Japan enjoyed a mild winter this year, and by the time this Friend of Nina arrived in Tokyo to witness Nina’s 2004 tour of the country, the plum blossoms were in their prime and the cherries budding in Ueno Park.

I caught three performances at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan (Feb. 26, 27, 28), all enthusiastically attended by the legions of Nina’s loyal fans. Women and young girls made up a majority of the audience, but men of all ages were also present, as were corporate heads and their beautifully kimono-clad wives.

Alexei Fadeyechev was once more artistic director of Nina’s troupe, which this time included a 31-member corps de ballet, composed of dancers from the Georgian national company. They were indispensable in the brilliantly realized version of Swan Lake that was the highlight of the program.

Stanton Welch’s lyrical Green, created for Nina in 2000, opened each performance. The choreographer has made a number of ballets reportedly referring to chakra colors, green being associated with the energy center which supports heart consciousness, helping soothe emotions and bring harmony.  The piece itself is basically abstract, though two central pas de deux---the first involving Nina and Dmitri Belogolovtsev, the second Nina and Sergei Filin, suggest worlds of meanings. That they dance a harmonious trio at the end might indicate a resolution to a complex set of relationships.  However that may be, smoothly flowing steps, to excerpts of Vivaldi violin concertos, create a quietly peaceful atmosphere. A woodland setting is indicated by costumes that range from bright moss to willow greens---long skirts for the women, tights for the bare-chested men. The use of an opaque black curtain at the back of the stage, through which dancers disappear and reappear, adds a touch of mystery.

The choreography includes emphatic arm and hand movements that focus on Nina’s wonderful use of her upper limbs; sections where dancers cover then uncover their eyes recur, perhaps referring to things beyond the visible. Welch utilizes purely classical ballet steps and inevitably, some combinations and postures echo Balanchine’s innovations, as do movements that seem to be launched with no preparation; these are now part of contemporary dance idiom. What Welch brings to ballets is his own response to musical impulses, his sense of musical phrasing, as well as his use of individual dancer’s gifts.

Working with Nina and other principals from the Bolshoi, he has loaded this piece with some astoundingly difficult steps, which are, however, executed with such finesse and liquidity that they may seem easy to the unobservant eye. The partnering is full of surprising twists, with lifts that require strength and agility. Solos come in unexpected bursts. In one section, Nina executes a manège of turns that appear to spring out of nowhere; in another, Filin does a series of sideway jumps that astonish with their rapidity and fluid ease; Belogolovtsev thrilled with his countless entrechats. But these mini-variations are integrated into the whole so that they do not call attention to themselves; each is just part of the softly woven pattern of the ballet.  Contrasts of adagio and allegro passages (the latter mostly for the corps) provide textural rather than mood changes.

The delicate atmosphere of this beautiful ballet requires the utmost of the dancers, the lighting technicians, as well as the musicians. At Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, live accompaniment was provided by Tokyo New City Orchestra for both Green and Swan Lake.  Unfortunately, the ensemble seemed rather unacquainted with Vivaldi, and their contribution did not fully support the mood of Welch’s composition.

The middle piece, Trey McIntyre’s Second Before the Ground, provided a light-hearted change of pace. Recorded African-inspired music, performed by the world-renowned Kronos Quartet, underlined the snappy choreography. McIntyre has stated that his inspiration for this piece is the African tribal belief that a second before death, “a man remembers all the happiest and most important moments in his life.” No wonder that it is so upbeat. The décor mainly consists of bright colors projected onto the back wall.

The ballet opens on a partly darkened stage, with a spotlight on a soloist (the magnetic David Khozashvili, who projected mystery and power in those few moments). As a sun-drenched day breaks, groups of men in bright yellow pants held up by suspenders jump and scamper about. Women in candy colored tops and short skirts join them. Three pairs of dancers recall their loves in ecstatic pas de deux---Inna Petrova with  Filin, Lali Kandelaki with Belogolovtsev, Elena Palshina with Yuri Klevtsov; all displayed technical brilliance in varied partnerings.  Energetic group dances, tinged with African swaying movements, brought to mind the joys of harmonious communal living. As these happy memories faded, so did the light, and finally darkness descended, the ballet coming full circle with Khozashvili once more alone, summoning unearthly powers as gentle silver rain fell from the sky.

