Martha Graham used to say, "If you can tell the story of your dance, it's not a dance but a literary thing." She knew that if dance was to have an identity of its own, and if the language of movement was to grow in power and originality, it must not lean on words. It might have them as handmaidens but should carve its own signature.
For its eagerly anticipated American visit, Russia's Bolshoi Ballet brought four of its story-laden ballets. Two of them, The Pharoah's Daughter and The Bright Stream, were new to our audiences. The others, Don Quixote and Spartacus, were familiar. All have survived previous versions by a variety of choreographers.
On opening night the dancers romped through Petipa's Don Quixote. There were ragged stretches and overprojected mime, probably because the company has survived nearly a thousand performances of this muscular journey. The inevitable pressure of opening night may also have had its effect.
Svetlana Zakharova was the girl of Quixote's dreams, but it was not until a few nights later, as Aspicia in The Pharaoh's Daughter, that her long-limbed elegance revealed its full effect. She was, however, overshadowed by the sparkling Maya Plisetskaya of seasons gone by. (As the different ballets came into focus, other former Bolshoi stars slipped into memory: the deep-souled Galina Ulanova, the glorious Raisa Struchkova, the adorable Ekaterina Maximova.)
Zakharova's partner, Andrey Uvarov, displayed the well-bred care, the skilled but unassuming partnering, of today's Bolshoi men. Where are the musclemen of yesteryear? Are Hispanic and American male dancers eclipsing their Slavic counterparts?
French choreographer Pierre Lacotte specializes in recreating 19th-century ballets. His version of Petipa's earliest, The Pharaoh's Daughter, is considered to be "in the style of" rather than a true reconstruction. Set to the workmanlike score of Cesare Pugni, it is a fancifully silly tale about an English explorer who dreams that, as an Egyptian named Ta-Hor, he falls in love with Aspicia, the Pharaoh's daughter. Because her father has promised her to the King of Nubia, whom she does not love, she behaves like a true Romantic heroine and leaps into the Nile. That leads to adventures galore, including three well-made solos for Ekaterina Krysanova, Ekaterina Shipulina, and Olga Stebletsova as river goddesses. Leading it all was Zakharova, stunningly costumed by Lacotte and more than redeeming her lackluster opening night. She was blandly partnered by Nikolai Tsiskaridze but stylishly accompanied by Maria Alexandrova as her Nubian slave. The Bolshoi dancers performed as though they truly believed in this grandiose world. They made the audience almost believe it, too.
The agitprop theme of humble-but-good versus influential-but-evil received a steamy workout in Spartacus. The current version, staged in 1968 by Yuri Grigorovich, is in three clusters of scenes, each closing in a tableau that seems like an exclamation point. The ballet's military formations and battles used arbitrary choreographic devices like the soldiers raising the same arm and leg as they marched, or repeating the same step many times on their way to the finale, which resembled a crucifixion with the slave-hero Spartacus held aloft, his arms outstretched.
The story, which deals with the revolt of Spartacus and his companions against the Roman army led by Crassus, is interwoven with a subplot for Phrygia, wife of Spartacus, and Aegina, courtesan to Crassus. As Spartacus, Yury Klevtsov often forsook drama for melodrama, and his pas de deux with Anna Antonicheva in one performance and Svetlana Lunkina (who was promoted to principal after the July 23 performance) in another showed acrobatic strength in lieu of tenderness. Alexander Volchkov's Crassus was evil unalloyed, while Maria Allash laced her Aegina with high developpes and flinging arms. Her solo with a stick was rather too suggestive.
Artistic director Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream (2003) was a joy. When the ballet premiered in 1935, Stalin disapproved. Choreographer Fyodor Lopukhov was fired; co-librettist Adrian Piotrovsky died in a gulag; composer Dmitri Shostakovich never wrote another ballet. With a sense of humor leavened by political courage, Ratmansky remade the ballet.
In the season's other productions, the dancers seemed confined to lofty subject matter, but in The Bright Stream they were truly young, truly playful. Their acting, like the oversized fruits and vegetables in Boris Messerer's decor, was ablaze in primary colors. And the steps they were given blended classical balance and a spontaneity that derived partly from the choreographer and partly from the dancers themselves.
The story features a group of traveling performers visiting a collective farm. A contretemps involving mistaken identities reminiscent of The Marriage of Figaro lightheartedly weaves through the antics of farmers, dacha dwellers, and other rural folk. The mix-ups are eventually resolved; husbands, wives, and lovers are reunited. Led by Lunkina and Alexandrova as reunited ballet school colleages, plus Vladimir Neporozhny and Yan Godovsky as husband and partner respectively, the action is layered with folk motifs and comic antics, now and then overdone by Alexey Loparevich as a dacha dweller and Irina Zibrova as his not-so-young wife.
Ratmansky's most enduring choreographic trait is modesty shaped by an assurance that allows each episode to flow easily into the next. Let's hope he remains with the company long enough to instill more of this relaxed style into the dancers. They have been too long exposed to bombast. See www.bolshoi.ru.
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2005|
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