Review: The Bolshoi Ballet in An overview of the whole season at Royal Opera House

Performance: August 06
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 23 August 2006

It has been a good summer for ballet in the capital and, in particular, it has been a good season for the Hochhausers. The impresarios’ decision to present a mixed programme by the Bolshoi at the Royal Opera House as opposed to a Mariinsky season largely devoted to Shostakovich – in the centenary year of his birth – has paid off both in terms of critical acclaim and, most certainly, at the box office. Ironically, amongst a series of triumphs, it was the Bolshoi’s three-year old interpretation of Shostakovitch’s last ballet score, ‘The Bright Stream’, which was the biggest hit of all: especially coming so soon after the disappointing version of ‘The Golden Age’, which the Mariinsky brought to the Coliseum, just a few weeks ago.

*‘The Bright Stream’* had just two performances (10/11 August) but its happy mix of sun-soaked, rustic charm and the farcical consequences of mistaken identity sent audiences home with a spring in their step. It’s a Russian cross between ‘La Fille Mal Gardée’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in a story about visiting entertainers to a collective farm. In the alliances and dalliances that spring up between the two groups we end up with the husband of the Collective’s morale officer chasing the visiting ballerina (who is really his wife, dressed up as the ballerina) and her dance partner, cross-dressing as a ballerina, being chased by an old dacha-dweller (who thinks “she’s” the real ballerina), whilst his anxious-to-be-younger-than-she is-wife is also chasing the ballerina’s partner (who is now the ballerina in drag) and then – wait for it – there’s a tractor driver who is in love with a schoolgirl (it’s a good job this story was written in the 30s) who dresses up as a dog to protect her from an accordion player. That is about a quarter of the farce but I think you get the picture.

The dancers clearly had a great time and the audience couldn’t help being infected by their enthusiasm. Both casts were excellent, but I was particularly impressed by the second group and, in particular, Ekaterina Shipulina as the ballerina and Ruslan Skvortsov as her dance partner. The much more experienced Principal, Sergei Filin, had danced this role on the first night and was excellent in the Act II sequences where he impersonates the ballerina but, if anything, Skvortsov managed to dance for longer on pointe and was even funnier in his enforced femininity on the second evening. Both dancers would have a second career in the “Trocks” (the all-male “ballerinas” of Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo) should they ever need it.

On a level par in terms of brilliance was the triple bill that started the season’s final week (14/15 August), opening with Ratmansky’s *‘Go For Broke’* (2005), a witty and inventive abstract ballet set to Stravinsky’s score for ‘Jeu de cartes’ (which was first choreographed by Balanchine in New York in 1937). Ratmansky’s choreography is mesmeric in its mathematical structure, moving seamlessly from symmetrical to asymmetrical, with dancers joining in and falling out of ensemble rhythms in changing numbers and creating intricate patterns, all framed by the interesting angular designs of Igor Chapurin. It reminded me in places of Ashton’s ‘Scènes de ballets’, which is certainly high praise.

This was followed by Roland Petit’s ‘Pique Dame’, a narrative, one-act ballet based upon Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades’ about the greed of a man gambling to win at any cost, including murder, and his eventual undoing by the ghost of the Countess he killed. It’s a dark drama, brought vividly to life by the compelling performances of the beguiling Ilse Liepa (the Countess) and Nikolai Tsiskaridze, (the obsessed gambler, Hermann). This mixed programme concluded with a sparkling performance of Balanchine’s ‘Symphony in C’, with the wonderfully drilled dancers of the Bolshoi’s corps de ballet in pristine formations, framing several simply superb soloists.

Bolshoi is, of course, the Russian word for big and everything about the Bolshoi Ballet lives up to its name: it has a huge orchestra with over 100 musicians coming to London for this season; it is a big company and it has big stars. Two of the greatest recent stars of the Moscow ballet were much in evidence in this season. Svetlana Zakharova – who left the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet for the Bolshoi in 2003 – carried most of the opening performances, as Aspicia in ‘The Pharaoh’s Daughter’ (31 July); Odette/Odile in ‘Swan Lake’ (3 August)_; as ‘Cinderella’_ (7 August)and in the key Adagio movement of ‘Symphony in C’ (14 August)_._ There is no questioning the completeness of Zakharova’s technical ability and her effortless control in every aspect of her dance, especially in the way that she slowly unfurls her long legs into sky-high extensions, but somehow this was a less dominant dancer than the one who captivated London balletomanes on her last extended season at the Opera House (in 2004). It is not surprising that I found her excellence to be at its most superlative in the 2nd movement of ‘Symphony in C’ where no story needs to be told. Whilst I enjoyed her work in the two performances that I saw of ‘The Pharaoh’s Daughter’,( a role made on her by the ballet’s re-creator, Pierre Lacotte), I found no discernible delineation of character in her portrayal of Odette and Odile – the white and the black swan had no shade coloured between them.

