During January I had the opportunity to attend a performance of Les Saisons Russes by the Mariinsky Ballet at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Yes, you read that properly… I have a lot 19th century sensibilities, or, as my boyfriend puts it, I’m a 60-year-old in a 23-year-old’s body. Almost nobody my own age likes ballet. But I digress… when a friend and I heard that the Mariinsky would be in town, it was an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up. I had seen the Kirov perform Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theater while I was in Russia, and was eager to see more Russian ballet.
The performance was divided into three acts, each of which was beautiful and unique.
This segment didn’t feature a linear plot, but instead was used to showcase traditional choreography. We sat on the highest balcony, which is one of my favorite places to sit because one can see the formations and choreography from above. Luckily, the seats that I prefer happen to be the ones that broke grad students can afford. The dancers were phenomenal. One of the things that I noticed was that in American ballets, each dancer tends to be treated as an individual, Russian ballets highlight one or two dancers at a time while the rest move as one. Of the two, the Russian techniques take a lot more skill and coordination.
This one was easily the best part of the performance. Set to music by Stravinsky, “The Firebird” is an adaptation of a Russian legend. The tsarevich is walking through a forest while hunting the Firebird, and when he finds her, the prince and Firebird’s dancing conveys their power struggle. The tale of the Firebird is blended with the tale of the tsarevich’s struggle against Kashchei the Immortal, an evil wizard whose soul is contained in an egg buried under the tree. In the original legend, it’s a bit, and the soul is stored in a needle in an egg in a duck in a bunny in a chest under the tree, but that’s way too complicated for a performance. Solan Kulaev did a fantastic job as Kashchei, and the costuming made him look like a skeletal version of Voldemort in flowing wizard’s robes. Kashchei’s ghouls were so creepy! Overall, “The Firebird” carried the impression of being distinctly Russian, as evidenced by the appearance of the Kremlin in the background of the closing scene.
If “Chopinana” was traditional and “Firebird” was distinctly Russian, then “Scheherezade” serves as an interpretive number. It is set in a harem in the Middle East. While the Sultan goes hunting, his favorite wife and the other female slaves bring in the male slaves and have an orgy, complete with feasting and copious amounts of wine. However, the Sultan is warned of his wife’s infidelity, and so returns home early, killing the revelers, including his wife’s lover. I found it kind of odd that the program specifically mentioned that the wife’s lover was supposed to be black, considering that the guy who danced his part was paler than I am (which takes skill). It just seemed like an unnecessary detail within the context of the story. The Sultan refuses to kill the wife, punishing her by forcing her to live with the consequences of her actions. However, when she sees that her lover is dead, she kills herself. One of the things that I found interesting about this piece was that none of the dancers wore pointe shoes.
Overall, it was a fantastic afternoon at the ballet, and the best performance that I’ve ever attended.