Mariinsky Ballet, or is it the Kirov?

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Every year I pick one special event at Kennedy Center or the like to go to. Last year it was Alice In Wonderland performed by the National Ballet of Canada. The year before it was the Nutcracker performed by the Bolshoi Ballet. This year we went to see the Mariinsky Ballet perform Swan Lake.

I first saw the Mariinsky Ballet when they were known as the Kirov Ballet. I was in Paris and they performed some modern dances along with some classical pieces. The French were not impressed with the modern dances and showed their boredom by not clapping during the endless bowing that took place. One thing that impressed me about going to the ballet in France was during intermission people came around the audience selling ice cream.

On Friday night we were seated in the top tier of Kennedy Center Opera House. All seats were occupied. It was hot. I found myself wishing they would come around and sell me some ice cream.

Empress Maria Alexandrovna
Empress Maria Alexandrovna

The Mariinsky Ballet was founded in St Petersburg, Russia, in the 1740’s and was named after the Empress Maria Alexandrovna, the wife of Tsar Alexander II. After the Revolution, the Soviets disbanded it because they thought it a symbol of the Tsarist regime. They reestablished it first as the Soviet Ballet and later called it the Kirov Ballet named after the Bolshevik revolutionary Sergey Kirov. After the fall of the Soviet Union, as was the case for many things, the name reverted back to the original Mariinsky.

Monument of Sergey Kirov, St Petersburg
Monument of Sergey Kirov, St Petersburg

Sergey Kirov’s main claim to fame had nothing to do with ballet. He was a prominent party member in command of the Leningrad party. He was assassinated in 1934. There have been several investigations into his death but it is still not clear if Stalin and/or the NKVD (KGB) were behind the assassination. As a result of his death, many streets, factories and even cities were named after him as well as the ballet company.

Several Kirov Ballet dancers defected to the West during Soviet times, Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Marakova and Mikhail Baryshnikov among them. These were prime dancers who wanted to perform their art and felt stifled by the Soviets. I was lucky enough to see Nureyev perform at La Scala in Milan. He was past his prime as a dancer but he was amazing even so.

Swan Lake

As you can imagine, the performance of Swan Lake was suburb. The principal dancers were Alina Somova as Odette-Odile and Valdimir Shklyarov as Prince Siegfried, both born in St. Petersburg. The dancing was fluid, graceful and light. It looked like there was no effort involved. The program lasted four hours and at the end there was no sign of anybody getting tired.

Swan Lake was written by Tchaikovsky in 1875. The ballet was originally choreographed by Julius Reisinger and premiered at the Bolshoi Ballet in 1877. The version we saw was originally staged by Konstantin Sergeyev in 1950 based on the 1895 version done by Pepita and Ivanov. The music is lovely and I found myself tapping my foot on more than one occasion. Interestingly, I always thought the swan died at the end. Not so in this version.

It is a love story. It opens with Prince Siegfried celebrating with friends in advance of his coming of age party. In the evening he is alone by the lake and sees a flock of swans. Once it becomes dark, the swans turn into beautiful maidens and step ashore. The swan princess, Odette tells Siegfried her situation. The evil sorcerer Rothbart put her and her fellow maidens under a spell. They are swans by day and humans by night. The only way to break the spell is for a young man to swear eternal fidelity and marry her.

The next scene is the Prince’s coming of age party where the Queen, his mother, insists he choose a bride. The evil Rothbart attends the party disguised as a knight and brings his daughter, Odille, who looks very much like Odette. Siegfried is confused and dazzled by her beauty and declares his love to her. Rothbart wallows in his deception. Siegfried is horrified when he realizes what has happened and runs out of the room.


The final scene takes place at the lake. Siegfried begs for Odette to forgive him and declares his love for her alone. The sorcerer Rothbart appears with his black swans and a battle begins. Siegfried breaks Rothbart’s wing which kills his power and he falls dead. The spell is broken and the two lovers dance in the bright sunshine.