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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mariinsky Breaks Ballet's Confines

The citadel of classical ballet that is St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater is showing a certain diversity this season with the premiere of a pair of Western works: George Balanchine's "Jewels," and Kenneth McMillan's "Manon."

Set to music by Jules Massenet, McMillan's balletic interpretation of Abbe Prevost's 18th-century novel about a girl unable to resist temptation first premiered at the Royal Opera House in England's Covent Garden in 1974, with then-soloist Antoinette Sibley in the principal role.

Now, five stylistically different Mariinsky ballerinas have prepared for the role: Altynai Asylmuratova - who has already danced the part to high acclaim in Covent Garden - as well as Diana Vishnyova, Svetlana Zakharova, Yulia Makhalina and Irma Nioradze. The lead male role, Des Grieux, has been rehearsed by Igor Zelensky, Ilya Kuznetsov, Igor Kolb and Andrei Yakovlev.

Perhaps the most important weapon, however, in the Mariinsky's approach to "Manon" - which premiered March 30 - was two crucial British imports: Covent Garden ballet master Monica Parker and stage designer Peter Farmer, who first developed sets and costumes for a McMillan production of the ballet 12 years ago.

Parker, who has hand-developed productions of "Manon" for companies in Chile, Australia, Sweden, Germany and the United States, says she takes an individualized approach to each staging.

"Dancers are different," said the petite, white-haired Parker. "They bring different things, though they are still working on the same foundation and in the same common language in terms of technical heritage."

Farmer, a painter and designer with extensive experience in both classical and contemporary ballet stagings, agreed. "An actor or an actress often don't know physically what they look like - they know what their photographs look like," he said. "But not dancers. They know exactly what they are - fat legs, long legs or short legs. They know these things and try to help them. Your job is to try to erase this or support them in it."

The ballet is a welcome departure for the repertoire of the Mariinsky, which like the Bolshoi in Moscow has been criticized for its strict allegiance to dramatic classics. Recalling her collaborations with the late McMillan, Parker said the legendary choreographer was dedicated to the idea that ballet should explore real subjects and real people, rather than constantly exploring myths about swans and sylphs.

"McMillan was such an observer of human nature, possessing a very good understanding of people," she said. "He always said that ballets aren't plays. [Ballet] has its own language, which he was trying to find, and I think he was extremely successful in terms of the diversity of his work and vocabulary."

McMillan, like Balanchine, is credited with being among the first to coax ballet beyond its traditional confines. "He tried to find a choreographic language that was appropriate to his subject, and this generally means taking on a naturalistic approach to the narrative and to the gesture, and thus to the way you convey the story," Parker said. "In classical ballets you have a very formal vocabulary."

So how did the Mariinsky dancers live up to the challenge of McMillan's "naturalistic" style? Parker said that although she had no complaints about the artists' technical prowess, time had to be spent teaching the dancers to adapt the way they approached the characters. Simply put, they needed to get away from the "ballerina look," she said.

"It's not always appropriate to be standing in a very poised, very formal posture. You need to think about the character, of how that person would stand or would react to another character. But that's just something to get used to when exploring real emotion," Parker said.

Regardless of which troupe she is working with, Parker said, her rehearsals always begin with simple mechanics. Bringing an established ballet to a new group of dancers, she said, is "a matter of guiding and interpretation, rather than enforcing. I strongly believe in the individuality of the dancer."