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Why Petipa is losing at competitions: a former principal ballerina at Kirov Ballet laments the spreading debasement of its precious Petipa legacy.

The Seventh International ballet Competition, held in Moscow in late September 1993. was unique: it was dedicated to Marius Petipa, who was born 175 years ago, and most of the material of the competition was his choreography. Having been brought up in strict St. Petersburg performance traditions and having danced all of Petipa's carefully preserved ballets over more than three decades. I found the competition doubly interesting. First, because I brought my apprentice Marina Chirkova to Moscow. (I've stopped dancing now but I conduct daily class and rehearsals at the Maryinsky Theater. Dancers in the Kirov are assigned to one coach for classes and rehearsals, and so become that coach's apprentices.) And it was interesting to see whether the works of my adored Petipa were alive to a younger generation of dancers. After all. the extent to which young dancers understand his wonderful choreography will determine what kind of future it will have.

The great powers of the ballet world--England. France. the United States--were, alas, ill represented at Moscow with only one performer from each. Japan, on the other hand, has been very visible lately in competitions, and Japanese dancers made their mark here. Regardless of their nationality, however. the dancers showed similar attitudes and made similar mistakes in trying to master Petipa's choreography.

The Petipa heritage long ago became the property of everyone. People love to dance his choreography all over the world even in Moscow. In the last few years. in fact, the Bolshoi Ballet under Yuri Grigorovich seems to have developed major designs on Petipa, turning to La Bayadere, Raymonda, and Le Corsaire. Nevertheless. there is and always will be only one "House of Petipa": the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Only here have Petipa's ballets remained active in the repertoire--a necessary condition for keeping a ballet tradition alive.

That's why I was so surprised to learn that nobody on the jury of this competition, dedicated to Petipa, was from St. Petersburg. Some might argue that jury members Galina Ulanova and Yuri Grigorovich, former Petersburgers, represented that tradition. Alas, many decades spent in Moscow have put the indelible Moscow stamp on the work of these masters. As proof I offer the way Petipa ballets look today on the stage of the Bolshoi.

It is important to remember that Petipa made his ballets for the Maryinsky stage. These works are products of the particular aristocratic culture that belonged to St. Petersburg, the old imperial capital. In Petipa's time, Moscow's so-called democratic culture stood in opposition to St. Petersburg's aristocratic one, an opposition that lasted into the Soviet era when the capital, the ideological center of the worker-peasant power, was moved to Moscow. Petersburg's distance from that center, in those terrible Soviet times, helped the city preserve some of the splendid achievements of its past. including the imperial ballet traditions. Soviet zeal often caused the proletarian culture of Moscow to overflow its bounds. Waves of it even smashed into Petersburg. But the city held firm. St. Petersburg. even under a new and alien name. Leningrad, was hated and reviled by Soviet leaders. The unproletarian poetry of Blok, Gumilov, and Akhmatova was hated, along with the music of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich, the productions of Mayakovsky, and the choreography of Fokine and Balanchine.

A few of these artists were able to get away to Moscow or go abroad, but they continued their involvement with Petersburg culture. This was the culture that gave rise to the Diaghilev seasons of the Ballets Russes--a royal culture of the spirit, an aristocratic culture. And the exact embodiment of it is found in Petipa's masterworks.

Now with the Seventh International Ballet Competition Moscow was, in keeping with the worst traditions of its Soviet past, fixing the landmarks of Petipa's oeuvre and its principles and values. Can we say that the spirit of Petipa hovered above it?

What surprised me most about the competition was the absence of culture in it--dance culture, music culture, general culture. There was nothing approaching aristocracy. Even less was there any aristocracy of spirit. When competitors were asked what variation they were to perform, their answers would sound like: "Well, I don't know. I think from Paquita. Or Don Quixote. Well, maybe it's Gamzatti from Corsaire?" The young competitor didn't have a clue that Gamzatti was a character from La Bayadere, not Le Corsaire, and that the above-named ballets, even though they're all Petipa, are very, very different.

Where did this come from, this widespread misconception that there is a single, universal Petipa style? If you compare Petipa's ballets with other choreographers' you can establish a commonality of aesthetic principles--but only then. Petipa's world is a supremely rich and choreographically diverse one. Bayadere, Corsaire, Sleeping Beauty, Raymonda, Paquita, two acts of Swan Lake--what a richness of colors, what a lushness of fantasy, what a range of methods! Different characters with different fates, different psychological types, disparate personalities, a riot of national colors. And you can see so clearly how the wonderful music of these works influenced the dance compositions of this most musical of ballet masters.

