February 8, 2016

The Night I Saw Zakharova

Svetlana Zakharova as Nikiya in La Bayadère, The Finnish National Ballet. Choreography and production: Natalia Makarova. Photographty (c) Mirka Kleemola / FNB. 

Svetlana Zakharova. First, I have to admit that I've never been a fangirl of the Russian ballerina. Despite her perfect physicality, 180° turnout, sky-high extensions, incredible feet and crystal clean technique. Her dancing is no doubt awe-inspiring and amazing, but I'm not that crazy for over-split developpés and grand jetés, certainly not in the most classical repertoire. A bit of upward curve goes a long way, but why shorten the line to make an exposition of extreme flexibility? The aesthetic of an extremely over-split jump is lost on me. Having said that, it would be very odd and unfair to dismiss a star like Zakharova because of the way she uses her extraordinary physical abilities. Albeit, she is not the first to ruffle traditionalists' feathers, the great Sylvie Guillem did it long before her. And I do adore Guillem, who does bear a physical resemblance with Zakhraova.... Anyway, ballet thrives on exceptional talent, discipline and artistry - all qualities that Svetlana Zakharova has in abundance. When it was announced that she would guest perform in The Finnish National Ballet's production of La Bayadère, dancing the role of Nikiya, I knew it was the event I could not miss. I was very lucky to get tickets.

When we entered the Opera's foyer, you could sense it right away: a tangible buzz in the air, excited anticipation, and familiar faces everywhere. Ballet students of all categories, retired dancers, working dancers, teachers, Zakharova-fans, aficionados and balletomanes. Not just any audience. I'm sure the dancers must have felt it too. The electricity. When SZ made her first entrance, stepping down the stairs of the temple, huge applause. But the Finnish audience did not bestow this honor on Zakharova alone. Her partner of the evening, Michal Krčmář, was welcomed just as warmly, and rightly so. Even Desislava Stoeva, who danced the role of Gamzatti, was applauded on her first appearance - something that I don't see happening in a regular performance. Like I wrote, special audience, special show.

I was seated five rows and one orchestra pit away from the stage, and had it not been for the tall blonde sitting in front of me, I would have been in ballet heaven. The moment she leaned back, her head completely obstructed my view of center stage. I'm 1,61 cm tall, and my shoulders at level with the edge of the seat. Hers were almost two widths of a hand higher. I should have gotten an extra cushion for elevation, but that evening all cushions had been employed to the left side of the entrance. Let's just say that my neck received an extra workout. I tried to respect the space of the woman sitting next to me, and apologized for my neck-craning exercise. She was nice enough to understand, and did not seem to mind. As I was seated closer to the right side than the middle, I did have better vision of the dancers' left stage. Luckily, I came with a friend, and whenever I needed to stretch my neck to the left, I could bump head to head. I did my best to keep up with the action on stage and not miss anything, but it did keep me from fully immersing into the magic. Still, whenever Zakharova was in my vision, I could not keep my eyes off her.

A ballet expert later commented that she did not hit all of her balances in the first act, but I do not know the temple dance variations that well. All I saw was perfection in execution, musicality, a port de bras that is otherworldly, and feet to die for. There is something undeniable magnetic in watching a ballerina who has it all. The height of her arabesques - without compromising turnout: unbelievable. Her pointe technique: beautifully articulated. Yes, extensions were high, but not over-split or flashy. In the second act "scarf pas de deux", Zakharova's developpées into seconde almost touched the scarf, and I held my breath as Michal Krčmář stretched his arms high above his head to accommodate Svetlana's incredible reach. The pas de deux was executed flawlessly, there were no entanglements. As for Zakharova's grand jetés: I would be a happy dancer with half of her split and hang time. My initial preference for a 180° grand jeté remains. The classical line is, in my humble opinion, more beautiful than folding legs up on each end. Although, a slight upward curve initiated with the front leg can look absolutely stunning. It is a question of degrees really. I have to say that I expected SZ to execute her grand jetés in rhythmic gymnastic style, but at least there were no glaringly obvious over-splits. Not that it would have mattered that much. It's never just about one step or saut. One more note about her physicality which I was not alone to make: Zakharova's arms look very thin, almost to the point of distraction. A freak of nature, as one viewer commented, or a product of genetics, training and life-long discipline. Their fragile shape do lend SZ a quality that is most suited to the portrayal of swans, sylphs and other not-of-this-world fantastical creatures. Her port de bras is wonderful: sensitive, musical, expressive.

