A Brilliant Bolshoi

Classic Arts Features   A Brilliant Bolshoi
As the Bolshoi Ballet visits the Metropolitan Opera House, Joel Lobenthal shines a spotlight on the creative vitality today's Bolshoi brings to the world of ballet.

Today's Bolshoi Ballet is not the Bolshoi our parents knew. In 1959 the Bolshoi left its resplendent 1856 opera house in Moscow to embark on its first American tour, opening triumphantly at the old Metropolitan Opera House. American audiences and reviewers were enthralled by the dancers' flamboyance and assertive theatricality. The theatrical flamboyance remains, but as a company the Bolshoi has changed as much as the former Soviet Union has. Since the Bolshoi last performed in New York five years ago its repertory has been significantly expanded and diversified. In 2004 a new artistic director was named, thirty-six-year-old choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. During this month's two-week engagement at the Met the Bolshoi performs four ballets: The Pharaoh's Daughter, Spartacus, Don Quixote, and The Bright Stream. Each is a full-length evening work, and each possesses iconic significance in the company's history.

Ballet emigrated from France to Russia in the 18th century, and for most of its existence there it had been financed and was under the direct control of the Tsar, and later, of the Soviet regime. For decades the Bolshoi and its rival in St. Petersburg, the Kirov, have been the standard-bearers of Russian ballet‹the styles of the two companies reflecting the contrasting profile of these cities. St. Petersburg was founded in the early 18th century by Peter the Great, who designed his new capital to mimic the orderly boulevards of European capitals. Russia's ancient capital, Moscow, grew more organically and haphazardly, in part, because of repeated torchings by invaders. Both the Kirov and the Bolshoi troupes express themselves in movement that is flowing and expansive, but the Bolshoi has traditionally embodied a more forthright, less aristocratically reserved expression than that of the Kirov. Yet these time-honored distinctions need no longer apply, since Bolshoi style is in the process of an ongoing evolution.

Nothing more vividly demonstrates the differences between the two companies than the Bolshoi's production of Paris-trained choreographer Pierre Lacotte's The Pharaoh's Daughter, first performed by the company in 2000. Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa, The Pharaoh's Daughter was first seen in St. Petersburg in 1862, but hadn't been performed anywhere since the 1920s. In recent years, at the Kirov Sergei Vikharev has used ancient notation scores to restore Marius Petipa's Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadère to a credible facsimile of what they must have looked like a century ago. Lacotte's method is different. He researched the original Pharaoh's Daughter extensively, but for the most part devised entirely new choreography that adheres to the original plotline.

It is rather remarkable that the Bolshoi was willing to invite into its ranks someone whose style was certain to challenge the dancers. In Paris one of Lacotte's teachers was émigré Lubov Egorova, a reigning ballerina of pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg. Soviet ballet in the post-World War II era, however, tended less toward pre-Revolutionary precision and preferred broader and bigger movements. On the other hand, ballet in France as well as in America owes much to the speed and agility of the pre-Revolutionary Russian style. And so Lacotte supplied the Bolshoi dancers with smaller, more rapid steps than they were accustomed to. It could be said that he helped them reclaim an idiom of Russian ballet that had been lost. The Bolshoi has certainly mastered Lacotte's material, and some have gone so far as to say that his work with the company has revitalized the Bolshoi's technique.

Petipa created Don Quixote specifically for the Bolshoi while on a guest assignment in 1869. Perhaps because of a sense of abandon common to Spanish and Russian dance temperaments, ever since then it has been a flagship ballet for the Bolshoi. For years Maya Plisetskaya's explosive back-curling leap in the role of the mischievous Kitri was a kinetic insignia for the company. The ballet encompasses a spectrum of dance genres from folk to classical, enabling the Bolshoi to marshal its full reserves of strength.

After the 1917 revolution Moscow was restored as the nation's capital by the Soviets. The long-standing rivalry between Moscow and St. Petersburg, then re-named Leningrad, meant that the commissars had no compunction about skimming the finest talent from Leningrad. Over the years, a number of the Kirov's most illustrious ballerinas were transferred to the Bolshoi. (In 2003 Svetlana Zakharova followed in their steps, but her choice was voluntary.) In 1964 the Bolshoi recruited Yuri Grigorovich, then a young choreographer at the Kirov, to be its artistic director and chief choreographer, a position he held for the next 30 years.

The Bolshoi under Grigorovich relied less on the expressive mime and gesture that was still prominently featured when the Bolshoi first visited the United States. He concentrated on the capacity of virtuoso technique to convey character and plotline. The Grigorovich years also marked a greater elegance in technical articulation and the cultivation of more lithe and more harmonious body types. In the current season, the Bolshoi performs Grigorovich's 1968 Spartacus, a quintessentially Soviet work celebrating the gladiator turned revolutionary in Imperial Rome. Painted in bold, broad strokes, it has long been a popular favorite in Russia and abroad.

Alexei Ratmansky, the Bolshoi's new artistic director, has availed himself of the fluid borders of today's Russia. Ratmansky was born in Ukraine and trained at the Bolshoi School, but danced with Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet while beginning a career as a choreographer. Ratmansky's work is represented during the current Bolshoi season by The Bright Stream. It is a significant reclamation of an important cultural artifact of the 1930s‹Russia's years of Stalinist repression and terror.

The ballet reached the Bolshoi stage in 1935 but was immediately pronounced a failure. The music was by Shostakovich, and the choreography by Fyodor Lopukhov, who was then in the vanguard of artistic innovation in the immediate post-Revolutionary period. Although the scenario bore all the appropriate hallmarks of that era's official art‹it recounts romantic intrigue on a communal farm‹Shostakovich's music was already arousing suspicion and the critics' condemnation reflected a government-approved defamation campaign. For the current production Ratmansky has provided completely new choreography.

This summer's Met season and subsequent United States tourpromises to be a pinnacle for the Bolshoi. The vigor and exuberance of the Bolshoi today makes the company as stirring as it was in 1959, while its creative vitality is now eminently capable of exceeding even its glories of the past.

Recommended Reading: