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Culture news, 10.03.2006 12:32

Romantic revival

ballet To open its sixth annual ballet festival on Thursday, the Mariinsky Theater presents a reconstruction of a 150-year old ballet.

French choreographer Pierre Lacotte, a restorer of undeservedly forgotten gems of 19th-century choreography, is reviving the original version of Jules Perrot’s romantic ballet “Ondine” at the Mariinsky Theater. The reconstruction opens the International Mariinsky Ballet Festival on Thursday, with a second performance on Friday March 17.

“Ondine” tells the story of a mermaid and her doomed love for a simple Sicilian fisherman, who is already betrothed to another. The fisherman falls in love with Ondine but can’t compromise his fiancee, and the ballet revolves around the sufferings and torments of this love triangle.

As happens in virtually all 19th-century ballet classics, there is no happy ending, and the long-suffering characters all die shortly before the curtain falls.

“This ballet celebrates naivety and romanticism,” said Mariinsky dancer Leonid Sarafanov, who is rehearsing the lead male role of the fisherman Matteo in “Ondine.”

“The plot is as conventional as it could possibly be and there is much charm in this choreographic antique. The music, the moves and the synopsis all contribute to the recreation of a mesmerising and graceful, if somewhat old-fashioned, fairy tale,” Sarafanov said.

As well as Sarafanov, the ballet will be danced by an array of the Mariinsky’s top-flight soloists, including Diana Vishnyova, Yevgenia Obraztsova and Igor Kolb.

Set to the music of Cesare Pugni, the two-act ballet was originally choreographed by Jules Perrot in 1843 at London’s Royal Opera House (Covent Garden). Marius Petipa later reworked the ballet and presented his rendition at the Mariinsky Theater in 1874, followed by another version in 1892.

Reinterpretations of “Ondine” didn’t end there. In 1903, also in St. Petersburg, Alexander Shiryayev designed his own adaptation of the work for the prima ballerina Anna Pavlova.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the ballet or parts of it were occasionally brought to life in the city — in 1921 and 1984 — but the work lost prominence in Russian companies’ repertoires and remained obscure to several generations of ballet audiences.

Pierre Lacotte originally worked with the Mariinsky on “Ondine” back in 2003, with the premiere of his reconstruction scheduled for spring of that year.

But the show never materialized due to what the company said were “an unfortunate string of technical reasons” that still remain obscure.

The French choreographer had previously resurrected “La Fille du Pharaon,” the first ballet choreographed by Mariinsky icon Petipa for the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.

Lacotte’s reconstructions include “La Sylphide” at the Opera National de Paris and Milan’s La Scala, “Coppelia” and “Paquita” at the Opera National de Paris and “Le Lac des Cygnes” at the Ballet National de Nancy. In 1979, Lacotte brought Marie Taglioni’s “Le Papillon” to the Mariinsky Theater.

The research and reconstruction process can be hugely time-consuming. Lacotte said it took him nearly four years to work on Perrot’s “Ondine.”

“I have always been interested in the original version of this ballet,” Lacotte said.

“Later alterations were substantial and very much changed the work.”

When he began working on “Ondine,” only a modest amount of documents were available to Lacotte.

“I had a violin score of Pugni’s work and some critical reviews,” he said.

Lacotte wasn’t able to dig out enough about the original sets and costumes from Perrot’s work to be able to reproduce them.

“We have created designs that reflect the aesthetics of that time,” he said.

Lacotte’s interest in Petipa, Perrot, Maria Taglioni, Jean Coralli and 19th-century ballets was sparked by Russian emigre ballet historian Lyubov Yegorova, with whom he studied for over a decade early in his career.

“Ondine,” which abounds with difficult variations, poses great technical challenges, Sarafanov said.

“As a dancer, I very much appreciate the opportunity this ballet offers to absorb the quintessential style of the French school in its crystal-clear original form,” he said.

“It gives you new technical strengths because even the pantomime is very different from our standards. For example, to symbolize death, Russian classical dancers stretch their right arm and point to the ground but in the French tradition you need to cross your stretched arms.

Rehearsals for this ballet are particularly demanding on dancers as they require the highest physical and mental concentration, the dancer added.

Sarafanov is already familiar with Lacotte, having danced in his reconstruction of “La Sylphide” at La Scala last season.

“This choreographer is the most extensive ballet encyclopedia personified,” the dancer said.

“Apart from teaching us the technique, he plunges us fully into the era and the atmosphere of the times when the original ballet was being created. His exciting explanations are always rich with precious historical detail.”

By Galina Stolyarova

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