(Premieres on 14–15 October 2016)
Sofia Opera and Ballet 2016/17 season opened with two of the most emblematic works by choreographer Mikhail (Michel) Fokine, premiered in Paris, in 1910/11 within Serge Diaghilev’s Russian Seasons.
The stagings evince Fokine’s quests in choreography of the early twentieth century, i.e. each production to have a choreographic style in its own right, consistent with the historical roots and the geographical location of the unfolding events.
This Fokine’s trend is quite a contrast to other his works such as The Dying Swan and Chopiniana, where he wittingly seeks stylisation based on classical en-pointe language associating them with such ballets as The Swan Lake by Petipa and Ivanov or Pas de Quatre by Jules Perrot.
In the new productions of The Firebird and Petrushka, the choreography is consistent with the traditional everyday life of the Russians as both works are based on Russian folk tales. The restoration of Fokine’s work was done by director Andris Liepa assisted by assistant choreographers Igor Pivorovich and Svetlana Romanova as well as by Bulgarian coaches Maria Ilieva, Yasen Valchanov, Milena Simeonova, Ivanka Kasabova and Riolina Topalova.
Petrushka (subtitled Burlesque in four scenes (tableaux) and premiered in Paris, in 1911) deals with the subject of the common man who succeeds against all odds in getting the upper hand in the fight for his truth. This subject matter has been treated on more than one occasion throughout the twentieth century by a number of works (it will suffice to mention Charlie Chaplin’s movies).
Petrushka’s dance image is presented through en dedans movements (completely turned inwards, hidden in himself, with helplessly hanging wrists and deliberately lengthened sleeves, entirely uncoordinated). He seems unable to speak his phrases to the end: his dancing ‘jams’ in poses (usually, in the sixth position in asymmetrical positions). The fat and conceited Moor is entirely open outwards, en dehors, with bent knees and heels together in plié all the way. The frivolous Ballerina performs trivial though tricky classical movements and combinations (fouetté, entrechat-quatre, piqué en arabesque): unvaryingly repeated, they are intended to suggest her simple-mindedness.
The ensemble dances at the Fair are also impressing with each of the performers being assigned a task of her or his own, to get the audience into the festive spirit of the brightly coloured carnival, choreographed entirely in Russian style.
The action unfolds at the Shrovetide Fair. The first and the fourth scenes, set in a square, feature a crowd having a rollicking time: drunken revellers, a wrestler, a dancer, women debauchers, including a Showman who brings three of his puppets to life: the clown Petrushka, the Ballerina and the Moor.
The action of the second and the third scenes takes place backstage: in Petrushka’s Cell and in the Moor’s Cell, where Petrushka rehearses his declaration of love for the Ballerina, but just when he pulls himself up to tell her about his affection, he proves to be the Moor’s rival as the Ballerina apparently prefers the latter to him. Petrushka runs across the scene, followed by the Moor in hot pursuit.
The fourth and final scene returns to the carnival. In the fourth scene of the Fair in the square, the carousing is interrupted by Petrushka dashing from the theatre pursued by the Moor, who seizes him, stabs and kills him with his scimitar. The crowd is horrified and sorry for Petrushka, but The Showman seeks to restore calm and remind everyone that Petrushka is but a puppet. At the finale, Petrushka’s ghost rises above the puppet theatre shaking his fists at The Showman. The apparition of Petrushka, extricated from the bondage of his weary body, succeeds in what his courage has failed him to do in his lifetime.
The principal dancers in the 1911 staging of Ballets Russes were Vaslav Nijinsky (Petrushka), Tamara Karsavina (The Ballerina), Alexandre Orloff (The Moor), Enrico Cecchetti (The Showman). The commissioning of Enrico Cecchetti for the role of The Showman shaping his puppets, only adds piquancy to the production, as Cecchetti, in his capacity of a classical dance teacher, has really shaped and trained a number of ballet performers. Thus, a parallel has been drawn unwittingly between his role in the performance and his historic role in the shaping of Russian ballet. In fact, it would be more relevant to compare the one, who played the role of Petrushka, Vaslav Nijinsky, with Serge Diaghilev, the impresario and founder of Ballets Russes, who like a brilliant showman had shaped not only the performers in his productions, but also choreographers, composers, sets and costume designers, shaping in the process, though much more slowly, the tastes of European audiences.
