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.
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.