go on Living, blog post by James Wolcott. VanityFair.com [link]
  6. Assoluta by Laura Jacobs. Dance critic for The New Criterion [link]

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