Depending on how you look at it, thematic programs that feature the work of a single composer or one choreographer are either a wonderful opportunity for total immersion in something you love or just too much of a good thing. In the case of the Mariinsky’s all Chopin program here presented at BAM, it was a chance for the company to showcase its rich history of beautiful, lyrical dancing with three pieces by three different choreographers created over a hundred year period. The all piano program of Chopin’s music requires strong pianists and for the most part they were very good.

Anastasia Matvienko and Philipp Stepin © Julieta Cervantes
Anastasia Matvienko and Philipp Stepin
© Julieta Cervantes
Opening the program, Alexandra Zhilina played Chopiniana with mixed results. In the opening Polonaise that served as an overture, Zhilina’s overuse of the sustaining pedal muddied the sound that came from the piano. Too many strings vibrating at once made it hard to distinguish individual notes. It was less of a distraction once the dancing began and that was a blessing because at times her playing was more like a stolid dance class accompanist. The Mariinsky Ballet has a depth of talent that is hard to believe sometimes, and it was on fine display all night long. There are so many great dancers that you don’t know where to look. The star of Chopiniana though, was unquestionably the corps de ballet, not so much for its perfect unison, which was enviable enough, but for its the grace and style. Chopiniana was a nostalgic ballet when it was created over a hundred years ago, and it seemingly hasn’t changed much since. The Mariinsky's is Agrippina Vaganova’s re-staging of Fokine’s 1908 masterpiece and, while the ballet has seen some adaptations over time, it still has a feel of authenticity to it that makes it hauntingly beautiful. Oxana Skorik was impeccable and airy, as were all the female soloists. Timur Askerov as The Poet was, simply put, too heavy-footed in the mazurka. He needs to soften his landings, because the thumps were distracting, with nothing but the piano for accompaniment. He was louder than the entire company of women dancing together and that really detracted from the sylvan atmosphere. Still, Chopiniana was all about the corps de ballet and its mastery of complex and poetic movement reminiscent of the earlier Romantic age of ballet. The soft tilt of the upper body, the curves of the arms, tiny bourrés that fluttered across the stage… the work of a corps de ballet that everyone else strives to emulate.

Benjamin Millepied’s 2011 Without was demonstrably the lesser of the evening’s works. Millepied chose a selection of Chopin’s Préludes and Études for his piece and they were played with fluid legato by Philipp Kopachevsky. His playing was the best of the night. The stage was frustratingly dim for this piece, making it hard to tell who was who while they were dancing. Millepied’s choreography for this piece came across as impetuous and overworked. It seems he has given his dancers a good deal of direction as to the underlying emotional states of their characters, so there is something of a plot that includes the requisite drama of a couple that clearly was not getting along, the rapturously in love pair that is exquisitely lyrical, and the comic – adorable – pair... all of which mostly came across as forced and insincere.

Kristina Shapran and Andrei Yermakov © Julieta Cervantes
Kristina Shapran and Andrei Yermakov
© Julieta Cervantes
It all could have been improved by toning down the drama and bumping up the lights a bit... Millepied seems to have over-reached here by trying to pack too much into each individual composition.

Without question this night belonged to Jerome Robbins’ In The Night from 1970. It is the third of his four impeccable ballets to Chopin’s music. Each of them marks out Robbins as a master of classical form and an artist in true harmony with Chopin’s romantic, rhapsodic melancholy. This piece, set to four Nocturnes – resonantly played by Lyudmila Sveshnikova, has three couples in different stages of their relationship. It worked here in a way that didn’t quite in Millepied’s work. Anastasia Matvienko and her partner, Filipp Stepin, gave us the lyrical side of love as she gently described the tails of rubato musical phrases with long developpés that never ended. Matvienko is a star with long limbs and a deep understanding of the music. She filled out each of the phrases with acute sensitivity. She would have been the star of the evening if not for Yekaterina Kondaurova, here dancingn with Yevgeny Ivanchenko. The second of the nocturnes is more deeply Slavic in character and the couple is more restrained in their affection. There are distinct touches in the choreography reminiscent of Chopin’s Polish heritage and the dancers here move with stately, restrained passion. Kondaurova managed to portray this with such regal grace that it was actually breathtaking. The part fit her perfectly and she danced it as well as it could ever be done.

Oxana Skorik and Timur Askerov © Julieta Cervantes
Oxana Skorik and Timur Askerov
© Julieta Cervantes
Viktoria Tereshkina and Yuri Smekalov were the requisite dramatic couple that could have rankled, but in the hands of a choreographer like Robbins, it came across as integral to the dance and the pair played it so well that even a little melodrama could be forgiven since it was masterful. If there is one complaint to make about this ballet it is that Robbins gave so few steps to the men.

Mariinsky has so much talent from top to bottom that it is often too much to absorb in one sitting. Of all the dance companies I’ve seen in the past year, this is the one I would most like to see over and over again. It would be wonderful to see this program three or four times with different casts to see more of what the company has to offer.