Technical perfection aside, Zakharova's portrayal of Nikiya came across as somewhat reserved. I have noticed this quality before, and wonder if it's rather a question of personality, not interpretation. Perhaps the reserve is intentional, a reflection of her star status, a way to retain mystery. Then again, despite the glitzy mid-riff baring costume, Nikiya is a temple dancer, not a show-girl. She has committed her life to servicing the gods, falls head-over-heels in love with Solor, is betrayed by said love of her life, and reduced to an after-life vision. Other than the falling-in-love part, there's not much to make light off. Zakharova's Nikiya looks happy in her first act pas de deux with Solor, then tragically heartbroken, then unattainably solemn. Still, sitting in 6th row, I would have expected more of an emotional impact. Perhaps I payed too much attention on her feet when the tall blonde was not in the way of my vision.

Svetlana Zakharova, Desislava Stoeva and Michal Krcmar. Photography (c) Mirka Kleemola / FNB.

Desislava Stoeva, on the other hand, displayed no reserve in her interpretation of Gamzatti. Stoeva has strong features, which were emphasized by even stronger make-up, and she projected all the way into the nosebleed section. At times, I felt, almost too much. Gamzatti's confusion, indignation and pain at seeing Solor reacting to Nikiya's presence was played in hands-off-my-man-bitch looks and deathly stares at Solor. Fierce, and a big hit with the audience, but veering on caricature. Gamzatti is royalty, not reality TV. Both female protagonists love and want the same man, both are betrayed by him. And just as Nikiya is not a show-girl, neither is Gamzatti a "common" woman. But I have to applaud Stoeva for holding her own, for entertaining the audience, and for dancing all of Gamzatti's showy variations with elegant bravado. Ms. Stoeva has certainly earned her promotion to Principal Dancer, which was announced after curtains and made public the next day.

As the audience was giving standing ovations to Zakharova and the evening's stellar cast, another announcement was on the way. When you see the artistic director and entourage walk on stage, you know to expect something special. Kenneth Greve, AD of The Finnish National Ballet, first presented Svetlana Zakharova with a huge bouquet, then proceeded to give a celebratory speech... leading into the presentation of the prestigious Edward Fazer Award to Etoile Dancer Michal Krčmář. The Fazer Award is given biannually, and is considered one of the highest recognitions of artistic merit. Furthermore, Michal was not only awarded for his considerable skill and artistry, but also for advocating and coaching the next generation - even though he is still himself part of that generation! I'm fortunate enough to have seen Krčmář on stage and also met him in person, and I can only say that the award could not have gone to a better dancer. His exuberance on stage, the ballon of his grand allegro, the double cabrioles, the dare-devil turns and manège - all despite a lingering ankle injury.. Fantastic! Not to mention his boyish charm, his joy in partnering Zakharova, the face of Solor when he realizes his mistake... I'm always happy to see him perform!

Michal Krcmar and Svetlana Zakharova. Photography (c) Mirka Kleemola / FNB.

In the light of Zakharova's bright star, one could almost forget to write about the fourth star on stage: the corps de ballet. But, there is no Bayadère without the 2nd act Kingdom of the Shades, no otherworldly magic without the Shades' mesmerizing entrance, one of the most beautiful scenes in ballet. The corps of FNB danced beautifully, and I was delighted to be in direct eyeline with the right line, at the end of their entrance. I was also relieved that the tall blonde had decided to switch places for the second act, so I did not have to crane my neck back and forth. One tiny gripe: there was a rather noticeable difference in the height of arabesques between the first, second and third shade. To be more precise, the arabesque of Shade Number Two was considerably lower throughout. Clean, controlled, beautiful - but not matching the Shades arabesquing before and after. I know that the corps is arranged primarily according to height, to create an illusion of uniformity, but the steps need to be identical as well. I do not know if this difference presented itself in earlier performances, and it's a very minor gripe anyway. Not really a complaint, more of an observation. The Shades Act is one of the most hardest choreographies for a corps de ballet, and to be part of it a tremendous accomplishment and milestone for any dancer... Also, considering that there were young apprentices among the corps, it was very well danced indeed! The three solo Shade variations were all performed with aplomb. I especially liked Rebecca King's Second Shade variation: the arabesque balance at the end of her first cabriole diagonal, and the following two compound steps where she turns back to the audience, and holds her balance. Often it's danced so that the audience sees only the back, or the half turn is more of a quarter, but King really presents the steps to the audience. A lovely detail! Kudos also to Frans Valkama's Bronze God in the last act. After seeing the rehearsals, I have renewed awe and respect for this incredibly difficult variation!

To summarize the experience: I left the ballet star-struck, if not in love. It was an amazing, mesmerizing evening. I feel privileged to have seen one of ballet's biggest stars live on stage, at such a close range too. Thankful to all of the artists of FNB for turning an ordinary day into an extraordinary evening, lifting both body and soul. Believe me when I say that we had dance in our steps and dreams long after you guys went home. Thank you all!!

Finnish National Ballet: La Bayadère / Bajadeeri. January 29th, 2016.
Photo: my own. 

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