Bolshoi Ballet

A Love Supreme: Swan Lake – Bolshoi Ballet (Smirnova, Chudin) – August 9 2016

Performances of this quality come along but rarely. One might say that with the Bolshoi, that the likelihood of such a night is higher of course, but that’s no guarantee. Certainly Svetlana Zakharova’s turn as Odette Odile left me a little cold. Not so here. Even in a production which essentially traduces – or at least significantly alters- Tchaikovsky and Peptipa/Ivanov’s intent in favour of Grigorvich’s interpolations and reworkings, the show worked.

It even seemed to go beyond those traducements, those alterations and interpolations, thanks to two heartfelt performances from both lead dancers.

Semyon Chudin (Siegfried) revealed himself to be a dancer of  generous musicality and poise. Gorgeous legato lines flowed through him when the libretto permitted, and when the writing called for the register of tours, jumps, tricks so often on display in ballet, Chudin proved their equal. Lyrical moments were never just steps, but illustrated and given life-breath and force. This was dance which meant something to Chudin, and which meant something to us as a result.

Near the end of the whole evening, as Odette and Siegfried are caught up in a whirling maelstrom of swan maidens, each trying to find the other, the choreography calls for Siegfried to search for Odette, suffering, as he knows he has wronged her.

In one simple movement, a yearning, reaching hand struck outwards; Chudin’s head went back a little, and we saw anguish writ on his face. The movement – that arcing hand, coupled with feet which then drew him back to his doomed love, was in its action, called upon by the libretto and learned by rehearsal, but in its expression, it lived, and spoke volumes. It was a moment of pure, right beauty, and it took my breath away. As to technique, I balked at nothing, a few heavy landings into arabesque excepted, all was plush, lyrically phrased with unhurried ease. The struggle in Scene II when Siefried gives chase to Odette has felt a bit like a pitter-patter around a gatepost from other Bolshoi boys. Chudin stretched, lunged and spun in desperation. Drama was never far from the fore.

Olga Smirnova was everything I want an Odette to be. Olga Smirnova was, frankly, a marvel. Her swan-princess was humane, loving, tender. It seems some dancers shy away from this interpretation, favouring a cool reserve, a lack of eye contact which attempts to speak of regal coyness. But in ballet – or certainly in Swan Lake, love looks with the eyes. Love cannot blossom when gazes are too coy. We must believe in that intimate interchange of glances for the ballet to come alive. A tilt of Smirnova’s head said “I too am lost, like you.” A glance from her suggested that trust began, from whence love might quickly follow. And love, I felt, did. To believe in the story there must be that love.

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Olga Smironva and Semyon Chudin as Odette and Siegfried in Bolshoi Swan Lake.

My favourite moments, those caught falls in the Scene II Pas de Deux, the loving embraces in that same dance, all were presaged by a simple look. Odette asking, Siegfried saying ‘yes’, and Odette knowing, finally, the prospect of release, safety, love.

And if not love, then all is just dancing, however glorious that is. With the Bolshoi, “just dancing” means glory, guts, grit. Couple Bolshoi technique and training with vibrant central performances, and you have a night to celebrate. Couple all that with these two stellar dancers and it is a night to treasure.

Purists may look at Smirnova’s fouettes and find them comparatively poor, compared with her compatriots and with her own fine dancing. There was, as with Stepanova, no triples or doubles or as with Krysanova, no arms rising en couronne, then placed haughtily on hips after every few turns. There was, as with Zakharova, no long limbed, tornado-esque whipping of the leg. Instead, 31 or so pretty textbook spins. Applause which was more than adequate. But we know that Swan Lake is more than fouettes. Fouettes are, like the four jerky-headed cygnets in the Act before them, something of a parlour trick. Swan Lake is everything before, and everything after the fouettes. Although a true test of the ballet dancer’s resolve and skill, and a chance for them to show off, thirty-two, or even twenty something, of those tortuous spins, is just icing. Fluff.

And happily so. Smirnova knows it, knows that the adage is her comfort zone and she basks in its leisure and comforts. Which is not to say her Odile suffers by that preference. If her Odette is vulnerable – that fantastical chimerical mix of woman and hint of unattainable Other – her Odile is sensuality itself, smirking and challenging Siegfried, and leading him to destruction. True, as Odette, her arms have a tendency to sometimes almost appear as manic flapping, but Smirnova knows that those are the moments to show Odette’s suffering outside of the demands of written steps. With Siegfried, Odette’s soul flies, but not before Odette’s body has willed physical escape.

