‘Swan Lake’ enchants at Zellerbach

Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra/Courtesy

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The ballet “Swan Lake” begins with a solitary violin sequence, soaring briefly before crashing into the swell of the orchestra. With this short passage played to spine-tingling perfection, the atmosphere inside Zellerbach Hall, already buzzing from the mere presence of the illustrious Mariinsky Theater (ballet and orchestra), instantly turned spellbinding. Then the dancers graced the stage, majestic and fairytale-like, with stunning poise and striking movement. Each one, from corps de ballet members to the imposing principals, was near flawless in this ravishing rendition of ballet’s greatest masterpiece.

The first act was a showy display of macho authority. Prince Siegfried (danced by Danila Korsuntsev) and the jester (Vasily Tkachenko) vied for attention by way of spectacular jumps and flashy footwork, bursting with muscular panache. Their leaps at times seemingly implausible; the two men appeared to be made of springs. And in what was perhaps the most thrilling sequence, the jester performed an astounding pirouette “a la seconde,” spinning at length with his nonpivot leg stretched perfectly orthogonal to his body and rotating at breathtaking pace. This sort of confidence came to define the piece, as the dancers did not miss a single opportunity to exhilarate the audience in emphatic fashion.

What sets the Mariinsky dancers apart, however, is not the just their confidence but their ability to be limitlessly expressive while remaining utterly deliberate and precise. No one did this better than Ekaterina Kondaurova in her mesmerizing portrayal of the Swan Queen Odette. Her arms alone were a sight to behold, painting entire pictures in midair but never veering from their prescribed motions. Her overall bearing was light and spontaneous yet at the same time grounded with intent. All the while her fellow swans (including Keenan Kampa, the first American to be featured in the Mariinsky Ballet) were beautifully fluid and elegant in framing the second act’s lakeside scene.

The magic of the Mariinsky Ballet also stems from its embodiment of Russian artistic tradition. After all, the 1895 performance upon which most current renditions of “Swan Lake” are based took place at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Moreover, the Mariinsky Ballet performs a distinctly Russian version of the piece that includes a jester and culminates in a happier ending. Somehow, the company conveyed total ownership of the story, almost as if to show American audiences how it’s truly done. It was as if the essence of the ballet was built into the dancers, and everything flowed naturally from there.

Any perceptible flaws in this production of “Swan Lake” were minor if not negligible. The third act witnessed a group of dancers with bells attached to their costumes and a few ballerinas carrying tambourines. The effect was altogether too jingly yet did little to distract from the quality of the dancing. Throughout the performance, meanwhile, there was an exorbitant amount of squeaking coming from ballerinas’ shoes, though this was likely due to the condition of the Zellerbach floor rather than any mishap on the part of the dancers. Incredibly, these were the only parts even marginally problematic in the entire ballet.

More than anything else, it was the intimacy of the production that made the Mariinsky version of “Swan Lake” so spectacular. Every touch, gesture or extension was full of feeling, lending drama to the story’s more intense moments. The black swan pas de deux was particularly memorable, with its stylish lifts and close interactions carried out in vibrant and romantic fashion. The Mariinsky dancers’ passionate portrayal of such moments is what rendered their interpretation of “Swan Lake” truly world class.

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