Les Saisons Russes

During January I had the opportunity to attend a performance of Les Saisons Russes by the Mariinsky Ballet at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  Yes, you read that properly… I have a lot 19th century sensibilities, or, as my boyfriend puts it, I’m a 60-year-old in a 23-year-old’s body.  Almost nobody my own age likes ballet.  But I digress… when a friend and I heard that the Mariinsky would be in town, it was an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up.  I had seen the Kirov perform Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theater while I was in Russia, and was eager to see more Russian ballet.

The performance was divided into three acts, each of which was beautiful and unique.

Chopinana

This segment didn’t feature a linear plot, but instead was used to showcase traditional choreography.  We sat on the highest balcony, which is one of my favorite places to sit because one can see the formations and choreography from above.  Luckily, the seats that I prefer happen to be the ones that broke grad students can afford.  The dancers were phenomenal.  One of the things that I noticed was that in American ballets, each dancer tends to be treated as an individual, Russian ballets highlight one or two dancers at a time while the rest move as one.  Of the two, the Russian techniques take a lot more skill and coordination.

The Firebird

This one was easily the best part of the performance.  Set to music by Stravinsky, “The Firebird” is an adaptation of a Russian legend.  The tsarevich is walking through a forest while hunting the Firebird, and when he finds her, the prince and Firebird’s dancing conveys their power struggle.  The tale of the Firebird is blended with the tale of the tsarevich’s struggle against Kashchei the Immortal, an evil wizard whose soul is contained in an egg buried under the tree.  In the original legend, it’s a bit, and the soul is stored in a needle in an egg in a duck in a bunny in a chest under the tree, but that’s way too complicated for a performance.  Solan Kulaev did a fantastic job as Kashchei, and the costuming made him look like a skeletal version of Voldemort in flowing wizard’s robes.  Kashchei’s ghouls were so creepy!  Overall, “The Firebird” carried the impression of being distinctly Russian, as evidenced by the appearance of the Kremlin in the background of the closing scene.

Scheherazade

If “Chopinana” was traditional and “Firebird” was distinctly Russian, then “Scheherezade” serves as an interpretive number.  It is set in a harem in the Middle East.  While the Sultan goes hunting, his favorite wife and the other female slaves bring in the male slaves and have an orgy, complete with feasting and copious amounts of wine.  However, the Sultan is warned of his wife’s infidelity, and so returns home early, killing the revelers, including his wife’s lover.  I found it kind of odd that the program specifically mentioned that the wife’s lover was supposed to be black, considering that the guy who danced his part was paler than I am (which takes skill).  It just seemed like an unnecessary detail within the context of the story.  The Sultan refuses to kill the wife, punishing her by forcing her to live with the consequences of her actions.  However, when she sees that her lover is dead, she kills herself.  One of the things that I found interesting about this piece was that none of the dancers wore pointe shoes.

Overall, it was a fantastic afternoon at the ballet, and the best performance that I’ve ever attended.

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18 comments

  1. I am a 21 year old and could very well be a certified balletomane 🙂 your’e not the only one! I have only seen Les Ballet Russe on some of the commercial DVDs that have come out though, except for Petrushka, which I have seen the Bolshoi perform in the Royal Opera House. Extraordinary ballets..

    1. This was a neat one too because a variety of different styles were represented. I think that our generation misses out on too many fun cultural things.

  2. I’m a 20-year-old opera fanatic, so I totally relate! It seems like every time I go to the opera there’s lots of elderly people, a few students like me, and no one in between. I wonder why the opera and ballet viewing public is divided like that?

    Also, the fact that you get to live in New York and go to wonderful performances like this…so jealous. Do you ever go to the Metropolitan Opera?

    1. I’m actually in DC, but the Kennedy Center is great for seeing performances. I’ve never been to an opera, even though I’d love to see one. When my friend and I went to the ballet, we noticed that everyone tends to be either older than us or young kids going with their grandparents for an outing. It seems strange, because DC does have such a large population of students and young professionals that I’d almost expect there to be more of us.

      1. haha, stupid me. I really must get my performing arts venues correct.

        I’ve found that the number of tickets available for the performing arts, and acquiring those tickets, is actually really complicated. In Chicago, for example, the opera house is always cutting back the number of performances, so it’s really, really hard to get affordable tickets. They disappear so fast! My theory is that if there were lots of performances and the prices were more affordable, so many more people would attend, and there would be this huge fight for tickets.

        1. Yeah… there was a ballet performance of Alice in Wonderland that I really wanted to see, but the affordable tickets sold out almost immediately… 🙁

          You almost have to decide what you want to see months in advance, and then get tickets the moment they go on sale, which is not very practical.

          1. Oh, trust me, waking up at 9am on a particular morning to buy tickets when they go on sale has become rather a habit of mine….me being incredibly nocturnal, I don’t appreciate my alarm going off that early, even if it is for brilliant opera. I have several tickets sitting on my desk right now for May/June concerts that I bought in November (or even October). Considering how bad French people (no offense to them, but I do live here, and hence am entitled to complain) are at planning ahead, I never know if a particular evening might clash with an exam date.
            Long story short: liking art and classical music is really, really stressful.

            1. It’s just hard planning so far ahead. I almost bought tickets to a show on Memorial Day weekend, but there’s a fair chance I’ll be visiting family that weekend, so I skipped it. Class schedules also tend to be uncooperative… I wish that it was easier to find affordable fun cultural events.

              1. have you heard of the Met’s Live in HD? I dunno if you’re into opera or just ballet, but there’s a lot of classical arts venues that broadcast your performances and film them. which is not the same as actually being there, of course, but it’s a new level of accessibility.

  3. Lovely set of blog posts Grace. With a daughter who has been practicing dance since she was 6 I am used to her friends ( now in late teens) running for tickets to shows. Interesting to read the demographics you have been finding. Perhaps your blog posts will encourage others to try something that for them may be a new form of entertainment. I hope so!

    1. Thanks! I used to take dance lessons as a kid, but I stopped around when I went to high school, and there weren’t many opportunities to see professional performances in the part of the country where I grew up. It’s nice to finally be able to go to the occasional ballet, and it’s something that I wish more people my age would do!

  4. While I lovelovelove watching plays, I haven’t really had a chance to watch a ballet yet, although I’ve been meaning to do that for the longest time. We do have a lot of visiting foreign dance performers here in Singapore, I should check out whether we have any Russian dancers coming any time soon. 🙂 I am fascinated with Scheherazade’s story, particularly the concept of her weaving one tale after the next to seduce the Sultan’s easily-swayed sensibilities. Have you heard, though of John Barth’s Chimera? It gives a much greater portrayal to Dunyazade, the sister of Scheherazade. You might want to check that one out.

    1. I haven’t seen many plays recently, although I’m definitely going to look into them now. Scheherazade’s story is so interesting. I haven’t heard of Chimera, but I just looked it up and now I want to read it!