Svetlana Zakharova (Rus. Светлана Захарова) and Vladimir Varnava (Rus. Владимир Варнава) in Plus Minus Zero (Fratres). Music by Arvo Pärt, choreography by Vladimir Varnava. Violin by Vadim Repin. Pas de deux for Toes and Fingers, shot on 21th and 22.12.2015 in Auditorium Conciliazione, Rome.
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Svetlana Zakharova (Rus Светлана Захарова) is currently principal with Bolshoi Theatre and Teatro Alla Scala (La Scala). Svetlana was born in Lutsk, in the Ukraine, on 10 June 1979. She joined the Kiev Choreographic School where she trained mainly with Valeria Sulegina. Svetlana was allowed to continue her training at the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg. Instead of the expected second course, she was admitted directly to the third, the graduating course (in the class of Yelena Yevteyeva, the distinguished Kirov ballerina of the previous generation). While still a student at the Vaganova Academy Svetlana already performed on the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre. In June 1996 Svetlana graduated from the Vaganova Academy, she was just 17. A year later she was promoted to principal dancer. In the Mariinsky company Svetlana was taken under the experienced wings of Olga Moiseyeva, with whom she would build a lasting rapport. Preparing all the new roles with her, Moiseyeva quickly became the key-figure in Svetlana’s artistic development. As of October 2003 Svetlana started dancing as a principal with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. At the Bolshoi she is rehearsing her roles with Ludmilla Semenyaka.
Arvo Pärt (1935) is one of those composers whose creative output has significantly changed the way we understand the nature of music. Today, he is known for his unique tintinnabuli style, and although his earlier modernist works are perhaps less known to wider audiences, his entire oeuvre has shifted our perception of music. Regardless of nationality, cultural background or age, many people have been touched and influenced by the timeless beauty and deep spiritual message of Pärt’s music. His works are performed not only in concert halls, but over recent decades also in film, dance and theatre performances, and other multimedia texts.
Vladimir Varnava (Rus. Владимир Варнава), Russian choreographer and dancer, trained at the Khanty-Mansiysk branch of the Moscow State University of Culture and the Arts. In 2008 he was invited to join the Music Theatre of the Republic of Karelia. Has performed lead roles in classical and contemporary ballets. Since 2011 he has worked as a choreographer, staging the ballet Pulcinella as part of the international project Stravinsky’s Opuses at the Music Theatre of the Republic of Karelia. Vladimir Varnava has lived and worked in St Petersburg since 2012. He has staged a series of choreographic miniatures for soloists of various St Petersburg theatres, among them Beginning for Mariinsky Theatre Principal Dancer Igor Kolb. Early in 2013, especially for the Bolshoi Theatre’s prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova, he staged the work Plus. Minus. Zero to music by Arvo Pärt.
Fratres, Step by Step
The tintinnabuli principle is easily apprehended in Fratres. In fact, the work’s mechanics are so clear as to allow general listeners to grasp its essence in an analytical sense. In the arrangement performed here, which Pärt made in 1991, the principal melody consists of three measures:
The first consists of four notes spread over seven beats.
The second consists of six notes over nine beats.
The third consists of eight notes over eleven beats.
The opening four-note measure is the germ of the piece. Its first two and last two notes stand at the beginning and end of the succeeding two phrases, which are “extended” from the middle. It is as if the sentence “My name is John” morphed successively into “My name in fact is John” and then “My name in honest fact is John,” and those three sentence formulations were stated one right after the other. Then, without a break, Pärt inverts the melody, meaning that intervals that formerly moved down now move up, and vice versa. Imagine that the sentences “My name is John” and so on are propped up on a mirror; the first time through you read the sentences themselves, and the second time you read their reflected image, which, naturally, consists again of three measures of seven, nine, and eleven beats.
The melody, however, is not a single line. Instead, it is made up of two notes unrolling in harmony, parallel to each other, at the interval of a tenth. You could picture them as two people walking in the same direction lengthwise across the steps of a wide staircase, though one considerably higher on the staircase than the other. At each new note they step simultaneously to the stair above or below, or (at the midpoint of each measure) across several stairs—but in each case one of the people remains ten stairs above the other. To make the game plan more interesting, Pärt injects a third voice, a third person. This character walks crosswise along the same staircase to the same rhythm, and its four notes expand much as other parts do; but rather than walk to a consecutive step up or down, its nature is to either take each pace along the same step or to jump over several. Things are arranged so its trajectory remains in the space between the two melody notes, so nobody bumps into anybody else.
In the course of this piece, which lasts about ten minutes, these three lines—the two “melody” voices a tenth apart, plus the fill-in voice in the middle—go through this dance nine times. Each go-round is separated by two measures of an unassuming rhythmic pattern on percussion. This solemn tattoo serves as punctuation. Every repetition of the melody, however, is transposed wholesale to a lower pitch level, each time moving down by the interval of a third. Picture our stair-walkers playing out their pattern, stopping to wait for the percussion punctuation, and then going through their motions again, but this time from a starting position that is two steps lower—and then the next time two steps lower than that, and so on. As the overall pitch gets lower and lower, the music falls progressively within the range of lower-voiced instruments. The music that was first played by three violins, therefore, is given upon repetition to two violins and viola, and then moves progressively into a realm that encompasses cellos and double basses, with the violins by now playing in the very lowest notes of their range. As a result, the pitch level is not all that changes. So does the nature of the sound, the timbre of the string orchestra itself.
Another thing: the steps in this staircase are not equidistant from each other. If you were to climb up this staircase, you would sometimes lift your leg just a little to rise to the next step, and sometimes a lot. You could spell the basic scale as A—B-flat—C-sharp—D—E—F—G—A on the way up, and then the same backwards as you descend. As the patterns are played out at different pitch levels, the melodic lines may not be transposed literally. Instead, they must sometimes be adjusted so a tone falls on the closest available note of the scale. If an exact transposition of the melody would require a C-natural, for example, that note will be adjusted to nearby C-sharp, since C-natural falls outside the scale Pärt has defined as his playing field. It’s not a standard western scale, and it lends an exotic tinge to the piece’s character. That the scale is based on the note A is made clear by a drone sounded down at basement level by a few cellos and double basses. The drone consists of the notes A and E, a combination that, to western ears, defines A as the tonic, the fundamental tone. The drone sustains uninterrupted through the entire ten-minute piece as an unwavering foundation. Everything progresses slowly, and the volume swells halfway through and then sinks back to near-silence.
There you have the rules of a process that unrolls to meditative effect. It certainly lodged in its composer’s mind. After Fratres was unveiled, in 1977, Pärt created or authorized new arrangements or elaborations over the course of many years. At last count, his publisher was listing sixteen different versions for a wide variety of forces.
Text: James M. Keller
Photos by Jack Devant ballet photography © with kind permission of Daniele Cipriani Entertainment and Auditorium Conciliazione, special thanks to Mrs. Simonetta Allder and Mr. Daniele Cipriani.