Review: Bolshoi Ballet - The Taming of the Shrew/The Flames of Paris - Royal Opera House

Performance: 3 - 6 August 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 10 August 2016

Bolshoi Ballet, The Taming of the Shrew

Performances reviewed: The Taming of the Shrew 3 August | The Flames of Paris, 5 August

Periodic visits from The Bolshoi Ballet have enlivened and enriched the London summer over the past 60 years. These visits by the biggest and brashest of the world’s great ballet companies have invariably been promoted by the indefatigable husband-and-wife team of Victor and Lilian Hochhauser, now 93 and 89, respectively; married for 67 years and counting. They have presented Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, in London, on thirteen occasions, with the Mariinsky (that other great Russian ballet company from St Petersburg, known during the Soviet era as the Kirov) lagging just behind, at twelve Hochhauser-presented visits. In recent years, each tour has stuck to the tried-and-tested formula of five productions over a three-week season of 21 shows, invariably including just a couple of performances of something new but always dominated by that perennial favourite, Swan Lake, which generally returns for a second set of performances, in the final week.

Sixty years ago, the first visit of the Bolshoi enraptured London during the height of the Cold War; and the first time that the Hochhausers’ presented the Kirov was in 1961, the year that Rudolf Nureyev walked away from the KGB at Le Bourget airport instead of being returned to Moscow. The Kirov performed that first London season without their defected star. In 1974, the Hochhausers were ostracised by the Soviet authorities due to their friendship and support of the exiled cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich; and this alienation was to last until perestroika in the early 1990s.

Despite their experience over all these years, if anything, the whole process seems to be getting harder; certainly financially, with the expense of around 300 visas, flights and hotel beds for dancers, musicians and administrators; but, also, now, politically, as Russia once more becomes increasingly isolated in the international community, whether due to its outlandish behaviour towards near neighbours in the former Soviet bloc (first Georgia, then the Ukraine) or – in recent weeks – the state-sponsored doping scandal that has seen hundreds of Russian athletes banned from the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

But sixty years later, what about a different kind of athlete? Is the Bolshoi Ballet still just as exciting? To some balletomanes, whose daily obeisance is notable from the sold-out signs, the routine standing ovations and the nightly throng outside the stage door, the answer is clearly in the affirmative. But, for me, there is something of the closed-mind of unwavering fandom about this adulation.

My view is that the Bolshoi’s high performance standards have been less rigorously applied than in former visits. I don’t mean in terms of the athletic virtuosity displayed by the Company’s star names or as exemplified by Swan Lake’s ubiquitous jester, where the Bolshoi retains its hi-energy capacity to raise both enthusiasm and blood pressure; but, in the overall quality of the company as hallmarked throughout the ensemble generally. On the evidence of these performances, it appears that much needs to be done to improve the basics of synchrony, pointed feet and the general indiscipline of arms and hands, which was most notable in the classic ballets that I was not invited to review, but saw for pleasure. When the swans exited the stage, they did so in a spiralling line but with negligible attention to their spacing or the harmony of their arm positions.

The highlight of the season, thus far, has come in the comparatively new production of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s The Taming of the Shrew, made on the Moscow Company, in 2014, and receiving its UK premiere. Maillot had a difficult duo of acts to follow; firstly in translating a sixteenth century comedy that is essentially about domestic violence into something acceptable for today’s sensibilities; and, secondly, in following the marvellous production, choreographed by the late John Cranko, for Stuttgart Ballet, which premiered in 1969. Cranko’s ballet has enjoyed such enduring, global popularity that hardly any choreographers have been tempted to reinterpret his success over the past half-century.

That is until Maillot and his assistant, Bernice Coppieters, picked up Shakespeare’s text as their inspiration for their first ballet commission at the Bolshoi. Maillot, a former dancer at John Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet, has been the artistic director of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, since 1993, developing a strong, international reputation as an avant garde choreographer with both a distinctive movement and visual style. His interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew manages to be both sentimental and uncomfortable; mixing humour, romance, eroticism, misogyny and irony into a melting pot of ideas.

Maillot’s process for taming the ‘shrew’ (and who could use that description, nowadays) follows the line of Shakespeare’s torment and includes obvious movement references to choking, kicking, slapping and even a head-butt. Yet, the choreographer’s sentimental side expands on Shakespeare’s sub-plot for the three suitors seeking to marry Bianca (Katherina’s desirable –and more compliant – sister) by providing a wife for the elderly Gremio as well as the successful Lucentio and the also-ran Hortensio (Shakespeare had already hooked him up with a rich widow), thus making four newly-married couples at the story’s end, instead of the more usual three.

Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s set designs evoke the simple grandeur and elegance of a ’30s musical comedy, with two sweeping, semi-circular staircases appearing as if from an Astaire/Rogers movie, but moveable and split in two as a representation of the human quest for that perfect ‘other half’. Much of the set design is an evocative cipher; a simple, elegant framework that suggests a forest or a home, providing a sense of place rather than any attempt at realistic representation.

That Maillot’s ballet works so well has much to do with the musicality of his choreography juxtaposed with his impressive composite of Shostakovich compositions, taken from various film scores and symphonies and co-ordinated to provide an outstanding score that works effectively at each narrative stage. It incorporates the arrangement of Tea for Two, orchestrated by Shostakovich (incidentally, once a visitor to the Hochhauser home) from memory, in under an hour, to satisfy a bet and later incorporated into his ballet, The Golden Age, which provides the catchy music for the final scene.

