Review: Bolshoi Ballet - Jewels - Royal Opera House

Performance: 12 & 13 August 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 13 August 2013

Sergei Filin with the Bolshoi Ballet, at the curtain call for 'Jewels' at the Royal Opera House, 12 August 2013. Photo: David Long

At the end of last year, Wayne McGregor was getting ready to choreograph his new interpretation of The Rite of Spring for the Bolshoi Ballet and Sergei Filin was on top of the world, doing the job he had always wanted, running the biggest ballet company in the world. The despicable acid attack on Filin, last January, has exiled the Bolshoi’s artistic director in a German hospital for several months where he recently underwent the 22nd medical operation to try and save his sight – it works out at one operation every nine days since the night of the attack. The McGregor ballet was cancelled and the opening of the Mariinsky’s second theatre in St Petersburg requires such expansive recruitment that it will overtake the Bolshoi as the world’s largest company. It may have already done so with this summer’s significant intake of new dancers by the Mariinsky. Bolshoi means “Big” ballet. Fortuitously, it doesn’t mean “Biggest” otherwise they might have to change the name!

Some things are bigger even than ballet and this performance of George Balanchine’s Jewels was eclipsed as an event by a few moments at the tail end of the curtain call when the lead couple of Diamonds (the last of the Jewels trilogy) ran off into the wings like excited schoolchildren. They came back leading a man wearing sunglasses, providing the first public appearance with his company for Sergei Filin since the attack upon him in January. He was clearly overcome and stayed by the wings but the outburst of public support was profoundly touching (and made more extraordinary by the fact that many of the audience would not have known who he was). If sustained applause and loud cries of “bravo” can aid the healing process then it may have done as much good as any of those 22 operations. It was a significant moment, much more important than any of the dancing that came before.

The three sections of Jewels stand alone as separate works but taken together they form a full evening’s plotless ballet. Balanchine choreographed the full work for New York City Ballet in 1967 and made a number of subsequent revisions in 1976, all in the opening work, Emeralds. The three “acts” represent the styles of romantic (Emeralds), showy neoclassical (Rubies) and classical ballet (Diamonds), but with each given a distinctly American flavour. The ballet has now travelled the world, entering the repertoire of many companies, including the Royal Ballet, the Mariinsky as well as the Bolshoi but somehow it always seems to be danced best by Americans. The Bolshoi gave a glowing account of Emeralds and Diamonds but were left looking like a fish out of water in terms of not getting the pacy, electric attack of Rubies.

Three ballerinas stood out in this performance. Evgenia Obraztsova seemed to waft through Emeralds on a cool and refreshing breeze with silky smooth movements and gorgeous port de bras, articulating simple movements of the arms that Balanchine played with to create complex sequences that still have to be carried with the same seamless poise and grace. Obraztsova has an elfin beauty not unlike Audrey Hepburn and a similar huge charisma and soulful smile to match.

Olga Smirnova – replacing Svetlana Zakharova at short notice – delivered a glorious account of the central ballerina role in Diamonds that was as sparkling as the gems encrusted into her tutu. It should not be possible for a ballerina so young (just 21) to have such maturity, artistry and confidence but she is fast becoming a world superstar and the new “must-see” ballerina. Notwithstanding the fiendishly difficult choreography with its homages to Petipa and his Swan Queen, and danced also to Tchaikovsky (from his 3rd Symphony), Smirnova delivered a magnificent masterclass of luminous splendour in this Americanised take on grand classicism.

My third excellent performance came from a less heralded source. Dancing in the second ballerina role in Emeralds, Anna Tikhomirova echoed the delicious upper-body plasticity of Obraztsova, her romantic softness having the delightful quality of naturalness without any hint of acting. We come to watch the big name stars but it is dancers like Tikhomirova that give the Bolshoi the strength in depth that makes it special.

There were some occasional and minor partnering flaws in both Emeralds and Rubies although Semyon Chudin (as a replacement for Zakharova’s intended partner, Volchkov) was an excellent consort for Smirnova. The Bolshoi Emeralds includes Balanchine’s later addition of the epilogue for all seven soloists, which finishes in a poetic elegy for the three male dancers, kneeling mournfully with their arms outstretched in lament for the lost girls in green. It is a great example of revisiting a ballet to make it better. This additional sequence borrows music from Faure’s Pelléas et Mélisande to supplement extracts from Shylock, all integrated into a seamless arrangement. Under the direction of Pavel Sorokin, the Bolshoi Orchestra was back to top form through all three sections.

The disappointment of the evening was the middle ballet, Rubies, the most American of them all and danced to Stravinsky’s Capriccio. This is genuine 1960s Balanchine sandwiched between the great choreographer’s expert mimicry of history. We were told to expect a cast change of the leading pair but, as billed, Ekaterina Krysanova and Dmitri Gudanov took the stage. The whole ensemble danced the steps well and with a certain degree of musicality and panache but it was rather like watching an opera singer trying to perform a song from Grease. The technique was there but it was lacking in drive and spunk. We look for a certain audacity in these zippy movements and although Ekaterina Shipulina – almost unrecognisable in the “showgirl” role – gave it a good shot, none of these dancers could lose their inhibitions in the natural “yankee doodle dandy” attitude that Balanchine created.

So, this was a mixed evening of outstanding artistry and pretty dancing that perhaps didn’t achieve the desired effect. But in welcoming Mr Filin back, I suggest that it had the most momentous and moving ending to any ballet performed anywhere this year.

The Bolshoi Ballet season at the Royal Opera House continues until 17 August

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

Photo: Sergei Filin with the Bolshoi Ballet, at the curtain call for Jewels , Royal Opera House, 12 August 2013, by David Long

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