In Bulgaria, Petrushka was staged twice for now. Bogdan Kovachev’s choreography (Sofia, 1964) strikes with the brilliant performance of Anastas Samev as Petrushka; the ballet has been performed briefly in Pleven (1984, choreography by Magdalena Quijano).
The new staging of Petrushka at Sofia Opera House is memorable for Alexander Alexandrov’s performance. He seems to be somewhat bodiless, torn between conflicting emotions, rushing up and down the stage, defenceless and as light as a feather: a magnificent achievement of the young ballet dancer. Nikola Hadjitanev, an understudy for Petrushka, is more substantial and seemingly not that chaotic as the role requires. But then again, he is a superb Prince Ivan in The Firebird.
I deem Martha Petkova to be a better choice for the role of The Ballerina. She is a very stable ballet dancer, establishing herself quite categorically, without internal doubts and perfectly consistent with Fokine’s intentions.
Technically, the role of The Moor does not strike as being intricate, which is what in fact renders it difficult: at a certain point the performers, more accustomed to technical effects, find the need to search for nuances in a look or head or facial expression difficult. I deem the understudy Emil Yordanov to be more convincing than Tsetso Ivanov. Tsetso Ivanov makes a wonderful ballet prince, but in the character role of The Moor he lacks corporeal ‘substance’. All things considered, I believe that a little extra costume padding goes a long way when it comes to the role of The Moor, coming complete with belly stuffer, of course. The character has been devised as such: slothful, a slow thinker and— FAT without fail. Naturally, our ballet dancers should not be overweight. And they are not, which for the role of The Moor happens to be a fault.
I’d like to highlight the sunny performance of Anastasia Nedelcheva in the role of the Wet-Nurse Senior as well as the sumptuous ensemble scenes and principle soloist Rosen Kanev’s excellently getting into the role of The Showman, mysterious and self-reliant, but at the same time toying with his puppets as though these were tin soldiers. The Showman puts a bat in Petrushka’s hands to beat The Moor in the first scene, a version of commedia dell’arte, and again he leads The Ballerina into Petrushka’s Cell to put his feelings to test and then again its is The Showman, who shoves him into the Moor’s Cell to make him feel pangs of jealousy and sharpen the angles of the love triangle. That’s why, when dead Petrushka rises above the roofs searching for revenge, the crowd, witnessing The Showman’s machinations, feels satisfaction that justice has been meted out to him.
The Firebird (premiered in Paris, in 1910) dazzled with exotic colours and lavishness. Igor Stravinsky described the ballet as ‘a Russian fairy-tale ballet in two tableaux’. The scenario was written by Alexandre Benois and Mikhail Fokine with Fokine’s choreography. Léon Bakst designed the costumes of The Firebird and of The Beautiful Tsarevna, while the rest of the costumes and the sets were designed by Aleksandre Golovin. The principal dancers were Tamara Karsavina (The Firebird); Mikhail Fokine (Prince Ivan); Vera Fokina (The Beautiful Tsarevna); Alexis Bulgakov (Kastcheï).
The choreographic layers were distinctly distinguished: the princesses were in the style of the free plasticity of Isadora Duncan’s type; The Firebird was solved using the means of the classical dance and the en-pointe technique, but with broken sharp lines and in unusual combinations reminding of her unreality; Prince Ivan’s solution was entirely in Russian style and the same goes for the released maidens and heroes at the finale that have been held in captivity by Katscheï. Grotesque was used for Kastcheï the Immortal and his minions. It was only The Infernal Dance of Kastcheï that fitted into the development of the symphonic dance.
In Bulgaria, The Firebird has been staged far more frequently, mostly in the style of the Russian folk tales: in Sofia, in 1935 in Lidia Vulkova-Beshevich’s choreography; in 1964 in Plovdiv, choreographed by Bogdan Kovachev and in Sofia, by Nina Karadjieva; in 1979, in Stara Zagora and in 1980, in Sofia, by Arabesque ballet company, choreographed by Margarita Arnaudova, who received the 1980 Golden Lyre award of the Union of Bulgarian Musicians for her choreography of The Firebird.
