A nearly full house at the Browning Center on Friday night attested to America's continuing love affair with Russian ballet.
How long will it last? Probably for another round or two, until people here conclude that by and large, and on average, American ballet is just as good. That's giving a little here and taking a little there, of course. Each national brand has its strengths and weaknesses.On the Russian side, you have brilliant technique, with routine leg strength that is found only occasionally among Americans. This strength serves well in spectacular lifting, fantastic turns and jumps, secure battements and the steadiest of arabesques.
The Russians display themselves with flair in breathtaking sequences, and there's hardly a soloist who hasn't cultivated his own brand of crowd pleasing.
On the other hand, Americans are better at conveying emotions, coming across as real people, getting to the human heart of a balletic story. Their technique is generally strong enough, though usually accumulated from many sources, unlike the Russian dancers trained in one vast, uniform academy. It's American to show little diversities within unity, and there's more freedom, ease and uncontrived naturalness among our companies.
The second, white act of "Swan Lake" is no longer a sure-fire success for Russians in America. Friday the whole thing looked skimpy, with only 12 swans and a minimal backdrop, and Americans, whose companies dance many fine "Swan Lakes," will no longer accept mindlessly whatever Russians tell them is so about this ballet.
Judging from what we see here, Russia has a plethora of cool Swan Queens; and as cool swans go, Natalya Bessmertnova must rank near the top. This small, graceful dancer made all the right moves but was so busy minding her technical p's and q's that she never showed an iota of emotion. Nor did her partner, Boris Yefimov, who seemed preoccupied with being in the right place at the right time.
The result was a loveless match without tremulous reactions, fearful or loving glances, or any other psychic chemistry. And the omnipresent Rothbart of Mikhail Gabovich was hopelessly melodramatic. The corps, including delightful cygnets and exceptionally smooth large swans, did dance beautifully, though the choreography was dull.
The company made a much better impression with pas de deux of the second half, showing off their inimitable virtuosity - but didn't the bows go on a tad too long?
"Spartacus" with music by Khatchaturian was a choreographic triumph for Yuri Grigorovich, the Bolshoi's artistic director. And in the Adagio, Natalya Arkhipova was a fabulous Phrygia, sinuous and sensuous, strong and flexible, while Yuri Vladimirov projected a wild, passionate Spartacus, as much weight-lifter as partner in a series of heart-stopping acrobatics.
Anatoly Kucheruk, soon to be Ballet West's own, partnered Arkhipova in the grand pas from "Don Quixote." And while theirs is not a partnership made in heaven (she is large for him, and their strengths didn't seem to mesh well), they trouped through the popular excerpt with considerable elan; maybe a little more than necessary, in a sometimes hard-pressed dance.
The typically Russianate pas de deux from "La Esmeralda," choreographed by the legendary Vaganova, featured the youthful virtuosity of Inna Petrova and Leonid Nikonov, in golden, brilliant rapport. Bessmertnova and Yefimov appeared to advantage in a graceful, moonlit Adagio from "The Golden Age" by Shostakovich, and Marina Filipova and Andrei Nikonov brought Parisian sparkle and operetta charm to the pas from "La Fille mal gardee." And the audience seized with almost desperate delight upon the variety of a Gopak, vividly danced by Igor Yurlov, and a pert solo variation by Marina Kotova.
Costumes for "Dvorak Melody" (Songs My Mother Taught Me), a fluent, graceful collaboration for Tatiana Bessmertnova and Mikhail Gabovich, told us it was a bob toward the modern repertory - about as modern as this 19th-century program ever got.