The Kirov takes it on the chin

It’s been fun watching from afar the struggles of Alastair Macaulay, the erudite, entertaining and occasionally uber-quibbly lead dance critic of the New York Times, to explain his love/hate relationship with the Kirov Ballet. The Kirov, that bright and shining survivor of the isolated and inbred Soviet art world (the company is based in the royal-bubble city of St. Petersburg, now a favorite haunt of the globe-trotting old and nouveau riche, and is known on its home turf as the Mariinsky) has spent the past three weeks in residence at New York City Center, and Macaulay has been by turns enthralled and unamused.

Unamused? Downright irritated is more like it. This morning, in his review of the Kirov’s final performance in New York, Macauley gave it to the dancers squarely on the chin — a chin, he complains (and I exaggerate only a little here) that the female dancers hold so resolutely high and upwardly angular that its determined thrust makes it seem almost a fifth limb to be integrated into the five positions. “In consequence,” he writes of dancer Alia Somova’s physical relationship to her onstage lover, “she was literally looking down her nose at him. House mannerisms like this make the Kirov’s kind of classicism seem the least sensible in the world.”

Now, I haven’t seen the Kirov dance since 1999, when I was in St. Petersburg and took in a performance of Marius Petipa‘s supremely nonsensical “Le Corsaire” — a sublime performance in a blatantly showmanlike style that had been rooted out of Western ballet traditions many decades before. It was a bit like jumping into a time machine, and that was a good deal of its charm.

A lot has changed in Russian culture and society in the almost 20 years since the disintegration of the U.S.S.R., and that ferment was evident when I visited nine years ago. The Chechnya conflict had the nation in a jitter, cathedrals and churches were filling with citizens still not quite sure it was safe to be seen in such places, the seeds of a new totalitarianism were already visibly sprouting — and so were such signs of inevitable internationalism as Gucci storefronts and McDonald’s franchises. St. Petersburg, for all of its city-of-culture elitism, was a wide-open town, like Chicago in the 1920s. I remember driving around the city with an American who did a lot of business there and knew the town from a distinctly non-tourist perspective.

“That hotel going up there is Russian mafia,” he noted as we passed one building site near the Neva River. “But they’re doing it stupidly. They’re putting up a three-star hotel in a five-star location.”

Still, despite its Al Caponeisms, it was obvious that the city was fated to rejoin the world, and indeed was already well on its way. So, too, with the Mariinsky and its Moscow counterpart, the Bolshoi. Russian provincialism was receding as the companies began open and eager collaborations with the Western dance world. Balanchine joined the repertories; dancemakers as disparate as William Forsythe and Trey McIntyre, the onetime Portland wunderkind, were setting works on the Russian dancers. It was one of those periods of creative ferment, when different world-views combine and spawn something new.

Yet the old remained on view everywhere, from the painstakingly refurbished palaces that had been turned to rubble in the Siege of Leningrad to, yes, the slightly perverse astonishment of that “Le Corsaire” (the ballet is generally identified with Petipa, but its pedigree is so twisted and complex, it can give you a headache if you try to figure it out) on the Mariinsky stage. That performance opened a little door into the past for me, and that sort of revelation is always worthwhile. Perhaps because the ballet’s story is so negligible, it was pretty much dispensed with in favor of sheer style — and the style, so radically different from our own Balanchine-influenced emphasis on uniformity and the supremacy of the choreographer’s eye, was almost gleefully individualistic, a shambling circus ring of can-you-top-this? leaps and twirls. It was a celebration of gaudiness and individual athleticism: The dancers, not the choreographers, were the stars, and nobody made any bones about it.

Is this preferable to today’s more careful, more fully integrated and aesthetically whole approach to ballet? I think not. But it was different, and in today’s interconnected world, which brings many advantages but also tends to subjugate (even benignly or unpurposefully) that which is not international in thought and style, the survival of such differences is to be cherished. Keeping the past is a messy process, and it never entirely works (what, after all, do such theme parks as Colonial Williamsburg have to do with the actual lives of the people they purport to commemorate, other than a sort of hall-of-mirrors skewed literalism?). Yet the past is such a powerful interpreter of the present. How can we know where we are if we don’t know where we’ve been?

Even in his criticism, Macaulay sees signs of the sort of forward movement he desires from the Kirov (and surely a company that is strictly locked in the past begins to lose its relevance). “I think the irksome chin-up mannerism is already on the wane,” he writes, “but I applaud the impulse behind it: the yearning to feel the warmth of the light on the face. Today’s dancers show none of the swaybacked stance (that gymnast arch of the lower spine) that so disfigured its dancing in the early 1990s.”

That swaybacked stance, of course, has long been a hallmark of Russian dancers; even such stars as Nureyev and Baryshnikov needed to rigorously train it out of their systems after they moved to the West. Yet it, too, has an explanation that can help audiences develop a deeper appreciation of the varieties and history of the dance. James Canfield, founding artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre, demonstrated it to me a number of years ago. That backward tilt of the shoulders, he said, was eminently practical: It allowed dancers on Russia’s steeply raked stages to appear upright and in balance — and it kept them from falling forward on their noses. On the typically flat stages of American performance halls, of course, the tilt looks odd.

Which brings up one more difference between East and West, and one in which I’m convinced the Russians have the better of us: the relationship between the audience and the performers. In both the Mariinsky and St. Petersburg’s Shostakovich Philharmonic Hall, a lovefest rules. The stages are closer to the seats, and not typically raised so high, and the audience members feel they’re part of the experience. The enthusiasm can be overwhelming: Fans bring bouquets of flowers into the performance halls, and at the appropriate moment rush to place them at their favorites’ feet. People stomp and whistle and shout, utterly unlike the usual pall of politeness in American performance halls, and that enthusiasm makes even a lackluster performance transcend itself. These crowds may be observing, but they’re also participating — and because tickets for Russian citizens, at least in 1999, were actually affordable for most (tourists paid a much higher tariff), the symphony and ballet were much closer to democratic art forms.

These days, the Kirov plays by international rules, and as Macaulay makes clear, it’s subject to judgment on international standards. Still, I can’t help feeling that something good and important is being ironed out in the process: the story of a particular place, and a particular time, and a particularly fierce regional aesthetic that, thanks to what was after all a particularly ugly form of political and cultural and even moral isolation, nonetheless created something that was singularly its own. Chin up, Kirov. You’ve been through the wars. And you’ve survived.