Thursday, June 4, 2015

Swan Lake, St Petersburg Ballet, Marina Bay Sands Theatre, 1 Jun 2015

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I began to brace myself the moment the curtain rose, revealing four pairs of jarringly unpointed feet in petit allegro. I had heard little about St Petersburg Ballet before this, knowing only that they were a uniquely independent Russian company, that their production of Swan Lake had been selling out in Paris and London, and that here too in Singapore I was watching one of two shows they added last minute after the first five had sold out. 

But as the festivities of Act 1 unfolded, and the corps continued to dance and socialise as if all the alcohol just ran out, I sank deeper into my seat, disappointed. Siegfried, too, danced by Dmitriy Akulinin, emerged soon after as a lacklustre prince, competent but not compelling in his execution. It seemed that the company was surviving on hype, and the ever-reliable sales formula of Swan Lake. The strange choice of the Sands Theatre as well, with its popcorn that went decently with musicals and rock concerts, but most questionably with a white swan pas de deux, made the whole affair gimmicky.

Act 1 did lend some saving graces however -- while the company's men left much to be desired (searing in the memory of piqués as gentle as pile drivers), the ladies showed off sure technique and beautiful arabesques. Another standout for me was Andrei Fedorkov as the Jester, who bounded on stage at just the right time to revive the quickly waning energy. His leaps were clean and impressive and his whims charming, and I breathed a sigh of relief. But they were too few and far between -- tired from a long day, I took the shocking liberty of a nap.

But from this torpor I was jerked awake by Irina Kolesnikova. She presented nothing short of a vision as she made her entrance, arms sweeping mystifying arcs through space and filling the music to its brim. I fell deeply and immediately in love with the rippling of her movements, where every motion literally started from the centre of her being and unfolded towards her extremities -- conjuring imagery of the gentle crashing of waves upon a shore. She was powerful yet gentle, in turn tearing majestically away from Siegfried, or brushing a port de bras tenderly across his face. For all the hours I’ve spent in Odette’s thrall, watching interpretation after interpretation of the same motions ad nauseum, I was not expecting to be so taken aback by the unique grace and grandeur of her Swan Queen.

Irina Kolesnikova, photo by Konstantin Tachkin
Her Odette was so entrancing that at the close of Act 2, I thought her Odile would surely fail to impress by comparison, but I was gladly proven wrong. Rather than being a simple puppet of Rothbart’s, her Odile took charge of and took much delight in the trickery herself -- displaying obnoxious relish as she mimicked Odette's dainty poses or egged Siegfried on. She mirrored Odette’s touch to Siegfried’s face, but this time moved in disarmingly close with a withering stare, as if musing “I wonder which part of you I shall devour first”. Her vigorous movement was also the antithesis to Odette’s languid manner – with crisp jumps and brisk fouettés proof of the range of technical excellence at her disposal. Many a double pirouette decelerated like fine machinery into a slow and controlled third that made my jaw drop to the floor.

It was these feats and delicate interpretations that almost, but unsuccessfully, masked the absence of a soul in the production – not only in the overall cast, but less noticeably, in Kolesnikova as well. While her movements might have come physically from the heart, they did not emotionally. It was as if she had written a very convincing script with her body, exquisitely designing where each part of it should go, but was miles away as she read it. There was the flinch of panic but not panic itself, the yearning neck of sadness but not sadness itself. The lack of a live orchestra for this traveling production also mean she has likely been perfecting her routine to the same music for quite some time now, which is perhaps why she is so comfortable within the timing but sadly, perhaps also a little jaded. The perfection she yields is almost mechanistic, and it is regrettably the absent sincerity that allows me to walk away from this love affair.

Furthermore, with the removal of all mime, there was no immersive backstory along the lines of “over there is a lake of my mother’s tears”, and an alternative libretto was used (ETA: a popular one in Russia, it seems) such that Siegfried prosaically saves the day by tearing off one of Rothbart’s wings and beating him with the bejeweled thing. Rothbart’s illusion of evil was already tenuous enough, from having been dressed up in a unitard and bedecked with rubies and galea-esque plume, coming across far less fearsome than flamboyantly fabulous. The kids behind me roared with laughter, and I too struggled to contain it.

On that note, I left the theatre feeling uncharacteristically tickled, mostly unmoved, but on the whole, still profoundly grateful for the chance to have witnessed Kolesnikova’s exquisite interpretation. With St Petersburg’s small repertoire I can’t imagine she’s been stretched much, and hope for the chance to see her wield her talents in quite different ways in the future.

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