United Kingdom Apollo & A Midsummer Night’s Dream (choreography by George Balanchine): Dancers of Marriinsky Ballet, Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, National Youth Choirs GB Chamber Choir, Kiandra Howarth (soprano) and Anush Hovhannisyan (soprano) / Gavriel Heine (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 8.8.2014. (JPr)
Apollo: Vladimir Shklyarov
Terpischore: Kristina Shapran
Polyhymnia: Nadezhda Batoeva
Calliope: Viktoria Krasnokutskaya
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Titania: Viktoria Tereshkina
Oberon: Timur Askerov
Bottom: Dmitri Vedeneev
Puck: Vasily Tkachenko
Hippolyta: Anastasia Matvienko
Hermia: Viktoria Krasnokutskaya
Lysander: Andrei Yermakov
Helena: Viktoria Brilyova
Demetrius: Xander Parish
Act II pas de deux: Oxana Skorik, Konstantin Zverev
In 1961 Victor and Lilian Hochhauser brought the Kirov Ballet to the Royal Opera House for its first tour to the West, followed by the Bolshoi Ballet in 1963. Since then, these two magnificent companies have been regular UK visitors. The Mariinsky Ballet – as the Kirov is now known – is in the midst of another successful season at the Royal Opera House and I was fortunate to be able to see them paying tribute to the choreographer George Balanchine who, of course, was born in Russia but made his name in the West.
Balanchine’s 1928 Apollo, to Stravinsky’s score, is a youthful work of his that he later revised and became one of the twentieth-century greatest ballets. Choreographed to a serene strings-only score it explores the legacy of the Ballets Russes and marries the classicism of a ballet blanc with some more modern concepts such as the angles for the arms and hands. Apollo has a toga worn diagonally with his right shoulder bare and the Muses have more ‘traditional’ white dresses. The scenario involved the birth of Apollo, his interactions with the three muses, dance (Terpsichore), mime (Polyhymnia) and poetry (Calliope), and his ascent as a god to Mount Parnassus.
All of Balanchine’s wives were ballerinas and many of his dances feature strong roles for the women and both Apollo and Dream that followed are fine examples of this. Francia Russell staged Apollo with great care and respect for its neo-classicism. The muses were a fine trio and moved suitably effortlessly. Often their arms entwine, they pose with flat palms upward, and Apollo strokes their faces one by one. Here and elsewhere there seems to be ideas taken from statues and paintings, such as, when Apollo reaches out for Terpsichore, and with their fingers touching Michelangelo comes to mind. Kristina Shapran – who I understand is a rising star – flirted wonderfully with the music and was a radiant Terpsichore, Viktoria Krasnokutskaya was exuberantly florid as Calliope and Nadezhda Batoeva was a spirited finger-on-mouth ‘mime’ Polyhymnia. Together they drag a rather reluctant god Apollo towards Parnassus at the end.
The Apollo I most remember was Nureyev in the 1970s: for me Vladimir Shklyarov was a mere cypher and although he did many things right his iconic character did not seems to go on much of a journey and he lacked some power and potency. Gavriel Heine conducted Stravinsky’s score with obvious devotion if rather slowly. Overall this Apollo – that moment by moment had many admirable details – seemed just a little too much like a reverential ritual.
No ballet can be more suited to a sultry evening than George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (staged here by Sandra Jennings in designs by Luisa Spintalli) with its feel-good ending when a courtly ballroom dissolves back to a nocturnal forest glade and we pass magically from light to darkness, from civilised formality to sylvan charm. At the end tiny lights are being waved about by the young dancers involved in this work representing fireflies flickering amongst the trees. The impish Puck has joined in (‘I am sent with broom before, to sweep the dust behind the door’) before rising above the fray accompanied by the final line from a singer as Mendelssohn’s exhilarating music ends. Not a bad image to take with you as you leave the theatre into what was a raining London. However it was now on the way to 11pm and the end of a long evening and I felt we might have done better just having A Midsummer Night’s Dream on its own or just one of its two acts with Apollo and another shorter work.
When Balanchine made Dream in 1962 it was his first completely original evening-length ballet. He interwove various strands from Shakespeare’s play, beginning with the petty quarrel between the estranged King and Queen of the Fairies, Oberon and Titania, about her changeling boy. Set to Mendelssohn’s pastoral and cheery overture Balanchine introduces all the characters and their interconnecting storylines. After the mismatched lovers have come on it ends as, Helena – in whom initially Demetrius has no interest – wanders about melancholically, plucks a leaf from Puck’s hand and uses it to dry her tears. Fairies and common mortals share the same space yet seemingly differing realties; similarly, the fairies do not join in the courtly wedding celebration that replaces the ‘play-within-a-play’ for Act II. The entire Act I is action-packed; as two pairs of lovers succumb to Puck’s misapplied love potion. Using the same magic Oberon tricks Titania into falling in love with Nick Bottom, whose head has been replaced with that of a donkey by Puck and there is a charming pas de deux when Titania tickles Bottom’s chin, puts a crown of flowers on one of his floppy ears, and tempts him with some grass that he apparently prefers more than Titania! Balanchine sets this duet to some lovely incidental music that was composed by Mendelssohn several years after the overture. By the end of Act I the choreographer has resolved everyone’s love troubles and it is now time to celebrate.
In Act II the narrative cedes to pure dance; there is a rhapsodic pas de deux danced by an unnamed couple, here the delicately refined Oxana Skorik and Konstantin Zverev, and then that wonderful ending.
Viktoria Tereshkina was a long-limbed, suitably regal, Titania and Timur Askerov a haughtily impressive Oberon. Of the lovers Helena has the best part, of course, and Viktoria Brilyova was most affecting when her body was wracked with sobs. Andrei Yermakov was an ardent Lysander, Xander Parish a rather dim-witted Demetrius, and Viktoria Krasnokutskaya a typically romantic Helena. Anastasia Matvienko was a high-energy Hippolyta and best of all was Vasily Tkachenko’s eye-catching Puck who simply fizzed across the stage. It was adorable and everyone involved (young dancers, youth choir and soprano soloists included) performed with great spirit and commitment – though whether it was echt-Balanchine or the Mariinsky’s distillation of it I’ll leave others more knowledgeable to decide.
For forthcoming dance performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, visit http://www.roh.org.uk/.
For Victor Hochhauser events visit www.victorhochhauser.co.uk.