at the Civic Opera House

May 27-31, 1987

The Kirov Ballet of Leningrad returned to Chicago after 23 years and I don’t remember such an outpouring of local dancers and students at any dance concert I’ve seen here. They came to watch and to learn from this fabulous company — which, apart from the Paris Opera Ballet, has the longest continuous performing history in the Western world. There was so much to delight in: the sheer poetry of movement of the corps de ballet, the exquisite use of arms and legs, the almost consistently pure turnout and placement of the feet, the breathtaking virtuosity and speed of both principals and corps.

Chopiniana, Fokine’s tribute to August Bournonville’s 1836 La Sylphide, the first Romantic ballet, was one of two works danced at all performances. It’s known to Americans as Les Sylphides. The Kirov does it in its original version (Fokine revised it somewhat in 1940 for Ballet Theatre), and it remains a lovely, abstract mood piece that expresses the essence of the Chopin piano pieces that were its inspiration. The Kirov Chopiniana differs in mood from the one we knew. It’s sunnier than the Western version with its mournful twilight, and the corps looks as though it has stepped out of a 19th-century print. The style is sheer romanticism, with heads and bodies offering a delicate, period-piece aura and otherworldly lightness that no other company can match. The discipline of the corps, as it raises its legs in wondrous uniformity, is an example of what centuries-old tradition and rigorous training can create.

The principals included Irina Kolpakova, now in her 50s, who danced with the Kirov in its first American tour in 1961. She is living proof of that tradition. In possible deference to her age the pas de deux she performed with Sergei Berezhnoi to the Waltz in C-sharp Minor was rather slower than usual. Berezhnoi was an excellent partner, but his short solo was a disappointment. A tall man, he seemed somewhat unfocused and uncertain when he came down on one leg.

Although Chopiniana does not offer the spectacular leaps and turns of other works, it is notable for its elegance of line and sheer beauty of its images. Zhanna Ayupova and Irina Chistyakova were the other soloists and they brought the lightness and joy of youth to their solos. Seeing the mature Kolpakova alongside the younger members of the company gave one additional insights into the continuity of style, deportment, and vitality.

The divertissements from Paquita, on the other hand, are exhilarating classic dance. The divertissements — also on every program — are really old chestnuts; Paquita was recently revived for American Ballet Theatre by Natalia Makarova, herself a former Kirov ballerina. But what a difference in performance! The Kirov was expansive in style, utterly assured in technique, and breathtakingly reckless in leaps and spins. I loved it.

Principals varied from program to program, and unfortunately changes were never announced. Nor were changes in programming. However, Tatiana Berezhnaya sparkled in the lead on opening night, with Marat Daukaev as her partner. She is a strong technician, and Daukaev proved that Mikhail Baryshnikov was not the only Kirov male who can leap and spin.

Friday night, Altinai Asylmuratova danced the lead, and there could be no question that she is already a great artist — beautiful to look at, with a pristine technical mastery and a presence that stole one’s heart.

In a truly remarkable Corsaire pas de deux she danced with Farukh Ruzimatov, a young firebrand of a performer destined for great things, Asylmuratova was unbelievable. She danced a variation, totally unfamiliar, with such speed, brio, and charm that it was incomparable. Her fouettes — singles and doubles — were so fast and precise that the audience went wild.

In a short excerpt from Esmeralda, she demonstrated a powerful sense of drama; I was reminded of the impact and projection of Galina Ulanova, the legendary Kirov ballerina who was later co-opted into the Bolshoi Ballet.

The short excerpts on the programs gave the engagement a sort of calling-card look. Certainly, one is grateful for the rare opportunity to see such outstanding talents. However, the White Swan pas de deux, though impeccably performed by Liubov Kunakova and Evgeny Neff, doesn’t build any emotional bond with the audience when it’s out of context. They should have done the Black Swan’s, a bravura piece that stands on its own.

The most charming of the older excerpts was the one from La Vivandiere. It found Chistyakova and Sergei Vikharev gamboling across the stage in delightful and amazing unison.

Variation on a Theme of the 30s was a delicious spoof of social dancing of that era, and even of the Moiseyev folk dance. It was choreographed by D. Briantsev and danced by Chistyakova and Konstantin Zaklinsky to music of Shostakovich. Adagio, a newer dramatic piece by Boris Eifmann to Albinoni, featured Neff in burlap rags supported by a quartet of men similarly clad. It recalled the socially conscious pieces of Anna Sokolow, Jose Limon, and the more recent Maurice Bejart in its depiction of man struggling against misery. Neff is a wonderful dancer, capable of anything, which includes clawing the floor, leaping across the stage, and contorting his body. He also happens to be gorgeous looking, especially in the flesh-colored tights he wore when he threw off the rags.

The Knight in the Tiger’s Skin is a long dramatic ballet by Oleg Vinogradov, the Kirov’s artistic director, to an original score by Alexei Machavariani. It’s based on a 12th-century epic by the Georgian poet Rustaveli. The excerpts we saw were interesting examples of contemporary choreography taking on an exotic subject. The steamy — yes, steamy — pas de deux by the stunning Tatiana Ariskina and Eldar Aliev could have been created by Gerald Arpino. Although the entire ballet is probably too corny and campy for American tastes, I’d like to see it. I have a hunch it would be a sort of 20th-century companion piece of exotica to La Bayadere.

The entire Kirov Ballet is not touring, but the principals we got to see were simply wonderful in everything. So secure, so unified in style. One could actually see double and triple pirouettes that ended in perfect fifth positions, and arms — especially those of the women — that were wonders of fluidity and grace. Conductor Viktor Fedotov brought a secure beat to the pickup orchestra.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sarah Lane Lawson.