Japan celebrated Nina's 20th anniversary at the Bolshoi with a tour of nine cities and ten performances in three weeks. It included a workshop for ballet students in Fuchu and book/souvenir signing session in Tokyo. The Friends were able to see first hand, the special appreciation for Nina by the Japanese. Above, a young fan poses with Nina during the artist's personal appearance at Chacott, Tokyo's largest ballet store. The signing session was arranged by the Friends of Nina in Japan, in cooperation with Japan Arts.


Having missed the opening night of Nina’s tour of Japan at Tokyo’s Bunka Kaikan, the Friends made it to the second performance there (Sept. 17), which, as it turned out, was being taped by NHK for telecast in November. Keeping the contemplation of the horrors of September 11 on hold for a while, we were rewarded for our efforts (simply getting a flight out of New York’s JFK Airport was a saga) by a program consisting of choice highlights performed with sparkling verve by the all-star troupe.

The evening started with a “class of perfection” à la Messerer; the dancers entered a studio setting in “warm-up” clothes (much more stylish than actual practice clothes) to take up positions at three barres backed by triple stage-high mirrors. Alexei Fadeyechev, the troupe’s artistic director, took charge, specifying sets of  barre exercises that were then, of course, carried out with exquisite precision and style by this elite company. This series of exercises segued in flawlessly into Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes, with Nina and Andrei Uvarov left together at the central barre, now lighted to suggest a moonlit night, evoking the poetic mood of the choreography and Rachmaninov’s music. The first of these Preludes uses the barre ingeniously, serving to both unite and divide the dancers who act like hesitant lovers at the start, their first moves suggesting a mirroring of feelings. The ensuing pas de deux has the ballerina twirling a leg across the barre, standing on it supported by her partner, or sliding under it to join him. Though they end up divided by this wooden pole once more, we know a barrier has been crossed.  With the barre gone, the second Prelude begins (and ends) with the lovers swaying forward and backward, steps that seemed to refer to an Act I pas de deux in Raymonda.  The choreography suggests their developing feelings. Especially effective is a repeated series where the ballerina unfolds both legs while held aloft and the lovers lyrically melt into beautiful poses, alternating limbs extended. Uvarov’s height, in relation to Nina’s, is especially welcome in this adagio, as their fully extended bodies add a sublimely gorgeous dimension to the slow unfurling movements. The faster rhythm of the third Prelude allows the partners to express their love in swift, flowing steps. A final, rapturous lift serves as their exit. It was gratifying to note a new sense of emotional involvement in Uvarov; his lover was totally convincing, a quality formerly lacking in his partnering (as previously noted in reviews—see Romeo and Juliette, Giselle). This time, Nina’s sublime lyricism and acting was met with a satisfying response from Andrei, giving the audience a fuller experience of the ballet’s poetic and romantic mood. (Alexei Melentiev was the excellent pianist for both Class and Three Preludes.)

The terrorism crisis had prevented the arrival of Amanda McKerrow in time for the Tokyo performances, so there were changes in the program. Yuri Possokhov offered a solo titled “Aria,” to recorded music by Handel. Dressed only in red tights and wearing a full-face white mask, he entered to march-like rhythms, soon followed by an aria from Alceste. The choreography, basically abstract, gave the artist ample opportunity to display his mastery of movement. Kept mostly close to the ground, he captivated with his expressive arms sculpted torso and strong legs, showing excellent control and balance contrasted with swift, diagonal turns in the air. Possokhov’s magnificent physique created mythic shapes in space; the piece ended with the dancer “picking up” the mask with his face and slinking off stage as mysteriously as he entered.