Katerina Petrova is a brilliant The Firebird in the latest staging of Sofia Opera House. Her abrupt movements challenge the traditionally idea of a bird, ingrained in such ballets as The Swan Lake or The Dying Swan. Fokine’s The Firebird is rather unusual, built up in a somewhat impressionistic style, with minimum modifications, but with important to the role nuances in the arms, abrupt turns of the head, a nontraditional use of the en-pointe technique and the supports by Prince Ivan. Fokine’s choreography is to some extent more like Balanchine’s neoclassicism rather than the typical ballet classical style.
Nikola Hadjitanev is convincing in building the character of the Prince. His athletic body seems to suit the role of the tsar’s sun better than that of Petrushka, where he is understudy. Tsetso Ivanov is more or less good as the Prince, lacking though a bit of the athleticism of a Russian folk hero. Still, the latter is not a must-do, as we’d more often than not override our own basic premise of what the character should or should not be. The couple of The Firebird and Prince Ivan as featured by Katerina Petrova and Tsetso Ivanov create a feeling of warmth and Russian cordiality.
Diliana Nikiforova’s The Beautiful Tsarevna is soft and lyrical.
Yet, the most striking of them all is Rosen Kanev’s Kastcheï the Immortal. This artist succeeds in building up two radically different characters, those of The Showman in Petrushka and of Kastcheï the Immortal in The Firebird, in two radically different manners within the same night. The tremor in hands, typical of elderly people, coming complete with an unbridled ambition of absolute power, with an air of something inhuman is very well represented by Rosem Kanev. His costume including overalls with a skeleton printed upon them and a cloak in the form of a cobweb as well as his mask, reminiscent of a mummified old man risen from his grave, fits perfectly this treatment of the character.
Set and costume designer Anatoly Nezhny has, of course, sought to recreate those of Diaghilev’s day. Similarly, director Andris Liepa has made every effort to present Fokine’s choreography as close to its original version as possible.
Still, I have strong objections to the outfits of Kastcheï’s minions and especially, to men’s attire donned in blue overalls making them look very much like the popular film character Batman, but by no means corresponding either to Kastcheï’s attire or to the idea of the macabre evil which ought to be defeated.
The dance of Kastcheï’s minions, the so-called Infernal Dance, also seems unconvincing: the music builds up an incredible symphonic mounting (wonderfully performed by the expanded Orchestra of the Sofia Opera under the baton of Grigor Palikarov). This, however, has no bearing whatsoever on the dance in the latest production. For all we know, Fokine’s memoirs Upstream, memoirs and reviews of the age depict the Infernal Dance as one of the most spectacular scenes in Fokine’s staging solved at that by means of a symphonic dance with gradual developing of and mounting choreographic thematic inventions and dance dynamism. In the latest staging, this scene appears to be illustrative, accompanied by arm waving with no specific addressee, which is supposed to replace the acting dance.
I’d like, as a whole, congratulate the Director of Sofia Opera and Ballet, Acad. Plamen Kartaloff and the Artistic Director of the Ballet, Sara-Nora Krysteva on their excellent decision to present Sofianites with two Fokine’s masterpieces.
The stagings impress with a spectacle of colour, for Bulgaria’s ballet has not witnessed such lavish costumes and sets for quite a while now. Much to our joy, the recent ballet productions––The Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadère, and now The Firebird and Petrushka––regained the former glory of the costumes and the props, replacing the shabby former ones. Now we can enjoy not only the performance of the brilliant soloists and ballet ensembles of Sofia Opera House, but also their bright colours and striking apparel: Sofia Ballet is really worth it.
 This Fokine’s trend is quite a contrast to other his works such as The Dying Swan and Chopiniana, where he wittingly seeks stylisation based on classical en-pointe language associating them with such ballets as The Swan Lake by Petipa and Ivanov or Pas de Quatre by Jules Perrot.