The Gelsey Kirkland Ballet does the ballet world a great service by presenting classic works rarely seen in the West rather than well-worn gala excerpts. This year’s spring theme was Eternal Spring consisting of various works relating to love, mostly consisting of Soviet-era pieces by Leonid Yakobson.
While everyone in the ballet world is familiar with Balanchine, few outside of Russia know of Yakobson. This is unfortunate as he “…managed to create a singular body of revolutionary dances that spoke to the Soviet condition.” His work was often considered so culturally explosive that it was described as “like a bomb going off” according to Janice Ross’ biography of him. Balanchine and Jacobson were born a week apart in 1904 in Saint Peterburg. After starting ballet at the late age of 17, Yakobson choreographed works during the darkest days of the Stalin era, a difficult task given that Soviet bureaucrats censored and tried to destroy his ballets. Yakobson fought back; in a review of Ross’ biography, Robert Johnson illustrates Yakobson’s fighting spirit when it came to getting his work approved. Soviet censors were not happy at his series of duets based on Auguste Rodin’s sculptures as they were characterized as too erotic, not suitable to Soviet audiences. Sofia Golovkina, director of the Bolshoi Ballet school, claimed to be so embarrassed by the performers’ skin tight costumes, she had to close her eyes.
And now shut your mouth,” Yakobson said exploding in anger. “If you didn’t see anything, how can you judge?” The choreographer went on to insult a bureaucrat who had asked how anyone could tell whether nude dancers were capitalists or communists. Yakobson answered derisively that without his clothes, the portly committee member could be mistaken for a capitalist himself.
In the end, officials allowed the performance, but no one under 16 would be admitted; however, his other ballet Wedding Cortege (previously known as Jewish Wedding until censors forced a name change) was cancelled. Johnson notes that Soviet censors objected to his forward approach to choreography that resembled American modern dance. Also, being Jewish in a virulently anti-Semitic system didn’t help his cause.
Husband and wife team Nikolai Levitsky and Vera Solovieva staged the ballets for GKB. The two are ballet masters at GKB and were Principal Dancers in Yakobson’s company in Saint Petersburg, taking over as Artistic Directors of the company after Yakobson’s death in 1975. The ballet masters, along with Co-Artistic Directors Gelsey Kirkland and Michael Chernov have developed a well-rounded studio company with dancers excelling in both technical and dramatic dimensions. The works Thursday were danced at a high level, with some performers rivaling dancers on much larger stages.
Last year’s GKB’s performance of The Wedding Procession (Jewish Wedding) was the second U.S. performance of Yakobson’s work, which is set to Shostakovich’s Piano Trio Number 2 in E minor from 1944. The Wedding Procession tells the story of the poor groom whose pregnant lover is forced to marry into a wealthier family – in front of everyone in the shtetl (a small Jewish town in eastern Europe) including the Fiddler, the Piper, the Rabbi, both families, and the town gossip. The short work, 10-15 minutes, moves quickly as the dancers move on and off the stage in stilted, exaggerated movements, generally moving like puppets.
The Wedding Procession was entertaining, at times danced with high energy. The cast, in Fiddler on the Roof 1800s peasant costumes, entered in the beginning two-to-three at a time from stage left to right as if to introduce themselves. The cast included a Poor Groom (Johnny Almeida), a Rich Groom (Miguel Solano), a Bride (Katerina Schweitzer), Rabbi (Kaito Yamamoto), among others. The dancing was filled with gusto, with several stomp-type dances, with plenty of thigh slapping. The main story is the torment the lovers experience as they are separated. The bride goes back and forth from the Poor Groom to Rich Groom, her mood spanning the range of the emotional spectrum as she is separated from the man she loves. In the end, the Poor Groom is alone in agony from the loss of his true love. Johnny displayed great emotion, on his knees at end, despondent at losing his lover.
According to Johnson’s review, what concerned Soviet officials “…was the ballet’s affirmation of a Jewish identity separating the dancers’ bodies from the body politic in which the citizens of the USSR were meant to submerge their differences. Ross draws a connection between the anti-hero’s gestures in this ballet-collecting his tears in cupped hands and drinking them-and tasting salt water at the Passover Seder.” Also, Soviet officials objected to the sad ending, rejecting a joyous conclusion that Socialist art demanded. For example, the Bolshoi’s strange Swan Lake happy ending.
Also on the bill were short works including a piece from Eternal Spring, which represented statues from the Auguste Rodin Collection of Miniatures set to a score from Claude Debussy. Nina Yoshida and Koki Yamaguchi wore skin colored leotards, which presumably set off the Soviet censors, as they portrayed impetus lovers. As noted in Johnson’s review, Soviet officials were notoriously prudish, not allowing the display of the sexy Rodin statues at the Hermitage Museum. Haruka Yamada and Almeida were expressive in the mysterious and dark Melodia by Kasyan Goleizovsky with music by Antonín Dvorák. Kaito Yamamoto was breathtaking in Gopak, a Nutcracker-type Russian danced with great bravado and confidence. Village Don Juan by Yakobson is a festive comedy danced with delightful clumsiness by Georgia Brinkman and Chieh-hung Hsueh.
The evening opened with La Vivandiere, a 1844 work from Arthur Saint-Léon. The work, more popular in Russia, has a Esmeralda feel to it, with Koki Yamaguchi and the diminutive Spaniard Nerea Barrondo as leads with four women supporting. The work is delightful, a nice mix of simple steps with a flowing score by Cesar Pugni. The supporting women danced in unison, very nicely done. Koki had a nice beat section, his solo similar in style to a Bournonville work. There was some razzle-dazzle as Koki did a unique turns in second position segment traveling along a diagonal, an innovation I’ve never seen before.
Walpurgis Night closed the evening. It is the famed Bachanalian scene from Charles Gounod’s Faust, where virgins, satyrs, Pan, and Roman Patricians celebrate the festival of Bacchus. Originally choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky, this rendition was restaged and choreographed by GKB’s Levitsky and Soloveyva.
The plot of the work is thin, but who cares as the work showcased the amazing Koki Yamaguchi, a 22-year old who joined GKB in 2015. He owns the role of the Roman god Pan (Pan is the god of the wild, hunting and companion of the nymphs, depicted as being half human). Though slight of build, his dancing is huge with endless acrobatics including creative saute de basques (leaps off of one leg with multiple turns in the air), extremely rapid pirouettes á la seconde, many pirouettes en dehors-some in plié, high stylized, bent knees grand jetés. His demeanor was light-hearted, over-caffeinated, with an ever-present beaming smile/grimace, always solicitous and deferential to the Lead Bacchanal (Nina Yoshida). A great performance from Koki; one would be hard pressed to see a better Pan at any major ballet company.
Cristian Laverde Koenig was the Lead Patrician, providing strong support for the spunky Lead Bacchanal (Nina Yoshida), particularly in the Grigorovich one-handed overhead lifts.
Tickets are available online for the Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon performances in DUMBO, Brooklyn, near the York Street Station on the F line. The 90-minute performance is definitely worth checking out.