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A Carmen excerpt full of pelvic flutter and thrusting arms

The Passion of Russia

  • Uliana Lopatkina and Yuri Bashmet
  • At the Orpheum Theatre
  • In Vancouver on Wednesday

The first sight of Uliana Lopatkina's feet - long and slender, voluptuously curved, in black satin pointe shoes - signalled her pedigree. Feet like that are rare, even among dancers; hers were made in Russia, the home of classical ballet.

Lopatkina, who grew up on Ukraine's Black Sea coast, where her parents worked in the shipyards, was a boarder at the renowned Vaganova Academy of Ballet from the age of 9. She is now a star performer in St. Petersburg with the Kirov Ballet (known at home as the Mariinsky, after the theatre where it is based). Her Kirov predecessors include Pavlova and Nijinsky, Nureyev and Baryshnikov.

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Lopatkina appeared on the mixed bill, The Passion of Russia, a one-night presentation as part of Vancouver's Cultural Olympiad that began with speeches touting the 2014 Winter Games, which are to take place in Sochi, Russia.

It's a shame that the ballet in which Lopatkina danced was a pared-down version of Alberto Alonso's one-act Carmen Suite, performed with a cast of five on one half of the Orpheum Theatre's stage, with the other half occupied by the orchestra. There was a certain charm in the casual staging, especially with the old-world ambience of the historic Orpheum, which lacks a pit, but the ballet's high drama needed the context the set - a bullring - would have given.

Carmen Suite, the ballet for which Cuban choreographer Alonso is known, was created in 1967 for Maya Plisetskaya, another thoroughbred ballerina, though one from the other big Russian ballet company, the Bolshoi. It's set to commissioned music by Plisetskaya 's husband, Rodion Shchedrin, styled after Bizet's Carmen. Shchedrin's score for strings and percussion is a giddy musical trot through the passion and, well, passion, of Bizet's opera.

Passion is what every production about the free-spirited Spanish gypsy is known for, and Alonso's focus on pelvic flutter and thrust for both men and women is not untypical of the ballets. More unusual was his heavy use of the arms and hands, which push forward forcefully like the curved horns of an angry bull.

Alonso's version focuses on character, not plot, with Carmen at the centre and Don José (Ivan Kozlov) circling lustfully round. Kozlov is old-school Russian ballet: big emotion telegraphed to the gods, instead of intimately shared with his partner. Still, with his long brown hair and massive chest, Kozlov had a certain masculine charm and watching him power gracefully through space in black tights was impressive.

In addition to Lopatkina, the other really good news of the evening was conductor Yuri Bashmet, who took his crack chamber orchestra, the Moscow Soloists, through a brooding, precise rendition of Shchedrin's score.

Carmen Suite was the second half of the evening; the first half was all music. Bashmet began by conducting the Moscow Soloists in Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, familiar to ballet-goers from Balanchine's popular Serenade. It was serenely played, sounding like a balmy summer day.

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Franz Schubert's Sonata in A minor followed. Known as the Arpeggione after the obscure instrument for which it was written (a kind of bowed guitar held vertically between the knees), the sonata was arranged here for viola, played by Bashmet, and strings. One of the world's great viola players, Bashmet had a low-key, though finely etched approach. The fire came in the brief encore, a polka by Alfred Schnittke, full of Russian-styled colour, soul and passion - as exciting as Lopatkina's feet.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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