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Russian troupe brings classically graceful 'Swan Lake' to Toronto

A scene from "Swan Lake"

Swan Lake

  • Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet
  • At the Sony Centre in Toronto on Tuesday

St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Ballet, along with its sister company the Bolshoi Ballet from Moscow, represent the quintessence of the Russian imperial style. Both companies have contemporary works in their repertoires, but on tour, audiences expect to see "classical ballet," and that's what the Mariinsky brought, first to Ottawa last week with La Bayadère, and now to Toronto with Swan Lake.

Among ballet aficionados, the Bolshoi is known for its crisper attack, and the Mariinsky for its lyrical grace. In the latter case, the port de bras - or the carriage of the arms and upper torso - define the Mariinsky style. One can only be in awe of the ensembles, particularly the glorious female swan corps de ballet, every arm in perfect placement, the bodies in complete alignment - the whole moving as one in fluid harmony.

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The Mariinsky version of Swan Lake was choreographed in 1950 by former star dancer Konstantin Sergeyev (1910-1992) who became artistic director in 1951. Much of the original 1895 choreography remains intact, with Marius Petipa credited for the lively court scenes, and Lev Ivanov for the melancholy "white" acts set at Swan Lake.

There are many versions of the ballet, but they all contain the same basic storyline taken from folk tales. Prince Siegfried (Vladimir Schklyarov) falls in love with the Swan Queen Odette (Victoria Tereshkina), who is under the spell of an evil sorcerer Rothbart (Konstantin Zverev). Odette and the other swan maidens will only become human again through faithful love, which Siegfried pledges.

At the prince's birthday ball, Rothbart arrives with Odile (Tereshkina), Odette's evil double. When Siegfried mistakenly pledges his love to Odile, he dooms Odette and the captured maidens to be in Rothbart's power forever. Sergeyev opts the end his version of the ballet with Siegfried tearing off one of Rothbart's wings, and so breaking the spell.

The Swan Queen is the sine qua non role for all ballerinas. The fragile Odette must float through the air, while the wicked Odile must be a scheming enchantress. Tereshkina is the perfect embodiment of both women. In fact, her man-eating Odile is one of the finest ever seen.

Tereshkina doesn't just enter the stage. She bursts in with a fierce energy that overtakes all who are before her. In the celebrated Black Swan pas de deux, Odile's famous fouettés (the one point shoe turns propelled by the raised other leg) are faster than a speeding bullet, while her diagonal spins are executed at a blistering pace. How the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony kept up with Mariinsky conductor Pavel Bubelnikov is anyone's guess. Tchaikovsky would have been stunned by the speed of his music.

It's a well-known fact that 19th century Russian ballet tends to place the lead men as porters and bearers. For some reason, in Sergeyev's version, this is even more the case. Schklyarov's raison d'être for even being on stage is to be a partner, and he is certainly an excellent one. His lifts were strong and secure, and he always kept Tereshkina on balance.

Oddly, in the one place where Siegfried can show his mettle, the aforementioned pas de deux, his variations seem truncated. Schklyarov managed to toss off a few high jumps and turns (with one little awkward landing), but we are never allowed to get a real sense of his full flowering as a danseur noble, although he does cut a handsome figure on stage.

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The virtuoso male dancing in this version is left to the Jester (Grigory Popov). The role is designed for the short and fast dancer who will never be a prince because of his diminished height. Popov is a jack-in-the-box and a whirling dervish all at the same time. He seems capable of holding his legs in any position once he leaves the floor and sails into the air. Even Rothbart's role is given more flash and dash than Siegfried, and Zverev is a formidable dancer indeed.

Also noteworthy is the difficult Act 1 pas de trios performed by the Prince's Friends. Maria Shirinkina and Valeria Martynyuk can toss off complicated footwork with ease, while Alexander Perish is a technical virtuoso of noble bearing. The Act 3 national dances (Spanish, Neapolitan, Hungarian and Polish) show the depth of the company when it comes to talent.

Despite the old-fashioned look of Igor Ivanov's set and Galina Solovieva's costumes, this museum piece puts dance first. It looks backward with glory.

The Mariinsky Ballet continues at the Sony Centre until Sunday.

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