More than 70 Russian dancers and musicians of the Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra came to Berkeley's Cal Performances this week with an often mesmerizing and beautiful, yet occasionally stilted and even sometimes inadvertently campy "Swan Lake." Starring the lithe dancing machine Ekaterina Kondaurova as Odette/Odile and the boyish Danila Koruntsev as Prince Siegfried, this "Swan" has a complicated relationship with the past, and this muddles our connection to the dance.
Heirs of the pure classicism of 19th-century Russia, the Mariinsky Ballet gives us a 19th-century vision of a folk tale about a prince falling in love with a bewitched swan princess in a three-hour work populated by gorgeously ordered swans, peasants, royals, and visiting nationals. They comport themselves with aplomb, even when they look squished onto the Zellerbach stage, and we marvel at their accuracy and technical finesse, which few contemporary ballet companies quite polish to the same sheen. But the scene Wednesday night was a curious collage of styles and influences that injected into the ballet a strange feeling of being both anachronistic and contemporarily provincial. A German gothic castle hovered gauzily on the backdrop as the curtain rose, although the dancers wore 16th-century-style Italian gowns and mauve doublets, and Prince Seigfried's tutor was decked out like a daft version of the Renaissance scholar Erasmus. Meanwhile, a kitschy looking statue of Pan, complete with horns and a companion ram, stood upstage, seemingly left over from another ballet.
Décor and costuming were a problem that signaled a larger confusion about which Russia was being presented, and that anxiety about identity filled the program notes, where nationalism curiously riddled the text. It may be just such anxiety that allowed camp to creep into the regalia of the Prince's mother, the queen, who appeared in Acts I and III wearing what looked like giant abalone shells on her head, or the get-up for the evil sorcerer Rothbart in Act III, who took his place beside Prince Siegfried's mom like a terrifying drag queen from the "Vampire Diaries." The "Swan Lake" rolled out in St. Petersburg in 1895 for tsar Nicholas II slipped quietly toward self-parody.
Where there was no burlesque was in the beautiful regulation of bodies on stage, and if this were only well-ordered movement, we would be just as happy watching a parade as a ballet.What the impeccable symmetry of white tutu-clad swans moving in heart-stopping alignment can give us is the imprisoned heart, smoldering passion, and looming heartbreak.
This tension between orderly society and the obedient but disordered heart is the secret to "Swan's" iconic power, and no contemporary American ballet company can match the flocklike unison that the Mariinsky dancers achieve, reinforced moment to moment by the lush orchestra swimming throughTchaikovsky'sscore. Repeatedly, the women of the corps de ballet showed off their elegant swan arms and perfectly formed legs, and the famous dance of the four Cygnets traveled across the stage with that effortless progress of swans on the surface of a placid lake.
But when it came to surpassing technical prowess and communicating smoldering passion and bottomless sorrow, Ekaterina Kondaurova failed both as Odette, the swan Siegfried has fallen for, and as Odile, the evil doppleganger who tricks the Prince at his birthday ball into betraying Odette. Kondaurova has impressively long and steely legs, a supple back and killer arms, but she seemed oblivious to the fact that when she first shyly encounters the Prince her tiny foot beats are there to signal the terror and thrill of her heart, and that when she hides her eyes from his gaze, she is also fighting a terrible urge to look. She never does look at her Prince.
Kondaurova's wicked Odile had more pluck but still lacked the vicious snap of a true temptress, and Danila Koruntsev seemed callow rather than bewitched. But most disappointing of all was this "Swan's" 1950's ending, politically corrected to eradicate tragedy, which had no place in the utopian state. This left us with a feckless Siegfried saving Odette by beating Rothbart to death with one of the sorcerer's own beautiful wings, and it doesn't get much campier than that. So we can glory in the Mariinsky, but we can also be heartbroken that this company is unable or unwilling in 2012 to smash our hearts with tragedy.
The ballet continues through Sunday.
Cal Performances presents the Mariinsky Ballet's "Swan Lake"
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft and Telegraph, Berkeley
Tickets: $30-$175, 510 642-9988, www.calperformances.org