Smirnova’s portrayal was towering. Certainly I have never witnessed something so forceful, almost supernaturally so, as when in the dying moments of that final act, she simply rose from her swan-in-repose position to pointe. It was as if, with the swelling of the music, she was not so much being lifted by the music, which would have been magic itself, but as if she was almost carrying the music, embodying it, letting it soar through her, unified. In that moment she was in all parts, heroine and victim, and she slowly rose from the floor as if freighted with quiet unassailable power. Those who think Odette weak needed only to look on that moment and see it refuted. Odette rose. She rose with adamantine resolve, adamantine – and here was the force, the punctum and the pathos, the thing that took the breath away – because cracked at the core. It was as if she was a phoenix, yet doomed to die. And yet, she knew it. The feeling of Fate taking hold was overwhelming. I will never forget those few seconds of utter nobility.

And so too, those ranks of perfectly posed swans will remain a memory of Bolshoi’s visit. There’s not room to praise other dancers, nor to compare or contrast this or that. All was good, but the night belonged to Smirnova and Chudin, and the libretto which they brought so dazzlingly to life. Theirs was a love truly supreme.

As such, they have earned my first “AlephNull” rating, for performances beyond a simple “10”. Bravi.

Don Quixote – Bolshoi Ballet – July 26 2016, The Royal Opera House

The Bolshoi set out their stall in this barnstorming, ebullient version of Petipa’s old classic, and what a joy it was to see. In fact, Alexei Fadeyechev‘s new version, first seen at Bolshoi in January 2016, more than sets out a stall: one feels it sets it out, shows the Bolshoi’s wares (dazzling,  scintillating, beguiling) and then realises that it secretly wishes to burn down the marketplace. “They’re the best in the world!” said a lady to me. Is there a best? Opinions differ, and patriotism may play a part, but there is no doubt they came with a mission to show us how it’s done. Chutzpah carried the day. Supernumeraries, an excellent corps de ballet gave it the requisite energy, but the star turns (and there are, literally, many tour and turns) propelled the ballet into the realm of excellence.

There’s hardly a story. Boy (Basil) likes girl (Kitri) and girl likes boy (a good start!) but each can’t have each due to socio-economics (viz., being rather poor)  although Basil’s wonderful sparkly costume in the final pas de deux suggests he has come into some money, or that the magical kingdom of the dryads grants not only a visions of loveliness, but wishes too…And if not so poor, then to judge by Kitri’s father’s reaction,they are poorly matched. Don Quixote himself gets mixed up in the affair,but really, it’s not his ballet.

Certainly B + K (B: Vladislav Lantratov, K:Maria Alexandrova) have million dollar smiles – one suspects hardwired by daily Bolshoi grind, the rigours of class, ground further by the polish of experience and professional lineage, ground so much indeed that they become not a lens to see into any particular insight of soul (Don Q doesn’t quite need the dramatic register of say, an Odette,) but more a highly polished mirror bouncing the spotlight’s bright gleam, refracting that light and lighting up the stage with joy. “Eyes and teeth!” says the showbiz adage, and there were plenty here. Smiles bright, no cheesy false grins, all appeared genuine or at least expertly veneered (and I don’t mean literally cosmetically, but who knows, perhaps to get ahead, Russian dentistry may lend a helping hand to some dancers, to lend them a razzle-dazzle to set them apart from others?)

Certainly there were none of the fixed grimaces one sometimes encounters, not even in some of Kitri’s more fearsomely teeth-gnashing, toe-mashing moments, those fast “pricking” hops on point, and those travelling showpiece hops on on foot. Pirouette after pirouette was pulled off nicely (although Lantratov did seem to forget to “help” on one turn!). Those familiar thirty-two fouettes were taken at some clip, precise, powerful and focused, traversing unerringly laser-like  downstage to front and centre, ending in a perfect “ta-da!” – arms aloft in glee, Alexandrova’s happy “yep, I just killed it!” grin, our applause. The audience were all so taken in by the show they would have applauded (and did) at everything. Job well done. (Interested youtubers can see here a sense of  Ms Alexandrova’s Kitri!)

