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25 January 2006

Swan Lake

By Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Olga Grigorieva (Odette & Odile), Ruslan Mukhambetlaliev (Price Siegfried), Alexander Rupyshev (the Jester), and the Russian National Ballet under Sergei Radchenko

January 24, 2006

Want to know the plot? Or what the critics think?

What an incredible performance! After having seen The Nut- cracker in December, and knowing that such a production is, for the majority of its performers, the first step in their careers as professional dancers, I expected great things from the Russian National Ballet Company. In dance, what is more storied that the Russian contribution to the art form? So, performing to a sold-out audience, the Russians demonstrated what a living piece of art ballet can be, and I was enchanted.

This time, I came equipped with the opera glasses I got for Christmas, even though I did not use them as often as I imagined. Points at which several dancers performed across the width of the stage made the glasses difficult (and dizzy-fying) to use, so I used them only for solos or to get a good look at a particular face or costume.

After ten minutes, I became convinced that the Jester, Alexander Rupyshev, could actually fly. He was just holding back because the stage was smaller than he was used to. The "Dance of the Cygnets," during which four women dance with their arms interlaced and in very close proximity to each other, was unbelievable. There was not a single misstep, the result of which could have been all four dancers collapsing on each other in a heap. The applause for their astounding success was louder than any I have heard at the Overture. And Olga Grigorieva's 32 fouettés were mind-bending in their power and efficiency.

Medical students should consider using Ms Grigorieva in anatomy class, in lieu of dissection, because every tendon, bone, and muscle was visible as a testament to her scary, inhuman hard work and conditioning. In that way, my seat in the nose-bleed section was actually a blessing. Who wants to see a dancer sweat, when the goal is to appear effortless and gently graceful?

But beyond the purely technical and athletic, these dancers were in control of every moment. A pause, a break, the slightest tilt of the head or tipped wrist - these subtle, intentional checks on unrestrained movement created a deceptive sense of ease and languor. I could read it on their faces (with my glasses): yes, I shall spin twelve times across the stage, but my neck will be relaxed, my arms easy and gentle, my gait unhurried. While less proficient dancers like those in The Nutcracker (even the professionals) used physical force to amplify their technique, these dancers allowed their physical prowess to reveal the depth of their technique.

I was a little disappointed by the production's lack of orchestral accompaniment, as the music was played over the speaker system from a recorded source, but I can understand a traveling company's need for such a reliable musical source. But this was one minor and forgivable issue in an otherwise exciting and memorable evening.

I found myself thinking about the nature of ballet as art and the amount of non-hunter/gatherers it took to arrange last night's performance. How many individuals contributed to the careers of those dancers, to the schools they attended, to the history of dance that came before them? How many centuries of composition came before Tchaikovsky completed his score? How many millennia of human expression contributed to the creation of music, musical instruments, and a professional class of musicians?

And there I was, as a member of the audience's leisured class, with sleeping old man on my left, yawning old man on my right, and ignorant college girls in front and behind me (believe me, "ignorant" is not an understatement), pondering the decadence and accomplishment of our species. But then there was more dancing to be seen, so I set those thoughts aside and enjoyed the remarkable show.

Photos: Svetlana Zakharova of the Kirov Ballet, ©Valentin Baranovsky; Saint Mary's University of Minnesota's Dance Repertory Company, ©Minnesota Conservatory for the Arts

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