The second star is Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who performed only in the final week of the tour: first as Taor in ‘The Pharaoh’s Daughter’ (12 August)_;_ then as Hermann in_’Pique Dame’_ (14/15 August)and finallyas the Evil Genius (a role which replaces the more traditional Baron Von Rothbart character) in ‘Swan Lake’ (16 August). Only the most short-sighted and besotted fan could argue that Tsiskaridze’s dancing is what it once was. Having returned to the stage after a horrific injury that required many months of treatment and recuperation, the bravura virtuosity is now substantially tempered. His first performance as Taor was extraordinarily cautious, no more than a blurred imitation of the role as danced by Sergei Filin a few days before (2 August) but as the week and his confidence progressed and the parts became more suitable, his remarkable stage presence reasserted itself and the magic of a great performer was once again evident. His manic, leering intensity as the gambler, Hermann, was spine-tingling on 14 August and, by all accounts, improved to another dimension on the following night; by Wednesday (16 August) in the role of Evil Genius, his dancing may not have been up to his original standards but there was no doubting the charisma that radiated from the stage.

What about the stars of the future? It was a brave decision to open the first night of ‘Don Quixote’ (17 August) with the lead roles danced by a 20 year-old ballerina who has only just been elevated from the corps de ballet accompanied by a Guest Artist from the Kiev State Theatre. As Kitri, the young Natalia Osipova was a revelation, dancing with assured, vivacious artistry and excelling in every demanding aspect of this complex, exaggerated choreography. Unlike many Russians, she danced with every ounce of emotion clearly displayed and her face was as crucial to the role as her feet and arms. Osipova was matched by Denis Matvienko’s Basil, a tremendous bravura performance that made his physical resemblance to a young Mikhail Baryshnikov seem much more than just skin deep! Here, certainly are two diamond-encrusted stars of the future.

It is sometimes the case that success or failure becomes contagious in ballet and this season has seen examples at both extremes. The performance of ‘The Pharaoh’s Daughter’ on 12 August saw slips, mistakes and imbalances spread through the cast like some rapid disease; on the other hand the opening night of ‘Don Quixote’ saw the exact opposite effect with universally wonderful and exciting performances throughout the cast – it will be a long time before I forget the amazing plasticity and captivating solo of Yulianna Malkhasyants in the Gypsy dance, the precision and elegance of Shipulina as the Queen of the Dryads and so many other great performances.

Across the season, it was only ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Cinderella’ that failed to ignite: the former because Yuri Grigorovitch’s 2001 libretto places the action wholly in Prince Siegfried’s mind, which makes the ballet more of a psychological, gothic melodrama rather than the fairy story that everyone knows; and the latter essentially because of its weak choreography. Even within these less successful works (although commercially they played to full houses), there were great performances: Shipulina had freshness, innocence, warmth and charm in her portrayal of ‘Cinderella’ which made the whole production worthwhile; Maria Alexandrova and Filin were exceptionally good as the ‘Swan Lake’ leads – Alexandrova’s Odette was spellbinding and there was significant chemistry between her and Filin.

A final word for the orchestra which performed superbly in every performance I saw, creating the ability to hear significant detail in the orchestration. Given the trials and tribulations that many of the late musician arrivals from Moscow had in terms of not being allowed to bring their instruments onto airplanes, which meant that many could not travel as planned, creating several unplanned, late substitutions to orchestral ensembles, this was even more remarkable.

This was a truly great celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Bolshoi’s first appearance in London (which is actually not reached until October) and it served to highlight the Royal Ballet’s conservatism which is an odd thing to say since the Russians are regarded as the most conservative of all ballet cultures (there are no non-ex-soviet nationality dancers in the Bolshoi). But why do we have to wait for the Bolshoi to dance at the Royal Opera House to see works by great modern choreographers, such as Petit and Ratmansky?

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