Sure, Basil wasn’t always so tidy in the air but he was just what the Don ordered, cheeky and playful. Not quite  Baryshnikov‘s jaw-dropping panache, that laugh-out-loud insouciance, but chutzpah in spades, showbizzy flourishes at landings, even an audible humongous sniff of superiority at the end of his variation – a triumphant gesture, and just what the doctor ordered. Too, his “suicide” scene was genuinely amusing, and that’s no mean feat.

As a partnership, they seemed genuinely happy to be with each other. The famous one handed presses, no-hand fishdives, flying leaps into embraces were all present if at times maybe not as utterly effortless as they could be made to look,  so technically as a pairing they were (the very very minor instance above excused) sound, but more than that there was chemistry galore. They found the core of the story, and sold it well. (In the meantime the marketplace kept burning, fanned by fantastic footwork, collective mission, and Fadeyechev’s expert direction). Little admonishments and taps of Kitri’s fan told Basil just who was boss. Coy glances, smitten stolen kisses, not so much smouldering as just plain charming.

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Lantrantov and Alexandrova as Basil and Kitri at Lincoln Center Festival 2014

Fadyechev’s show feels, to use a friend’s thoughts, rather like an old fashioned musical from the 1950s, as if one were watching a Rodgers and Hammerstein-esque affair onstage. There was the same commitment to pure entertainment without affectation or embarrassment over the means to achieve it, the same technicolour, larger than life appearance, gorgeous to see. A lady nearby said “its very Russian”. What this means I believe is the same: that same unfeigned dedication to entertain, a presentation which doesn’t shy away from mime – here actual pantomime, comic and played right to the back of the house which might otherwise have seemed “over the top”, but instead was pitch perfect. (Consonances with the big-top and Russian circus clowning are not too distant.) As such, Denis Savin‘s Gamache was beautifully given, comically foppish and yet hard not to like.

More cynical observers may have found it all over-cooked, but watching it, it’s undeniable that each member of the company believes in what ballet can do, and that they believe it’s a valuable, vital artform. And that’s what matters. If you are going to sell as story, belief transmits to hearts. I was sold.

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Oxana Sharova as Mercedes.

So there was much fan-snapping and tambourine bashing (no “olé’!”s happily,) and real castanet clacking, not least in  Oxana Sharova‘s (Mercedes) standout solos full of  sinuous cambrés and lots of skirt waving. Townspeople and massed dances were full of vim, and their numbers of course fabulously danced.

I am delighted to report the Kingdom of the Dryads was legitimately beautiful, the more successful because a darkened stage brightens, to reveal a blue-tinged scene and ranks of statuesque beautiful dryads standing in perfect postures. A vision of another world, visited by cute-as-a-button Daria Khokhlova’s Cupid. No wonder Alexei Loparevich’s well characterised bumbling old Don Quixote appeared bewildered, enchanted by the scene.

Act II felt slower, but only in comparison with the preceding Act. I have never for instance (as in Act I) see a sheet-toss onstage before, and what a thrill to see, gasps from the audience as Sancho Panza (Roman Simachev) was hurled into the air, and then in one toss, headfirst into the waiting sheet over and over!

Everyone seemed eager to join the fun. Daria Bochkova‘s  first Grand Pas variation was full of energy and lithe joie-de-vivre, and she was just one of many soloists and corps members who impressed.  This was a wonderful night of ballet, from a company at the top of their game. Even Lulu loved it!

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Giselle – Bolshoi Ballet – Zakharova, Polunin, Shipulina – October 11th 2015 (In Cinema)

This was a strongly danced and acted Giselle, with two principals at the height of their powers.

Svetlana Zakharova‘s Giselle was convincingly enamoured of her Albrecht, and he of her too. He (Sergei Polunin)’s looks of tenderness and solicitude looked genuine and in close up, touching. His evident joy at seeing Giselle and finding his feelings still reciprocated was well done: smiles, longing looks, this was real chemistry from the pair. At one point Albrecht asks, with a glance “are you ok?” after Giselle’s little heart twinge. She nodded. He smiled. In close up this was lovely to see. In fact, knowing what was to come, I got a bit emotional at these parts.

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