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The Kirov 'Nutcracker': stuck in its shell*

December 18, 2008 |  1:56 pm

Kirov 'Nutcracker' The mighty Kirov Ballet and Orchestra are back at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with America’s favorite ballet just at the height of “Nutcracker” season.

The 116-year-old holiday classic, renowned for Tchaikovsksy’s masterful score, was created for the St. Petersburg troupe. But America adopted the ballet as its own, and we flock to it with nearly religious purpose every December.

The Kirov, meanwhile, neglected its birthright for decades, restoring the ballet to its repertory just in time for the 1992 “Nutcracker” centennial; it never quite restored the ballet’s soul.

Nearly all the original choreography (by Lev Ivanov) is lost to history. The Kirov performs an unsatisfying three-act version created in 1934 by the late Soviet choreographer Vasily Vainonen. Simon Virsaladze’s sets and costumes, which situate the ballet’s stilted first act in the 18th century and which force the corps de ballet into various unbecoming powdered wigs in every act, date from the 1950s.

This mishmash made its Los Angeles debut during the 100th anniversary mania, and though Vainonen generally followed Marius Petipa’s well-known libretto, the production remains a disjointed affair. Vainonen stayed true to some of Tchaikovsksy’s distinct musical cues and chose to ignore others (no tree lighting, no retelling of how the young heroine, Masha, saves the Nutcracker, and more).

For viewers who are picky about their “Nutcrackers,” this pairing of a beloved classic with the troupe from which it sprang requires unexpected trade-offs for enjoyment.

Foremost among these is a striking difference in tone with American productions, and not just because Masha is danced by a grown woman rather than a girl. Even in its lighter-hearted moments, the Kirov version is a serious-minded ballet — in the same vein as “Swan Lake.”

The production’s long absence did not make it seem any better, and a goodly number of the dancers, who were in Costa Mesa a mere three months ago dancing generally well, looked ragged and effortful at Wednesday’s opening night performance.

Vivacious children from the local Yuri Grigoriev School of Ballet enlivened the first act party scene, imbuing it with needed spontaneity. Principal dancer Evgenia Obraztsova scampered playfully, bringing childlike enthusiasm to the role of Masha.

After the disruptive first intermission (which unfortunately separates the party scene from the Nutcracker’s battle with the Mouse King), the Christmas tree grew, the child-sized toy soldiers defeated the giant mice and the rag doll Nutcracker (Vera Garbuz, wearing a mask) transformed into a flesh-and-blood Prince, the radiantly handsome Vladimir Shklyarov. Voilà — this “Nutcracker” found its purpose and came alive, for a while at least.

The bravura steps of this pas de deux, a joyous embodiment of first love, set Shklyarov and Obraztsova free. He exuded an eager and warm demeanor, bringing out a pleasing clarity in Obraztsova. Shklyarov is the kind of performer who explodes onstage, as though he’s been waiting for this particular moment his whole life. With oversized steps and leaps, his limbs seemed to spread in several directions at once, and the lasting impression he left was of uninhibited joy.

Obraztsova has the expected, pleasing physical attributes of a Kirov principal — finely arched feet, soaring leg extensions and a studied, unshakable poise. She never quite put all that to use as a vehicle for expression, however; for all her loveliness, we know little of the dancer behind the façade.

When they were done, the performance reverted into the fitful patterns of the first half. The engaging geometric patterns of the snow scene were marred by the corps’ flat-footed delivery and faulty rhythm.

The internationally flavored variations were danced with broad smiles and scrupulous care. Mikhal Berdichevsky bounded tirelessly through the Chinese variation’s toe-touching jumps, while Yulia Kasenkova brightly bounded onto her pointe shoes with syncopated timing. Spanish dancers Yulia Slivkina and Sergey Kononenko brought sparkle to this Andalusian-inspired number.

The Russian Trepak, not surprisingly, returned the greatest rewards, with Lira Khuslamova, Natalia Dzevulskaya and Ilya Petrov quick-stepping perfectly.

The Waltz of the Flowers was an unaccountably morose and static scene. The 16 sullen-faced couples had little room to whirl freely, and they tackled their tasks with apparent dread.

The ballet powers onward, directly into the grand pas de deux for Masha and the Prince, given that there is no Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier. That’s OK. But Vainonen envisioned an always-floating Masha for this scene, and four danseurs lifted her about — and away from her beloved Prince. Shklyarov didn’t appear frustrated, but this viewer certainly was.

Other standout soloists included Rafael Musin as a vigorous and scary Blackmoor doll and Fyodor Lopukhov as an effervescent Drosselmeyer.

Conductor Pavel Bubelnikov got the Kirov Orchestra off to a brisk and gleaming start. Throughout the evening, he tinkered with the score’s pace and timing, and he allowed the brass instruments to upstage the strings occasionally. All told, though, Tchaikovsky still fared best.
This being opening night, there were various mishaps. A toy gun got stuck in some web-like scenery. Dancers talked too loudly onstage. Shklyarov missed a key jump at the end of his otherwise exciting solo variation. The Kirov Ballet — which will soon begin using its former name, the Mariinsky, in this country — is currently between directors. The below-par evening could have been an off night or a sign of something larger. Only time will tell.

*UPDATE: Go here for more "Nutcracker" photographs, by Times photographer Lori Shepler.

Kirov Ballet, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. $30-$120. (213) 365-3500

-- Laura Bleiberg

Photo: Vladimir Shklyarov and Evgenia Obraztsova as the Nutcracker Prince and Masha onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times