What's interesting to me in Petipa is how each of his ballerina roles is unique, inimitable. These young competitors should have discovered for themselves these different bones or colors at the heart of Petipa. But most of them took a different route--they adjusted the steps to their own capabilities. If the competitor had good double tours en dedans, he or she inserted them everywhere. Predictable logic, but disastrous for art! That's why all the variations tended to look alike--more precisely, faceless and monotonous. I believe I was lucky enough in my life to dance all of the known variations of Petipa--not just the ballerina ones but, at the beginning of career. the soloist variations, too. And I got them from the hands of the old masters, many of whom worked with Petipa himself or with someone from the generation he choreographed on. In my youth the respect for these ballets was so great there was an immutable law against changing a single step, no matter how uncomfortable it was for you.

As the competitors reproduced Petipa's "texts," a rather sad show unfolded. The text more often than not was strangely disfigured--and disfigured with impunity. This is why I believe fidelity to the original choreography must be included in the grading criteria. As things stand now, paradoxically, dancers who don't refashion variations to suit themselves turn out to be the losers.

Wouldn't it make more sense to do it another way--to choose the potentially winning repertoire that suits one's particular skills? Why would a person without a jump choose a jumping variation? Unfortunately, there were quite a few such cases in the competition.

The question of form often arose. Sometimes form became an end in itself. People assiduously reproduced positions, but because they moved through their positions unmusically, with no artistry on view, they couldn't be said to be dancing at all. You couldn't tell what the point of the variation was or what place in a ballet it occupied. Most of the competitors hadn't thought about which character the given dance statement belonged to. Such ignorance betrayed genuine scorn for ballet's theatrical culture. And that theatrical culture meant a great deal to Petipa.

The Japanese at the competition were a large, strong, well-prepared group. Their technique came with turnout, but not with artistry. There were pairs who turned wonderfully; there were others who managed difficult and striking lifts (especially in variations from Le Corsaire and Swan Lake). But there were also a lot of additions and changes and virtuoso tricks. These delighted the audience but the result was not Petipa. The performers were likeable, strong, and interesting, but they were meant for other choreography. "A lovely teacup," as we say, "but from another tea service."

Non-Russian performers often perform Petipa variations narrowly and with affectations, decorating the dancing with a sweet syrup. Yukiko Ivata, an impressive dancer who shared the silver medal, danced two Tchaikovsky variations: Aurora's solo from the first act of The Sleeping Beauty by Petipa and the Sugar Plum Fairy's from The Nutcracker by Vainonen. The latter, given Ivata's sugariness, was better for her. The former didn't work--sweet arms with mannered, broken wrists (though an ingratiating interpretation of the text). It was danced in what people think of as an obliging, even obsequious, female "Oriental" style, and it didn't suit Petipa or his proud heroines. The dancer balanced well on pointe; she hovered there in Aurora's opening pose in first arabesque, as if saying to the audience, "Don't you love how I balance so long?" But with Petipa, it's completely the opposite: His poses on pointe exist for the sake of the long, singing notes. The dance phrase is flowing and legato, and one must not cut it up into little pieces.

Thanks to competition habits, Le Corsaire long ago turned into a debased version of itself. If a competitor here took on a variation from Le Talisman or the variation for the Queen of the Dryads from Don Quixote or something from Paquita but didn't know what it was, he or she invariably declared it a variation from Le Corsaire. This is foolishness--but showy foolishness.

It's time to declare, at the top of one's lungs, that competitors need coaches who are artists, not mere craftspersons who only concern themselves with technique. It's not enough to simply learn the steps from a videotape. One must hear the voice of the character being danced and be able to reproduce the grain of this very voice. And I assure you, every character in Petipa possesses his or her own voice. The coach ought to help the young dancer understand this.

Compare, for instance, the regalness of Medora or Gamzatti to that of Nikia in the Kingdom of the Shades sequence from La Bayadere. The three roles have nothing in common. Medora and Gamzatti are realistic, each in her own way. But Nikia in the Shades already belongs to the next world. She is not of the earth; she is aloof. As Nikia the dancer shouldn't give an impression of corporeality, of actual glances and fleshly contact. The ballet offers dancers a chance to explore partnering without ever touching one another.

Take the dance with the scarf in the same scene--few variations in world repertoire are more difficult. What is the scarf doing there? Did such an object really belong in gymnastics? Because gymnastics was exactly what you thought of when you saw a strong performer grab the scarf because she was losing her balance. This dancer also couldn't manage the turns, so she speeded them up, infusing the steps with an aggressive athleticism. This approach is completely wrong. In Petipa the scarf represents a kind of filament: It's connected with some kind of higher, otherworldly power, and it's no wonder that eventually it floats up into the sky. In the turns, moreover, there should be no dynamic: These are sinking turns, swayings of the air, like wisps of fog. Look, they catch up to you, not quite tangible in their shifting shapes; they dissolve, washing away the outline of the real, to remain only in the memory as a continuation of the pure musical note.