The rest of the regular program was accompanied by the Tokyo City Philharmonic, impeccably led by Alexander Sotnikov. (Other venues, alas, had to do with recorded music, save for the piano-accompanied pieces.) Inna Petrova and Dmitri Belogolotsev were impressive in the pas de deux from Balanchine’s Agon, dancing with remarkable unity and articulation of steps. In purity of execution, they honored the classical roots of the ballet. The couple are well-matched in size and temperament and they gave a performance that I think would have pleased Balanchine himself. Giuseppe Picone and Irma Nioradze tried hard to capture the elegiac mood of the Giselle Act II pas de deux. Nioradze, in common with her current Kirov colleagues, has a tendency to overdo the leg extensions in the famous arabesques, and her arms did not always shape themselves in the requisite Romantic ideal. However, she made her own statement as a Giselle of a somewhat impetuous kind---even as a spirit. Picone held his own in his brief solos, displaying his usual elegant lines and fine cabrioles. Their unscheduled appearance together probably accounts for the scant rapport between the dancers.

Nina and Sergei Filin lifted the spirits with the “Black Swan” pas de deux from Swan Lake. Nina was in top form as a scintillatingly commanding, black-feathered Odile; Filin, dressed all in white, was a noble but particularly vulnerable Prince Siegfried. Odile continually insinuated herself into his introspections, dazzling his hesitations away. The ever-present mirrors serving as backdrop provided extra thrills, letting the audience savor both artists’ perfection of form, especially Nina’s exquisitely seductive arm and shoulder movements as she echoes Odette’s swan wings. Filin’s slow release of Nina’s hands on a balance was perfectly timed and punctuated the moment. Filin’s solos were all about noble lines; he favored legato movement and soft landings over sheer physical force, but also ended movements with characteristic Bolshoi panache. What more can one say about Nina’s complete mastery of this role, except to express once more the joy of seeing her execute the impossible with complete élan---her fouettés are the ultimate expression of Odile as irresistible temptress.

A suite from The Sleeping Beauty, framed by a sumptuous backcloth suggesting a chateau in the Loire, formed the second part of the program. The orchestra’s sparkling “Garland Waltz,” built up expectation for Aurora’s entrance.  With the four princes played by dancers of this caliber---Belogolotsev, Picone, Possokhov and Filin (in order of appearance), I can say that I have never seen such a truly aristocratic lineup of suitors. With their looks, impeccable bearing and individuality, they would present any Aurora with a tough choice. Nina’s ever-youthful Aurora took them all for granted, of course, as she captivated them all with her coltish charm and insouciance. Her particularly secure balances drew bravos from the audience.   Nioradze followed with the Lilac Fairy’s variation, notable for ear-grazing ronds de jambe which pleased the audience. Filin swept onstage with the Prince’s entrance sequence, dancing flawlessly and making this difficult, quicksilver passage look easy. Petrova and Belogolotsev were again perfectly matched as Princess Florine and the Blue Bird; Petrova proved delightfully charming and captured the audience with her delicate footwork; her exceptionally light turns made it seem she was about to take flight. Belogolotsev shone in a fleet run of evenly paced brisés. The Grand Pas, with Nina and Uvarov, proved more than an exhibition of classical technique. With their developing rapport, one felt that this was an aristocratic love match, with feelings expressed in dance. Uvarov, in fine form, showed remarkable elevation in his jumps, with notable cabrioles and a series of split jumps on a diagonal. Nina made a lace doily of the delicate “little” steps in her variation. Her effortless sissonnes always take my breath away. But above all, her command of technique allows her to carve space and hold time in her hands, as it were. Every step gets its worth---and every step is worthy of the finest execution. At the end of the finale, Nina bowed to every member of the court (and company) and they all bowed back. The audience merely acquiesced in the joyous end of the evening. Or so we thought.

