07/14/2011 12:05 pm ET Updated Sep 12, 2011

The Mariinsky Ballet

"I don't like storytelling," a nasal voice intoned as I made my way up the aisle after the first act of the Mariinsky Ballet's opening performance of "Anna Karenina" at the Met Monday night. "I like dancing."

The sourpuss face matched the niggling voice. It belonged to one of those aging, highly opinionated women who have always constituted a significant part of the New York audience. In "Public Speaking," the wonderful documentary about Fran Lebowitz, Ms. Lebowitz laments the disappearance of a more sensitive part of the New York audience that was decimated by AIDS. "Those guys understood the significance of whether Suzanne [Farrell] raised her third or her fifth finger," and choreographers could count on a certain sophisticated response when they were making dances.

What the sourpuss decreed was, of course, orthodox Balanchine doctrine. Ballet was not about narrative. It was about steps. Balanchine could issue such decrees in New York. But in Russia ballet was an area in which tradition trumped innovation. That is still the case with Alexei Ratmansky's adaptation of the Tolstoy novel, whose vocabulary is essentially that of the Imperial ballet a century ago, which makes sense given the time setting of the piece.

Similarly, Rodion Schedrin's 1968 score, though it has some harsh chords, is largely melodic -- to our ears it might even sound a bit Hollywood, especially toward the very end when Anna's demise is foreshadowed by a very Hollywood projection of tumultuous waves..

The choreography tells Tolstoy's story quite clearly, and the steps are flawlessly executed. Diana Vishneva is a dancer of extraordinary elegance, and she conveys the anguish of the title character achingly. Yevgenia Obraztsova has enormous charm as Kitty. Islam Baimuradov and Konstantin Zverev, as Anna's husband and lover, both dance with a sensuous flair.

Ratmansky has choreographed some stunning ensemble numbers, particularly one at the racetrack. The physical production is quite grand, with a well-used realistic railroad car against largely abstract sets. The orchestra is conducted by Valery Gergiev, who has professed great affection for the score -- he gives it life but cannot persuade us it is powerful music.

It is a beautiful evening and will be repeated several times this week in repertory with other pieces. By the end of the evening, alas, I found myself more sympathetic to the sourpuss I heard earlier -- the adherence to traditional steps and music makes one long for, so to speak, The Real Thing.

I first saw the Mariinsky at the Old Met (can this be possible?) half a century ago in the full-length Tschaikowsky "Sleeping Beauty." It was one of the most sensational evenings I have ever spent in a theater and I have never understood why it did not make me into an instant, ardent balletomane. But I had already lost my heart to the theater and the opera and I guess there wasn't enough left for dance.

The evening was a benefit for the White Nights Foundation, an American organization that supports the Mariinsky. After the performance there was a gala dinner at the nearby Mandarin Oriental Hotel, attended by, among others, my former boss, Mort Zuckerman. Also there was my former colleague from the Daily News, Sharon Hoge, who introduced me to Darren Aronofsky, whose film about wrestling, with my former neighbor, Mickey Rourke, I enjoyed immensely. (I didn't see his film about ballet -- my dance friends warned me against it.)

I did not stay for the post-dinner dancing, but I liked the fact that the DJ for the evening was Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of the great composer.

At the door of the ballroom was Bill Cunningham, with whom I worked at WWD many years ago. (One morning the editor, whose idea of asserting authority was screaming, screamed at the top editors that he could fire them with impunity since he invariably saw them sitting at their desks, doing he knew not what. The only person out looking at fashion, he said, was Bill.)

I asked him if he liked the recent documentary about him. He hasn't seen it, he told me. The only reason he made it was because his current employer, The New York Times, wanted him to do it. As far as he is concerned it has only complicated his work, since more people know who he is and want to chat.

"It's a damned nuisance," he said.

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