Kennedy Center: The Grand Tradition

Classic Arts Features   Kennedy Center: The Grand Tradition
The storied Mariinsky Ballet returns to the Kennedy Center with a vivacious Don Quixote Jan 13-18.

No country is more associated with the art form of ballet than Russia. And no Russian company can claim more of a heritage of ballet in its purest form than the Mariinsky Ballet. The New York Times calls the company "the bedrock of classical ballet purity and sophistication."

January 13 _18 in the Opera House, the Kennedy Center presents the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly known as the Kirov Ballet) in its dazzling production of the beloved full-length story ballet Don Quixote. The San Francisco Chronicle praised it as "sensationally spirited...classical ballet at its most free and joyous!"

With Don Quixote, the Mariinsky Ballet again showcases the genius of Marius Petipa's choreography. In January 2008 in the Opera House, they danced Petipa's La Bayadre, which the Washington Post called a blend of "classical perfection with the more mystical and sentimental elements of the work."

The Cervantes novel Don Quixote combines the farcical with the philosophical and concentrates on the protagonist and his chivalric follies. It was groundbreaking in introducing common peasant characters into Spanish literature. The ballet focuses on the romance between two earthy characters, Bazil and Kitri, from two chapters of the novel.

Although the ballet premiered in Moscow in 1869, it has a longtime association with the Mariinsky. The true joy of Don Quixote lies in the wealth of Petipa's dynamic choreography to the rousing music of Ludwig Minkus. Virtuosity and high-spirited style contrast with the purely classical sections of the ballet. The work contains riffs on traditional Spanish dances like the seguidilla and the more elegant cape-waving of the toreadors. In the second act, Don Quixote's pursuit of the ephemeral Dulcinea lays the groundwork for a pristinely classical scene that highlights the impeccable work of the Mariinsky's female ensemble and soloists. And the final act's wedding pas de deux featuring Kitri and Bazil is often excerpted from the ballet for its bravura technical fireworks.

Today's Mariinsky dancers, including current 21st-century ballerinas Diana Vishneva and Viktoria Tereshkina, follow in the footsteps of some of the greatest ballet stars of the 20th century. The Mariinsky Ballet's glorious history boasts such luminaries as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, Rudolph Nureyev, George Balanchine, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Anna Pavlova. But the roots of the Mariinsky Ballet date back to the early 18th century.

The Imperial Theatre School, a training ground for court dancers, was established by the Empress Anna Ivanovna in 1738 and directed by the French teacher Jean-Baptiste Land_. The school set the blueprint for the Vaganova Academy, which now serves as the Mariinsky's official institution for grooming dancers. The Imperial Theatre School also spawned the Imperial Russian Ballet, a name that was used until the abolishment of Imperial rule.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Imperial Russian Ballet became internationally known as a showcase for ballet stars of the Romantic period, such as Marie Taglioni, Enrico Cecchetti, Jules Perrot, Fanny Cerrito, and Carlotta Grisi. In 1860, the company found a new home in the Mariinsky Theatre. But it was the mid-19th-century advent of Marius Petipa, the ballet master and choreographer with an unprecedented ability to utilize classical ballet vocabulary in vastly original ways, who sealed the style of the Imperial Russian Ballet.

In 1877, Petipa choreographed the signature work La Bayadre to the music of Ludwig Minkus. The ballet forged new territory in exploring the virtuoso technique of dancers and expanded the role of the corps de ballet as an essential and independent entity in ballet. In 1890, Petipa premiered his The Sleeping Beauty, set to the monumental commissioned score by Tchaikovsky. This ushered in a golden age of Russian ballet, including a revival of Swan Lake in 1895 in St. Petersburg that provided the template for future versions of the ballet.

Following the Revolution in 1917, the theater's name was changed to the State Mariinsky Theatre, and many dancers left the company. During the 1930s, a Soviet style of ballet emerged with large-scale productions, such as Flames of Paris and The Fountain of Bakhchisarai. After the assassination of the Bolshevik revolutionary Sergei Kirov in 1934, the company was renamed the Kirov Ballet. One of the company's most significant artistic achievements of that period was Leonid Lavrovsky's choreographed version of Romeo and Juliet, which debuted in 1940 to a powerful score by Sergei Prokofiev and starred the legendary Galina Ulanova.

During the 1950s and 1960s Konstantin Sergeyev served as the company's artistic director and upheld the company's strict classical standards. Taras Bulba, Spartacus, and The Stone Flower were choreographed during his tenure. When the company toured the West after 1961, it created a sensation with its remarkable artistry and inimitable stars.

In the last three decades, the Mariinsky Ballet has further expanded its repertoire, adding the ballets of many other choreographers to its roster: Antony Tudor, John Neumeier, Jerome Robbins, Roland Petit, Maurice B_jart, and Alexei Ratmansky. In 1989, the company staged its first works by Balanchine, bringing full circle the Russian tradition that he had brought to and expanded on in America. At present, the internationally renowned conductor Valery Gergiev serves as Artistic Director of the Mariinsky Theatre with Yuri Fateyev acting as Deputy Director of the Mariinsky Ballet.

Through its long history of historic ballets, venerable stars, and pioneering choreographers, the Mariinsky Ballet has proven its place as a cornerstone of classical ballet. Called "the Tiffany of ballet companies" (The Washington Post), the Mariinsky Ballet's production of Don Quixote is a fine example of the company upholding that grand tradition.

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