The ritual fires burned brightly Tuesday evening as the Mariinsky Ballet began a seven-performance run of La Bayadere at the Kennedy Center which ends today. The company has been dancing this production since 1941 and continues to dance it peerlessly and with dedication. But this La Bayadere is more of a cherished relic than a living, breathing Petipa treasure. The improvements made to the staging over the years have been dancer-dependent. Brilliant artists such as Viktoria Tereshkina and Kimin Kim who led the cast on Tuesday have brought their own starry technical feats and eloquent interpretations to their roles. Still, the Mariinsky’s La Bayadere is like a valuable antique book with missing chapters and some loose pages that might be out of order. The binding on this ballet needs to be repaired; its spine needs to be straightened and reinforced. But there are other problems as well.
No company disrupts a ballet's story line quite like the Mariinsky with its lengthy operatic curtain bows between each act. Act I of its La Bayadere concluded around Gamzatti’s fierce face and clenched fist as she resolved to eliminate Nikiya. Then everyone came out with happy smiles for extensive bows. Act II ended with Nikiya’s tragic death. Then everyone came out for happy bows. The effect was to make the performance seem like an evening of three separate ballets. We had Acts I and II that were somewhat related, and then we had the Act III Kingdom of the Shades that was a distinct and separate ballet all itself with little, if any, connection to what came before it. But if one is Russian and one has always viewed La Bayadere this way, it all must make perfect sense. The Kennedy Center audience was slightly confused, and some members started to go home after the dramatic end to Act II.
Our principals (Tereshkina as Nikiya, Kim as Solor, Anastasia Matvienko as Gamzatti) easily rose above the imperfections of the production to deliver admirable performances. Tereshkina, perfect in every technical matter, painted a warm yet troubled Nikiya in Acts I and II and then exquisitely etched her pristine, beautiful portrayal of Nikiya’s shade in Act III. She is the bona fide queen of the Mariinsky Ballet these days: the integrity of her dancing knows no compromises; she resists all temptations to engage in vulgar modern adaptations in order to impress the ignorant. While so many of the Mariinsky ballerinas these days drift toward a generic Western off-standard, Tereshkina maintains much of what we remember from Natalia Makarova’s style — even the occasional tendency toward dryness. But there was no dryness on Tuesday. Tereshkina’s Nikiya was filled with ecstatic but vulnerable love in Act I and spirited defense of that love in Act II. Her Temple Dance in front of Solor and a gloating Gamzatti revealed tenderness through melting back-bends and the most astonishingly controlled developpes from releve to arabesque followed by soft roll-downs to plie that were quiet pleadings. Her Act III Shade made the difficult pirouettes with scarf seem simple with her neat, effortless closings of the feet in fifth position each time.
Anastasia Matvienko as Gamzatti had the dramatic flair for the role and considerable strength of technique but there was no length to her limbs which also displayed substantial hyper-extension. Consequently, her balletic line did not sing as it should. It simply suggested power, which perhaps, was okay for the role of Gamzatti.
Kimin Kim has seemingly overnight become the Mariinsky’s most dramatic, most accomplished danseur in the Petipa classics. Every movement, no matter how slight, conveyed drama and storyline in La Bayadere — his sudden glances and use of his head were as sharp and communicative as spoken words could ever be. His double cabrioles were marked by power and clarity; his pirouettes punctuated with exclamatory finishes. His was some of the grandest classical dancing by a danseur that the Kennedy stage has seen.
The three shades – Valeria Martynyuk, Yana Selina, Anastasia Lukina – were masterly in their solos with Yana Selina offering a sterling performance. Haglund just adores her and dreams of what might have been if Selina possessed another simple inch in arm length.
The Mariinsky Corps de Ballet in Act III did not disappoint. The 32 shades magically appeared one at a time from the darkness above center upstage rather than entering from the side creating a cinematic effect. Each artist was invested in the perfection of the scene; their integrity almost overwhelming to watch.
The HH Pump Bump Award, a Fiji diamante gold stiletto, is bestowed upon Viktoria Tereshkina, Mariinsky’s current gold standard and a standard for everyone, for her exceptional performance of Nikiya. At times we thought that we, rather than Solor, were the ones hallucinating.