Naturally, most of the audience came to see Nina in Swan Lake, and they were rewarded by incandescent performances in a poetic, condensed version of the ballet. The essence of Marius Petipa’s and Lev Ivanov’s masterpiece was captured in this staging, which included all the crucial parts of the familiar story. The orchestra was somewhat more at home in Tchaikovsky, and with the energetic leadership of Sergei Stadler, conducting and playing solo violin from the pit, the ensemble seemed to improve as the engagement progressed. Maestro Stadler himself provided the violin accompaniment to the adagio, his emotional performance sometimes leading to slight discrepancies between stage and pit.

A prologue shows male dancers rehearsing in a studio equipped with the usual barres and mirrors. The Artistic Director (Irakli Bakhtadze) supervises the lead Dancer (Andrei Uvarov) who is preparing the role of Prince Siegfried.  Unsatisfied with the rehearsal, the Director stops the practice session and leaves the Dancer alone in the studio to contemplate.

The scene changes and we are brought to the lakeside setting of Act II of Swan Lake---the Dancer has been transformed into Prince Siegfried---and he meets the Swan Queen, Odette. He learns of her captivity by Rothbart (superbly portrayed by Bakhtadze). The action proceeds as in the original ballet, with the flock of swans providing a richly atmospheric background; the legacy of Russian ballet training is obvious in the high standards of the Georgian corps---the women’s port de bras wonderfully articulated.  Uvarov continues to evolve into an emotive dancer, and this added a layer of ardor to the adagio pas de deux. Once more, Nina swept us to another world with her deeply felt Odette---her arms, legs and body fully projecting the brave yet vulnerable Swan Queen. Steps became reflections of emotions as she inflected movements to fill them with meaning. She flowed into classical poses and held them as we held our breaths, afraid to break the spell.

Act III introduces the Prince’s Mother (the icy Shorena Khaindrava) and the court. After the waltz of the would-be-princess-brides, Odile and Rothbart are announced.  The Black Swan Pas de Deux commences at once---Odile wasting no time to seduce Siegfried.  And what Prince would have had a chance against this most scintillating adversary? This Odile’s beauty, poise and aristocratic confidence dazzled him. Nina’s technical brilliance allows her to imbue the Black Swan’s mimicry of Odette’s movements with faster beats, sharper angles, more emphatic poses. As well, her masterful presence lends her character irresistible energy and excitement. She seduces not only the Prince but the whole audience, capping her big jumps, astounding balances and swift turns with those rapid fouettés that always bring the house down.

The Prince’s betrayal of Odette, the revelation of Odile’s and Rothbart’s deception, and their sudden departure devastates Siegfried---the act ends with him collapsing on the floor.

In the epilogue, we find the Dancer, in practice clothes, alone once more in the rehearsal studio, awaking as if from a dream. To the music of the final bars of Tchaikovsky’s score, Odette flits across the stage behind him, her back to the audience. Nina’s incomparable arms flutter and undulate like swan’s wings---a poignant quote from that final moment in Act II when she is forced to separate from Siegfried. The Dancer senses her presence but only sees her as a reflection in the mirrors---and she soon disappears again, as intangible as a memory.

Oh, but what a memory! This is a version of Swan Lake that should be seen in other venues. It is almost purely Petipa and Ivanov, with no invasive tinkerings from those who think they can improve on the original.  What is added is simply a poetic frame to make the story cohesive and emotionally satisfying. And with Nina as Odette/Odile, it is worth traveling halfway across the world to see it.


As has become customary in Tokyo, Nina’s loyal fans are rewarded by encores. Palshina and Klevtsov danced the pas de deux from Spartacus; the stars and soloists romped in the Grand Pas from Don Quixote at the last two performances. Sixty-four fouettés on two evenings---how many ballerinas half Nina’s age can deliver them with such panache?  She is a living miracle!