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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Mariinsky Ballet—Pinnacle of Elegance

Swan Lake. Photo: Valentin Baranovsky
By Susan Yung

The Mariinsky Ballet is revered as one of the world's top companies. Founded in imperial Russia in the mid-18th century, it was renamed the Kirov Ballet during the Soviet years. It reverted to its original name in recent years, after Leningrad once again was called St. Petersburg. It has been a crucible for many of classical ballet's most beloved and enduring full-length dances, including Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker, and its ever-growing repertory includes dances by modern masters such as Balanchine and Robbins.

The foundation of the company, in a sense, is the resident Vaganova Ballet Academy, named after the renowned teacher Agrippina Vaganova, who led the school beginning in 1921. The academy—whose rigorous curriculum mixes ballet studies with academics—is notoriously competitive to enter. It forms technique and artistry, as well as populating the company's ranks; the school is a major source of Mariinsky Ballet dancers.

The style of the Mariinsky Ballet is elegant, elongated, regal, tasteful. The corps is almost magically in unison in ensemble sections. All elements of a dancer's body move in harmony, with special attention to nuances of the hands, arms, head, and their relation to one another, known as épaulement. Vaganova was also known to emphasize allegro work, or quick steps in combination that require technical precision, musicality, and mental deftness.
Ekaterina Kondaurova in Cinderella.
Photo: N. Razina

It can be helpful to contrast it with its Moscow counterpart, the Bolshoi, which flourished during the Soviet era. While there is currently some overlap of repertory between the companies, you're more likely to see Russian folk dances and depictions of farming collectives in Bolshoi productions, which tend to underscore the melodrama and athleticism in ballet.

The Mariinsky Ballet begins a 10-day residency at BAM starting on January 15 with three programs that are a prime sampling of the company's current artistic direction, which has been led by Artistic Director Valery Gergiev since 1988. (The Mariinsky Opera also performs The Enchanted Wanderer on January 14; the Mariinsky Orchestra accompanies all performances, with several conducted by Gergiev. Visit for details.)

Swan Lake, which many consider to be the perfect combination of allegory, form, and music, represents much of the richness and depth of the company. Chopin: Dances for Piano covers a century of ballet history, and includes a dance from 1908 (Chopiniana, by Michel Fokine), 1970 (In the Night, by Jerome Robbins), and 2011 (Without, by Benjamin Millepied). And Cinderella (2002) is a contemporary take by Alexei Ratmansky of a classic story ballet. It's a rare chance to see why the company garners so many superlatives.

The Mariinsky comes to BAM Jan 14—25.

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