By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  January 30, 2009

Balanchine’s big, ineffable ballet replicates the distorted genius of the music. The curtain rises on the tender second subject introduced by clarinet and French horn, and the tableau — those eight men advancing toward the line of ladies — suggests a Russian Imperial Navy dance or a royal wedding. When the same theme is transformed into a glorious fanfare at the end of the exposition, Balanchine has men and women moving in concentric circles — in opposite directions, of course. But then the fireworks begin. The leading lady enters at the big cadenza, so there’s no conductor to help her synchronize with the pianist, and just as the piano part is an impossible sequence of virtuoso stops and starts (Patricia McBride spoke of having “to stop on a dime”), so are her ferociously difficult steps, whose logic is inherent in the music but not as easy to hear as Balanchine has made it to see. The Andante conjures Swan Lake as the leading man appears with a clutch of ladies who then form an arched bower through which the leading lady enters. After their duet, she departs the same way, and when the man looks at the remaining ladies, first to his right and then to his left, they look away, like the swans after Siegfried has betrayed Odette. There’s a story here, but it’s the dream you only half-remember upon waking.

Uliana Lopatkina had this big role Saturday night, and she was big but not altogether rewarding, her toe shoes squeaky, her manège modest, her port de bras severe, her manner imperious. In the Andante, she projected a passion that bordered on anger, as if this were a royal wedding and she were being married off. She didn’t connect much with Igor Zelensky on stage or with pianist Sveshnikova, whose concept of the concerto was more intimate and romantic — her banging sounded labored and sometimes muffled, but in the lyric sections she found nuances that eluded Lopatkina. Zelensky, now 38, tossed off his brisés volés and double sauts de basque with more class than ardor; the second lady — Novikova according to the program, but it looked like Gonchar — seemed becalmed by the stiffness of the score.

Sunday brought the dancer everyone had been waiting for: Diana Vishneva, whose $150 coffee-table book, Diana Vishneva: Beauty in Motion, was the star attraction at the boutique, in default of any Kirov publication newer than the 2006 tour program. She had been scheduled for Ballet Imperial Friday evening but had been substituted — a foot problem, it was said. A hush of expectation as the lights dimmed, and then, from the dreaded PA: “ . . . Alina Somova.” A loud “Oh no!” led the deepest, most agonized groan of disappointment I’ve ever heard in a theater. Although I wasn’t overwhelmed by the Odette/Odile that Vishneva presented in Boston, Somova had been worse still: painfully thin, brittle, limbs flailing. She’s still thin, her cadenza entrance looked painfully calculated, and at one point, trying to stop on that dime, she seemed to stop altogether. But once Andrian Fadeev came on, she ignited, connecting Balanchine’s steps the way Sveshnikova was playing Tchaikovsky’s score, girlish, even kittenish, nubile where Lopatkina had been aristocratic, she and Fadeev coupling with the abandon of Fred and Ginger. In the Adagio her dreamy developpés gave a sensuous shape to Tchaikovsky’s phrases, and as the second lady Ekaterina Osmolkina caught the flow. The oppositions of the Kirov’s double identity and double directorship melted away like St. Petersburg’s spring snow; so did generalities about the Kirov’s Balanchine and even the Kirov’s Ballet Imperial. It was, as dance always is, about what happens on a particular stage at a particular time. And this performance didn’t need to have the Neva and the Cathedral of Peter and Paul on the backdrop, because it conjured them on stage. Perhaps that’s what Mr. B had in mind.

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