23 JUNE 1961, Page 17


A Kind of Magnificence

By CLIVE BARNES THE scene is Covent Garden during the inter- val on Monday evening: the Kirov Ballet from Leningrad has reached the half-way mark with Prokofiev's The Stone Flower. Malcontents and tging up the atmosphere carpers are eddying round the foyers, fog-

with their jealous misery.

Marie Rambert emerges from the mist, eyes ablaze, head poised for battle. 'You must write ecstatically,' she com- mands. And she is right. I must.

Curiously enough, one has a choice. It would be easy by a single-minded, wrong-headed, concentration on certain aspects of The Stone Flower to be almost completely damning. The story of the ballet concerns a young malachite- carver, struggling to carve a vase in the perfect shape of a living flower: the intervention of a fairy who not only helps him but carries the plot a stage thicker by trying to seduce him; the hero's triumph over evil and his final reunion with the pure young heroine who has loved him and resisted, in a sub-plot, the advances of the carvers' detested overseer' (as he is described in the programme). This is not our kind of story: echoes of Socialist Realism must be noted but cannot be felt. The triumph of virtue, purity and art is bound to seem self-conscious, even naïve, to Hs, just as much of our art must appear frivolous and esoteric to Soviet audiences.

Then there is the music. The Stone Flower was Prokofiev's last ballet score, and I cannot think of a major composer who went out on such an inoffensive whimper. At first hearing it sounded a bloodless summary of all that is dull and mechanical in his music, with his precious lyric gift for singing songs of Mother Russia, and even his consummate craftsmanship, all but submerged: Finally there are the scenery and costumes by Simon Virsaladze, which to Western eyes look dejected and frowsty. All-over tights in mustard yellow, lime green and poisonous mauve deaden the eyes; and we are further mortified by fantasy scenes conceived at the level of a suburban store's Christmas grotto, and by semi-realistic settings like water-coloured woodcuts that lack even the gross distinction of vulgarity. There is something in this ballet to offend all shades of Western good taste, and everyone can give little sniffs of disdain to his heart's content. Yet if you look further than the end of your delicately wrinkled nose, you will find a kind of magnificence Western ballet hardly knows.

The Stone Flower was first produced, unsuc- cessfully, in 1954 at the Bolshoi Theatre by Russia's senior choreographer,Leonid Lavrovsky. Three years later the young Leningrad choreo- grapher Yuri Grigorovich created a new and shorter version for the Kirov company; and this is the first choreography by one of the younger generation of Russian ballet-masters that we have seen in London. It is a point that should he stressed. Lavrovsky and Zakharov (The Foun- tains of Bakhchisarai) are masters in the Fokine tradition of dramatic ballets. In Grigorovich can be seen the movement towards nco-classicism- the return to the old tradition of Petipa that has largely dominated Western ballet for the past thirty years. Like Ashton and Balanchine, Grigorovich puts the choreographic emphasis firmly on the dance. Some of the dancing is samovar-boiling, with a great deal of Russian tea to a comparatively thin slice of lemon, but the vast majority of the choreography is fresh and inventive.

Grigorovich has, in fact, used two styles of choreography in The Stone Flower. For the scenes in the Urals village, where the stone carver Danila and his girl Katerina live, the choreography is as rich as a plum cake, stuffed full of folk dances and the impassioned semi- classical dancing with its great exultant lifts and jumps that we normally associate with the Soviet school. But even here the style is more Western than usual, while the scenes set in the underground cavern of the Mistress of the Cop- per Mountain have at first a disturbing air of familiarity about them, like a face you know but cannot place. Some of the monumental masonry of the groupings seems almost absurd. for the physical stolidity of Soviet art, the sheer pile-up of forces, disturbs our conception of artistic economy. But this apparent over-exuber- ance apart, the choreography here resembles Western dancing much more closely than any- thing else we have seen from the Soviet Union. Even so, in its enormous, life-giving vitality and its thrilling musicality (if only it had better music to be musical about!), the ballet lives and breathes on a different plane from our own. Different,• not better or worse; so far as the art of ballet in all its composite unity is concerned, we need yield nothing to the Russians. Perhaps we both have something to learn from one another, although with our differing ideological approach to art this will be difficult to accomp- lish. As dancers, however, the Russians are un- equalled, and the Kirov company, historically Russia's leading troupe, seemed to me beyond criticism on the first night. Perhaps (though I doubt it) this ballet flatters them; but if it does not, London is in for a month of superlative dancing. The company's style looks at first sight quite different from the Bolshoi's, neater, stronger and less flamboyant, although a full comparison is best left until they have unfolded more of their repertory. It is clear they have some formidable star dancers. The fresh-faced Yuri Soloviev, who plays Danila, looks like a cross between the Russian Innocent of fairy-tale and the Soviet tractor-driver of Intourist travel brochures. He pounces heroically through the air, he twists and turns like a winged Mercury, and all with such ease that his proletarian halo is not once knocked out of place.

Equally exciting—vivid and pure—is Alla Sizova, the exquisite Katerina, with delicately arched feet and a flair for making choreography and music come together in spontaneous com- bustion. Then there is the expressive Anatoli Gridin as Severian, the deep-eyed villain of an overseer, who can suddenly stop in full dance with his body frozen into a kind of dramatic statement. To my mind Alla Osipenko, who makes a sinuous Mistress of the Copper Moun- tain, lacks something of fantasy; but her dancing has abundant style. So, apparently, has the dancing of the entire company.