It turned out that we were in for a treat---encores were offered for the lucky Tokyoites. Fadeyechev returned to the stage to announce additional pieces. Nioradze danced a contemporary solo (in halter top and slashed skirt) to taped choral music with a percussive undertone. The work suited her particular gifts---articulate arms and a penchant for staccato movements. Picone, in sleeveless T-shirt and shorts entered a capella, then demanded “Musica” and got a J. Strauss tune. His cheekily charming solo showed off his dashingly angled jumps and his ability to stop and balance on a dime. Then the fun really took off when the strains of the Don Quixote grand pas began. Nina and company have made a signature piece of this number on numerous Japan tours, and the audience was loudly delighted with its addition to the program. Nina appeared in a simple black bodice and red tutu. Uvarov and all the other males in the company showed up in tights and Nina’s 20th anniversary T-shirts. At one point, Nina held a balance for what seemed like fifteen seconds, and the hall erupted in bravos. Petrova and Nioradze shared fouetté credits, spinning in opposite directions. The boys showed off their favorite set of jumps. Near the end, Fadeyechev, no longer in dancing trim, made as if to join the fun, but was stopped by the other males, who then proceeded to spin out the finale. There was much joy in Tokyo that night---enough to make this reviewer forget a 14-hour flight in a middle seat---in economy.

Hiroshima and Kyoto (Biwako)

The Friends caught up with the company in two more venues. Apparently Hiroshima had never before seen Nina so the audience was in for a wonderful surprise (Sept. 28). The city’s Koseinenkin Kaikan is not ideal for ballet---the stage was too shallow for the dancers--- but the troupers did not stint in their efforts. McKerrow had joined the company by then, so we were able to enjoy Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, on the original bill with her and Picone. Though their partnering lacked a certain finish, the dancers blazed through their variations with the confidence and daring required in this piece. Possokhov, with his strong emotional projection, added nuance to the Giselle pas de deux with Nioradze, who seemed to also to get deeper into her role.

At Biwako Hall, the sparkling, state-of-the-art performance hall in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture (a ten-minute train ride from Kyoto), the dancers were able to go full out and give an overall outstanding performance. (Reportedly, the stage in the main auditorium is only slightly smaller than the Bolshoi’s.) Inspired by the quality of the stage and a sold-out house of obviously knowledgeable balletomanes, every one seemed to draw extra energy from inside and put on more sparkle. (We happened to know that a couple of dancers had been injured by this point in the tour, but you wouldn’t have guessed this by their scintillating dancing.) Here McKerrow and Picone were more smoothly together, and Nioradze and Possokhov made magic in Giselle. More viewings deepened the pleasure of seeing of Three Preludes danced with refined rapture by Nina and Uvarov. The “Black Swan” seemed sharper, and The Sleeping Beauty excerpts built up to a truly Grand Pas to cap the evening. It rained all day on September 30, but I’m sure everybody was glowing with warmth at the end of this extraordinary afternoon on the shores of Lake Biwa.

N.B. Our Japanese colleagues, who are to be commended for their great work on the Japanese-language version of this website, between them also saw performances in Tokyo, Fuchu, Takamatsu, Biwako and Sapporo. They are writing a journal of their experiences.

Spider's Note: It was a revelation to observe the Japanese fans' appreciation for Nina. Normally reserved and quietly in rapture during the dancing, they explode with energetic applause and a chorus of "bravos" at the right moments. Still, at the highest notes in the dancing, they could not contain themselves and turned participatory by bursting into rythmic applause to accompany Nina in her journey to 32 fouettés (between Black Swan PDD and Don Q, they got 64 in Tokyo!). Naturally, Nina and company fed on this and showed what they can do in these gala performances. The highest notes came in Tokyo when Nina held a flutter-free balance in The Sleeping Beauty for more than 10 seconds, only to top it in the Don Q encore! The latter may have exceeded the magnificent 14-second high C by Enrico Caruso in "Di Quella Pira", preserved for posterity in TAP Records' compilation of 40 tenors singing this aria. Whether she actually held the flutter-free balance for more than 14 seconds doesn't matter because she looked completely in control and could seemingly have gone on forever - besides, science strongly suggests that it is harder holding a balance flutter free than holding a high C this long.