Irony and mild eroticism pervades the text, beginning with a marvellous, eye-catching cameo by Anna Tikhomirova as the sexy Housekeeper – the character invented by Maillot as the eventual partner for Gremio – played out in front of the Royal Opera House’s crimson curtains, before the ballet proper begins. She poses provocatively, cigarette holder in hand, and lazily invites the audience to applaud the entrance of the conductor (Igor Dronov) before stepping onto the other side of the opening curtain. It is a little slice of theatrical deconstruction that worked effectively, commanding the audience’s attention from the get-go.

The feisty, volatile Katharina is ebulliently portrayed by Ekaterina Krysanova who has adapted to the Maillot style as if a Monte Carlo dancer. Vladislav Lantratov was a Petruchio with more coltish charm than is the norm but his ‘laddishness’ was nonetheless effective in this production. Similarly, Vyacheslav Lopatin appeared way too young for the ‘old and poor’ Gremio but he, too, danced Maillot’s choreography as if the style was his natural mode. As Bianca, Olga Smirnova is appropriately both gracious and gorgeous; and her dances with the three suitors are cleverly observed to catch Shakespeare’s original characterisations. The chemistry between Krysanova and Lantratov was strong – the ballet just wouldn’t work without that connection – and when their characters are overcome with lust in a sheet-covered depiction of sex – a scene not unlike the antics of a pair of drunken housemates on Big Brother – it is certainly believable.

The Flames of Paris – a rip-roaring tale of love and death in the French Revolution – has been a personal favourite since Yuri Burlaka and Alexei Ratmansky created their own imitation of Vasily Vainonen’s original 1932 ballet. Their production premiered in 2008, although I much prefer the later, more authentic recreation by Mikhail Messerer for the Mikhailovsky Ballet. I had the pleasure of interviewing Ratmansky for, back in 2007, at which time he was artistic director of the Bolshoi, and there was no doubt that he saw this impending ‘revival’ as a vehicle for his company’s two fast-rising stars, Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova (then, aged just 18 and 21 respectively); and, indeed, until this performance I had only ever seen Vasiliev dance the lead role of Philippe – the revolutionary boy from Marseilles who is out for adventure – in both the Ratmansky/Burlaka and Messerer versions. If ever a role was made to showcase one dancer’s particular virtuosity then this is it (and his is a performance forever captured on the Bolshoi’s DVD, which is well worth adding to anyone’s collection).

Igor Tsvirko was an effective alternate to Vasiliev. He is less laddish, less devil-may-care, but tall and elegant with a strong lyrical accent to his dancing. Tsvirko throws himself about the stage in the variation and coda of the grand pas de deux, not quite able to match either the complexity or polished completion of the Vasiliev jumps but nonetheless providing the necessary excitement. His love interest – the peasant girl, Jeanne – was danced by Krysanova in an accomplished – if not, slightly anonymous – performance. Similarly, the roles of her brother, Jerome and his love interest – the aristocrat, Adeline – were under-played by Denis Savin and Nina Kaptsova; both of whom seemed often lost in the crowd. Against this, Adeline’s father, the Marquis, was sneeringly played as a nasty, abusive aristo by Semyon Chudin (capturing everything we needed to know about the character in his walk). The repertoire in Chudin’s biography doesn’t include the evil Crassus in Spartacus, but I bet he would eat that role for breakfast!.

By the way, Savin and Kaptsova were not helped by the fact that the lovely, soft and lyrical pas de deux for Jerome and Adeline came after the corps de ballet rushed off stage and one of the flag-bearing dancers collided with the scenery. That wasn’t the problem. But, the fact that voices from the wings could be heard very audibly over Asafiev’s music for a considerable length of time ruined the dance and – more importantly – its narrative relevance. This is another sign of the company’s indiscipline that someone in authority needs to challenge.

The dancing stars of this performance of Flames were last-minute replacements. Artem Ovcharenko and Anna Tikhomirova stood in for Yulia Stepanova and Denis Rodkin as the actor and actress portraying Rinaldo and Armida (a ballet, not unlike a ‘potted‘” version of Sylvia, performed for the court of Louis XVI – as a show within a show, towards the end of act one). The difficult pas de deux was danced beautifully by Tikhomirova and Ovcharenko who have been two of the busiest dancers in this Bolshoi season. This fantasy ballet and the courtly dances that surround it provide a perfect foil for the more exuberant entertainment of the revolutionaries.

Ratmansky inserts a counter-revolutionary twist for the end, which I will not spoil other than to say that it involves Madame La Guillotine and a severed head; trashing the revolutionary ideal by making clear that there is no empathy or reason within ‘the mob’ – a message that is clearly just as topical today – and the final scene of revolutionaries, stretched the full width of the stage, marching onto the audience is an ending of definitive and visceral impact.

The dancing of the principals and leading soloists, especially Maria Alexandrova as Kitri (a performance that put me in mind of Maya Plisetskaya), Olga Smirnova as Odette/Odile, Krysanova as Katharina and Lantratov and Tikhomirova in everything, has been of the highest order; although the uniformity of the corps de ballet and the soloists dancing together – and especially in canon – has been varied and not at the same disciplined standard one had come to expect.

Nonetheless, the Bolshoi is always a welcome visitor to the UK although one wonders how much longer such a costly import can remain financially viable. Certainly, tickets have never been more expensive for ballet at the Royal Opera House (£90 for a restricted view!) but there is clearly an appetite to buy them and hopefully they – and the Mariinsky – will continue to come although it remains to be seen for how much longer the Hochhausers themselves can bring them in.

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, 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 and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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