Writhing Plot Twists

The Firebird at the Yacobson Ballet Theatre

The St. Petersburg Leonid Yacobson Ballet Theatre rang in its 50th anniversary season with lofty speeches, delivered by guest officials from the city government and by the troupe's own art director, as well with a new premiere. The theatre has restored — with the meticulousness of an archaeologist — and rehearsed yet another set of choreographic miniatures created by Leonid Yacobson; whereas the choreographer Douglas Lee has helped the troupe stage a new version of The Firebird. Olga Fedorchenko is back from the première, which took place at the Alexandrinsky Theatre.

Andrian Fadeev, art director of the Leonid Yacobson Ballet Theatre, remains committed to reviving the heritage of Leonid Yacobson and clearing away the dust to reveal the original pristine choreographic beauty. For instance, several years ago it did its best to bring back the untouched whiteness of the Rodin cycle. And now it's the turn of the patchwork of miniatures from a variety of choreographic cycles, such as Classicism and Romanticism (Pas de Quatre, Pas de Deux, Viennese Waltz, and Sextet) and the so-called Jewish suite (The Wedding Cortège, The Lovers, and The Gossips). The scenes have been scattered around without any particular grouping by style; instead, the arrangement is based on the principle of contrasts: poetical emotion — comedy — tragedy and the classics — grotesque (rather more fitting for official concerts of international contest winners). The première's uplifted mood is also evident in the new costumes, courtesy of Tatiana Noginova, and in the presence of a live orchestra conducted by Alexander Titov. It has been forever and a day since Yacobson's miniatures were last performed to live music — especially considering that the great defier of the classics loved choosing not very 'ballet-ey' scores. The orchestra performed the works of Bellini, Rossini, Mozart, Banschikov, and Stravinsky with evident relish. The performance itself, by contrast, was not always even: the genre scenes (such as the fiery Gossips and the cancan from The Lovers, set to the Seven Forty Jewish folk song) received a far more enthusiastic response from the audience than the intricate Pas de Quatre with its intertwining nuances, or the ephemeral Pas de Six. While The Wedding Cortège — a ten-minute ballet with an immeasurably powerful emotional charge, which premièred several months before Yacobson's death — is, to me, the very best thing to have come out of the Leningrad ballet world in the 1970s. Even through the mask of Sholem Aleichem's stories, the motif of Exodus, overlaid with the chosen mournful score — Trio, written by Dmitri Shostakovich in memory of Ivan Sollertinsky — makes the ballet sound like the great master's requiem for himself.

And finally, The Firebird, staged by the young choreographer Douglas Lee, adept of the neoclassical style, was advertised as a world-class premiere. Mr. Lee cast aside the outer stylistic attributes of Russian folklore, be it the flaming feathers of the magical bird or the kokoshniks of the enchanted princesses. His version of the story is terse and monochromatic, taking place in some kind of dark forest, where the dawn will never come and the dark shadows of Koschei's minions lurk behind the trees, while Koschei himself entices his innocent victims with golden apples. The choreographer does not elaborate what he intends to do with these victims, or why he would need a whopping 12 princesses — who follow the golden fruit with zombie-like obedience — all at once. The princesses, clad in luxurious fantastical crinolines (designed by Eva Adler), stride across the stage at a recognizable pace reminiscent of the Beryozka folk dance ensemble — which must be a reflection of their Russian soul.

The protagonists of the ballet: Ivan Tsarevich, Koschei, the Firebird, and Tsarevna of Great Beauty — are all shown as equals, with very similar body language. The style of Mr. Lee's choreography is best described as 'worm-like': he is very fond of making the dancers twist their bodies, writhing in ways that utterly disregard the natural capacity of the human spine. Andrey Sorokin's Koschei writhes in the endless agony of a wolf howling at the moon. Alla Bocharova's Firebird also writhes, looping so tightly around Ivan (Denis Klimuk) in the capture scene that it is no longer clear who captured who. Koschei's minions writhe as well, shimmering like shadowy apparitions. And Ivan and Koschei writhe into a tangled knot during their final battle. The Tsarevna (Elena Chernova) is the only character that does not writhe. Perhaps this symbolises the stalwart, unbending nature of Russian women. Sometimes, the choreographer allows the dancers to take a break from all the writhing, and they freeze in picturesque, meaningful poses or boldly cut across the stage's canvas, settling into impeccable columns and files before fanning out with a gorgeous flourish. Koschei's death has been given a deeper meaning, body language-wise: Andrey Sorokin's character finally ceases writhing and pushes himself up from the floor into a rigid pose, legs up, like a candle that Ivan subsequently blows out by popping the blue balloon that stands for the egg with Koschei's death inside.

Mr. Fadeev introduced the show with a passionate address, where he compared Leonid Yacobson's work to a well-aimed, point-blank shot. The first two parts of the programme proved this to be true. While Douglas Lee's Firebird is more like using a cannon to peel apples. Golden apples.

Kommersant newspaper No. 223 dated December 4, 2018
Olga Fedorchenko

Link to the original