The 2011 Lincoln Center Festival opened last week with a splash. The Royal Shakespeare Company began a six-week residency at the nifty 950-seat theater built within the Park Avenue Armory, and this week at the Met, the fabled Mariinsky Ballet performs three programs. The RSC’s five-play season (co-produced by the Festival and the Armory, in association with Ohio State University) consists of Bardian staples: As You Like It, Romeo & Juliet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, and The Winter’s Tale. The newsworthiest aspect is the construction of this theater-in-the-round meant to echo the UK’s Globe in Stratford-upon-Avon, where the audience becomes a part of each performance. I caught As You Like It last weekend, and indeed, being mere feet from the performers heightened the immersive visceral experience. An added benefit was to be able to be close enough to the gorgeously tailored costumes to discern the respective textures of the varying, predominantly black textiles and leathers.
The construction of the theater centered around a thrust stage, was an amazing feat of design and construction taking a little over two weeks (time lapse video here). The familiar proportions allowed original sets and blocking to be used. The tinker-toy parts and production elements were stuffed into more than 40 shipping containers, some of which formed the stage structure; the remainder sit behind for accessible storage. It’s a fabrication of pure genius and practicality, not to mention the elegant, minimal railway station-inspired design, which epitomizes “form follows function.” The performance, directed by RSC Artistic Director Michael Boyd and featuring Jonjo O’Neill and Katy Stephens, was vibrant, physical, and down to earth.
Across the park at the Met, the Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov) followed hot on the heels of ABT’s season, begging comparison and mild confusion (Diana Vishneva is a principal with both troupes, and it performed two ballets by Alex Ratmansky, choreographer in residence at ABT, to music by Rodion Shchedrin). The story of Anna Karenina—with its social settings, romantic tensions and trains—might have great appeal on paper, but its essentially internal psychological machinations proved resistant choreographic subject matter, even for the resourceful Ratmansky. Vishneva, opposite Yuri Smekalov’s Vronsky (who, interestingly, was Vronsky in Boris Eifman’s 2005 version of Karenina before migrating to the Mariinsky), danced beautifully and emoted convincingly, but there simply isn’t enough contextual and character variety to rewardingly engage.
The Little Humpbacked Horse, however, is all about colorful characters and exotic settings, with constructivist designs by Maxim Isayev. The fable seems cobbled together with plotlines plucked out of a hat, but no matter. It’s great fun, featuring horses, tsars, gypsies, sea horses, firebirds, and of course, scads of townsfolk. Ratmansky excels in narrative and describing characters with movement, and you can feel his confident choreographic hand in the playful ballet language, mime and relationships. It’s the danced version of gathering around a campfire and hearing a riveting story. Vladimir Shklyarov endearingly portrayed Ivan as a youth evolving into a man, and Viktoria Tereshkina made a strong, sweet tsar maiden (whatever that is). Smekalov, all line, added spice as the jester-like Gentleman, and Yekaterina Kondaurova displayed her gorgeous feet and technique in an underwater trio.
But without question, the most powerful advantage the Mariinsky has over other ballet companies is the prominence of the music. Valery Gergiev, artistic director of the Mariinsky, which includes the opera and ballet, conducts select performances with eye-opening clarity, volume and expressiveness. So this is what a ballet orchestra can sound like! While Shchedrin’s music lacks haunting melodic lines that give Tchaikovsky ballets enduring appeal, it can boldly describe characters and scenes in the way Prokofiev did, and in Gergiev’s hands, it is indeed memorable. The third program includes Carmen Suite and Symphony in C.