It takes a certain kind of performance to cause a near sell-out audience at Cal Performances Zellerbach Hall to rise to a standing ovation and shout for multiple curtain calls. Wednesday night’s opening of the Mariinsky Ballet’s soulful, meticulously executed “Swan Lake” did just that.
The St. Petersburg ballet company could be considered the mother of classical dance, for having given birth to legendary dancers like Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Natalia Makarova, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Add to that impressive roster a technique (Vaganova) embracing Russian, Italian and French styles that remains a harbinger of exquisite articulation and lush, sensual port de bras (movement of the arms), tip the scales with its great ballet makers (Marius Petipa and George Balanchine, to name only two), and arrive at a delicious dish of dance.
Served to an eager crowd, the opening performance (the ballet runs through Sunday Oct. 14) offered not decadence, but depth, determination and, at moments, divine inspiration.
The ballet’s story, told with (thankfully) streamlined mime, casual humor, and composer Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky’s gloriously expressive orchestral score, famously pairs prince/man and swan/woman in a love affair. Rothbart, the evil sorcerer reining supreme over the maidens-turned-swans flock, taints the euphoric atmosphere with the introduction of his deceptive, dangerous daughter, Odile. The resulting triangular construct threatens to dismantle the couple’s true love. Here, versions differ: the ballet sometimes ends with man and bird flinging themselves suicidally into the lake.
An update to the tragic trajectory of the original Petipa/Ivanov version, choreographed by Konstantin Sergeyev in 1950, steers the two lovers to forgiveness, a spirited battle with Rothbart, and romance rescued when the sorcerer’s wing — and power — are broken.
Depth, largely held by the captivating corps de ballet, was evident in every corner of the stage. In fact, the Russian troupe achieved the impossible: making Zellerbach’s expanse appear postage-sized. Modifications, invisible to all but the insider’s eye — in the form of choreographic edits and wisely utilized bourées (traveling steps done en pointe) — masked the difficulty of allowing 24 thoroughbred ballerinas to stretch their spectacular limbs in anything smaller than a football field.
Despite the limitations, the corps’ pure formations, unified sensitivity and shared understanding of movement and stillness — the dancers learn the choreography at a young age and don’t dance it as much as they inhabit it — climaxed in more than one scene. Replication, revealed in Act II when flawless lines of swans in arabesque stood bathed in blue light, their white tutus glowing, rose to revelation: it’s possible for the human form to transcend worldly expectations of beauty.
Determination arrived in the hands of Prince Siegfried, capably performed on opening night by Danila Korsuntsev, who joined the Mariinsky in 1998. “Swan Lake” is primarily a showcase for the ballerina, but there was finesse and vitality in Korsuntsev’s partnering, if not exuberance in his solo variation. A habit of focusing on the floor between tours and grand jetés fractured the narrative and lent a tentative nature to his otherwise assured performance.
His Swan Queen, danced incandescently by Ekaterina Kondaurova, offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (unless one is young, or enthralled enough to become a Mariinsky groupie) to witness this dancer at her prime. It’s not just the way her magnificent legs fold into passé or her arms appear and float aloft organically from deep in her back — or the way her face suggests tender remove, then wicked desire, then everlasting joy. Inside her formidable command of classical technique, Kondaurova embodies ferocity, an often-unacknowledged trait that lends a wild, charismatic magic to a dancer’s stage presence.
Framing the traditions of remarkable ensembles and stellar soloists, Igor Ivanov’s set designs, especially in the atmospheric Act II and IV, were elegant. A too-yellow Act III and a too-dim follow spot were the only disappointments in lighting.
Conductor Mikhail Agrest led the fine Mariinsky Orchestra with brisk tempi and aching adagio passages that often surpassed sound and married music to movement, an achievement not always reached by ballet orchestras.
At over three hours, the marvelous work horse that is the Mariinsky Ballet showed no trace of effort and in final curtain calls, the legacy of Russian masters was upheld with aplomb.
“Swan Lake” runs through Sunday, October 14. For more information, call Cal Performances at (510) 642-9988, or visit Cal Performances online.
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