After a 22-year absence from North America the legendary Kirov Ballet was making a historic return. But problems started three weeks ago when 90 dancers from Leningrad turned up for practice at Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Dancers swiftly complained that the stage was uncomfortably hard and small. Rehearsals for a complicated modern ballet, The Knight in the Tiger's Skin, a work never before per-
formed outside the Soviet Union, were so chaotic in the new setting that choreographer and Kirov director Oleg Vinogradov considered cancelling the performance. Lighting and sets malfunctioned during the company’s May 14 opening-night performance of its signature work, Swan Lake. But the 250-year-old Kirov—which left Vancouver last week for a tour that will include Ottawa and Montreal—danced through the difficulties with the aristocratic lyricism that has won it a reputation as the finest classical ballet troupe in the world.
The old and the new were almost perfectly balanced in the Kirov’s Vancouver performances. In Swan Lake, the troupe dazzled audiences with its streamlined grace and the superb corps work that has traditionally been the foundation of the company. Meanwhile, with the allegorical and muscular Knight, the Kirov displayed its
commitment to keeping in step with modern works. Said the urbane Vinogradov, speaking through an interpreter: “We want to remain the world’s greatest classical theatre but we also want to open our door to new ideas.” The Kirov’s decision to perform in the West for the first time since 1964 was a happy byproduct of the recent thaw in East-West relations, aided by last November’s U.S.-Soviet summit in Geneva. As well, Expo 86 World
Festival producer Ann Farris Darling had paved the way when she travelled to the Soviet Union in the fall of 1984 to court the world-renowned troupe. Still, even after the company arrived in Vancouver, there were diplomatic tangles. The day of the Kirov’s first performance of Swan Lake, about 20 American protesters gathered outside the theatre to demonstrate against Soviet policies toward Jewish emigration.
Then Expo 86 officials informed the dancers and their 40 support staff that they they would have to pay for their own $20-a-day passes to the site. But city residents, businesses and the U.S.S.R. Pavillion came to the rescue with tickets. And before leaving Vancouver, most company members had toured the world’s fair.
The Kirov’s infrequent visits to the West in recent years have led to speculation about the company’s future.
With the high-profile defections of dancers, including Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova, and the 1977 suicide of Kirov star Yuri Soloviev, the company was in a state of disarray. By the late 1970s there were reports that it was suffering from artistic stagnation and low morale. Artistically, it was caught with one foot in the past, the other stepping cautiously into the future, trying to maintain its classical reper-
toire while struggling to satisfy the changing tastes of its dancers for modern, abstract ballet.
Vinogradov has reinvigorated the company since taking it over in 1977. He was the first to invite such Western choreographers as Brussels’ Maurice Béjart to the Kirov, and under him the ballet has experimented with new works, including Two Voices, based on music by the British rock group Pink Floyd. Although the names of Baryshnikov and Nureyev have been banished from the company’s publicity material, Vinogradov had attended the Baryshnikov film White Nights during a previous visit to Vancouver. Said Vinogradov: “He still dances like a god.”
The tour clearly dis-
pelled criticism that the Kirov had ceased to produce principal dancers of the stature of the defectors. In Swan Lake, Constantin Zaklinsky, a Nureyev look-alike, danced an emotionally riveting Prince Siegfried opposite his stunning wife, Altynai Asylmuratova, as Odette/Odile. And the Kirov demonstrated the remarkable depth of its talent by successfully casting several of its corps members in principal roles—notably Tatiana Ariskina, who gave a lambent, erotic performance as Nestan/Daredjan in Knight.
Both Swan Lake and Knight reaffirmed the Kirov’s stature as a great company. As the tour continues, North American audiences are enjoying a rare taste of artistic splendor—one that, with luck, they will be able to delight in again before another two decades elapse.
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