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The art of strict passion


The art of strict passion

Even though Semionova’s visits to St. Petersburg are perhaps not as frequent as one would like, they dependably bring about a spectacle of consummate artistry. And this April was no exception. The ballerina possesses singular sensitivity towards her dancing partners, and on 2 April, the Mikhailovsky Theatre paired her with illustrious male counterparts, such as Leonid Sarafanov, as the Indian officer in love with the bayadère, and Marat Shemiunov, in the “walking” part of Nikiya’s impassioned admirer on the religious path. The trio became an overnight sensation.

Polina Semionova did not seek to dazzle the audience with provocative dance routines (at least not here in St. Petersburg), victorious ballet mannerisms, or stellar self-assurance. Her defining traits are the astute mastery of character development as well as reciprocation of her stage partners’ emotional cues, a skill hard to come by in modern theatre.

The initial cue came from Marat Shemiunov as the High Brahmin. It is unusual to see such a handsome man in the full flower of his youth cast in the role of the head of an Indian temple, traditionally portrayed as an imperious patriarch, obsessed with his controversial passion for his subordinate. Shemiunov’s great Brahmin is an exalted and (quite literally) noble man with a heroic military past. He does not stoop to a single base act, and all of his actions are driven by his feelings for Nikiya, which are of a pure and romantic nature. It seemed as though his burning gaze itself had the power to ignite a fire in front of the temple. Shemiunov transformed the rank-and-file opening dance of the bayadères (preceding Nikiya’s entrance) into a visual solo aria on the theme of ‘Come to my golden palace!’ And there was nothing philandering in his ‘advances’ towards Nikiya, the way this instance is usually handled, but it was a rather an intimation of the deep-seated feelings and majestic reserve of the reclusive Brahmin.

In sharp contrast to the sublime sentiments of the grand inquisitor (apologies, Brahmin!), Leonid Sarafanov’s Solor proffers an altogether different kind of love: ‘Let’s just get it on!’ His character is impetuous, impatient, and seemingly ready to climb through the temple window so as to see Nikiya sooner. He holds her hand in his and rests his head on her chest for a little too long... He is enthralled with womankind in general. And so it stands to reason that fairly ordinary Gamzatti (Victoria Kutepova) needs no ploys to enchant him. Suggestively making eyes at him is all it takes to instantly entice the young man into running off to marry her, dismissively leaving the bayadère behind in the forest.

As for Nikiya herself, played by Polina Semionova, it is all about vows and oaths above all else. She may even be collecting them: her vow to the higher powers, Solor’s vow to her, the oath of the great Brahmin... There is no lack of vows in this world. This is perhaps why her dancing comes across as so impassive. In it, there is little of that vivid Orientalism so enthusiastically employed by ballerinas when evoking priestesses of the East. There is no invitational swaying of the hips, whimsical intertwining of the arms or sweeping backbends where the head touches the floor. But it does have the kind of restraint and internal dignity that fills the closing act, ‘The Kingdom of the Shades’, with singular serenity and austerity. Semionova and her stage partners managed to turn the famous ‘dance with the snake’, Nikiya’s languid soliloquy, into a trio that weaved together all of La Bayadère’s main narrative themes. In this trio, the ballerina judiciously sidestepped the easy pitfalls of excessive affectation, inflated lovesickness, and transfixed shamanic frenzy. Her Nikiya is spellbinding — slowly but surely entrancing Solor, who, looking at her, showers Gamzatti’s hands with kisses, quite certain that it is Nikiya whom he is embracing. All the force of hope and despair gripping the characters at that moment was conveyed in the parallel monologue of the great Brahmin. With the utmost candour and intensity of romantic devotion, he in his dance gave expression to the innermost feelings that Semionova’s character deliberately refrained from manifesting.

Olga Fedorchenko,



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