Coldness of soul--this is what marred the competitors' approach to Petipa. They didn't have enough sympathy or inner culture to infuse even the simplest steps with mystery. with any potency of meaning, with any human content. And it is that content that is dear to all of us and has the potential to unite us all.

To prepare Marina for the competition, I taught her a varied repertoire that would show her from different angles, so to speak, and in different moods. I like working with Marina; she's quick to grasp corrections and she has a good understanding of what has to be done. Moreover, she has a big jump and good turns. She feels the music and hears it within herself. There is a deep inner world in this modest, even shy person, and I wanted to bring it out.

Variations give one a chance to do that. Marina started out with a leaping, dynamic one from Chabukiani's Laurencia. Here Marina could dance on a big scale, and with temperament. On the other hand, the variation from the Raymonda dream sequence is completely different. The dream describes a world of elevated, romantic feeling, and its steps seem to melt, to flow into one another, to weave together. It's as if you hear the music and, freely with your body, sing a song of idealized love. The famous Hungarian variation from Raymonda also suited Marina very well. It is aristocratic; it asks for taste, nobility, dignity, but, if the dancer has no contact with the audience, it can look cold.

To get this wide range of colors, I worked first with Marina on technique; I had her do everything cleanly, exactly, "grammatically." But that's only the beginning, and for the stage it's very little. The next move is to fill out the choreographic outline with meanings that open the door to artistic values. And here--please trust my experience--discoveries will await dancers every step of the way for their entire artistic lives. In the variation from the Raymonda dream they can play with shifting, gemlike colors, but only if they grasp the cantilena, the melodic line. In Kitri's first-act variation from Don Quixote, accent and dynamics are important. In Gamzatti's variation from La Bayadere, a regal kind of heroism is important, along with bravura, but not the same kind as in Don Quixote. Everything is important--even how the ballerina comes out on stage and how she stands. She can run around the stage as if in a market, kicking bent legs behind her. But that would be foreign to ballet. Unfortunately, many of the competitors mixed up everyday steps with stage steps. These two things are different in their very natures.

The French dancer Bernard Courtot de Bouteiller looked very good in the competition and won a gold medal. He displayed typical French training: good turnout, precise feet, confident pirouettes, a light jump--a student worthy of his teacher, Attilio Labis. What was most winning about this young man was the intelligence of his dancing. Here was a person, not a machine.

Dance harbors within itself a mass of expressive possibilities. In a grand jete dancers can hang in the air for a moment or rip it apart with a split. They can flaunt the preparation for four pirouettes but they can also do those pirouettes as the culmination of the dance phrase. This latter effect, I assure you, will be the greater.

And what of Petipa, our eternal teacher, mentor, and friend? Happy is the dancer who enters Petipa's world, who can believe in the values created by him. Petipa didn't merely love the ballerina, he bowed low before her. For her sake he created his forever wonderful ballets. Can it really be that his love for her will go unrequited in the new generation of dancers?

Translator's note: While writing a piece on the Kirov Ballet three years ago, I got to know Gabriela Komleva, a former prima ballerina, now a coach in the Maryinsky Theater. After watching tapes of her performance and talking to her,I realized what an unusually wide range she had commanded as a ballerina; she had danced all of Petipa's ballets, the crystalline parts like Aurora, the melodramatic heroines like Nikia, the ingenues like Kitri. Komleva is the same age as Natalia Makarova; she's the one who stayed home, who didn't emigrate. As a dancer, she had a rhythmic vitality that could have served the Balanchine repertoire; she originated roles in key abstract Kirov ballets, such as Belsky's Leningrad Symphony, but she also had a purity of line and coordination and a sense of drama that illuminated the classics. Russian critics admired her--Vera Krassovskaya wrote that if Petipa had seen her Bayadere, he would have thought that his life hadn't been in vain. And she is still fiercely loved by the local St. Petersburg ballet audience. I've seen ushers in the Maryinsky Theater come up to her and tell her that she was their delight.

At the recent competition held in Moscow Komleva's protegee, Marina Chirkova, tied for the silver medal in the women's Solo Division with Yukiko Ivata (no woman was given the gold), and Komleva herself won the competition's Best Teacher award. Here Komleva writes about the young dancers at the competition and how they treated their Petipa heritage.
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Title Annotation:quality of interpretation of the works of the 19th century choreographer Marius Petipa at the Seventh International Ballet Competition, September, 1993, Moscow, Russia; includes translator's note
Author:Kendall, Elizabeth
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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