Grace disguising hard-drilled athletic training, a group of fit Russian men and women arriving en masse with their extended team, bowing amid cheers... who needs the Olympics when the Bolshoi Ballet are playing a London Season at Covent Garden?
The Bolshoi... a name that conjures up visions of tutued ballerinas, languid and moving in perfect unison, rehearsed elegance, steely determination beneath layers of tulle, astonishing leaps of daring do by Nijinskyesque male dancers, the height of classical ballet. Well that was there certainly but there was also some less-expected feelings too...
The Bolshoi (meaning 'big' in Russian) Ballet is still in the shadow of the bizarre events covered so well in the 2015 documentary BOLSHOI BABYLON. In 2013 the Artistic Director Sergei Filin was near-blinded in an acid-throwing attack outside his home, the culprit being revealed as dancer Pavel Dimitrichenko who said he initiated the attack - but had no knowledge that acid would be used - as he was unhappy that Filin had not chosen his ballerina girlfriend for the lead in SWAN LAKE; Dimitrichenko was subsequently jailed for 12 years. Filin returned to work but a simmering row with the new General Director Vladimir Urin led to his five-year contract not being renewed. Urin suggested that the new Artistic Director Makhar Vaziev's role would be largely technical and he would have limited freedom in artistic policy, a charge that Vaziev denies. Welcome to London guys...
But what of the actual work, was it truly the greatest? Well it turned into a case of diminishing returns. The first production was DON QUIXOTE, based on the Cervantes novel, and originally choreographed by Marius Petipa, the master of the classic ballet, in 1869 to a score by Ludwig Minkus. This new version had incorporated work by other choreographers by Alexei Fadeyechev.
I had never seen the ballet before but was immediately engaged with the ensemble work, the sets and colourful costumes and the wonderful Principal ballerina Maria Alexandrova who lit up the stage as the fiery yet playful Kitri - her fouettes were dizzying as she spun her way towards the edge of the stage. She was well partnered by Vladislav Lantratov as her lover Basil - how Spanish is that name? Needless to say Don Quixote and Sanco Panza hardly got a look-in, mere supporting players in their own story! Maria Zharkova, Kristina Karasyova, Yulia Stepanova and Daria Khoklova also delighted with sparky solos.
Next up was the big kahuna, SWAN LAKE. Such a bolshoi event that we had dinner in the Opera House restaurant - which was excellent by the way - with mates Sharon and Eamonn. Yes I had seen the Matthew Bourne version four times - and blubbed every time - but this was my first ever classical SWAN.
Again what cannot be denied was the excellence of the corps de ballet and the astonishing stage presence and technical mastery of Olga Smirnova as Odette / Odile. I also liked the solos danced by Viktoria Yakusheva as the Russian Bride and Daria Bochkova as the Spanish Bride. The court fool also stole every scene he was in so well done Vyacheslav Lopatin! But... where was the emotion? By the end of the evening I assumed I would be awash with the grand tragedy... but no, nothing. Yes Tchaikovsky's score sounded wonderful played by the Bolshoi orchestra and while choreographer Yuri Grigorovich also adapted the libretto to change various elements of the story - and the lighting and costumes were exquisite - the production felt fairly pedestrian at times and, it has to be said, the set was quite drab. Lantratov again starred as the Prince but here he seemed a bit anonymous. I was thrilled to see it of course - it's the Bolshoi after all! - but left suppressing a slight feeling of disappointment.
Next was the only 20th Century Bolshoi production we saw, FLAMES OF PARIS. A bit of a curiosity this, it was premiered in 1932 with a score by Boris Asafyev. Drawing obvious parallels with the October Revolution, the synopsis of the ballet was fairly simplistic - brother and sister join the French uprising, the sister Jeanne finding love with a dashing Marseillais Philippe while brother Jerome is followed into the melee by Adeline, the conflicted daughter of nasty Marquise Costa de Beauregard who had previously imprisoned Jerome until freed by her. Again the technical skill of the dancers could not be faulted - Alexandrova and Lantratov again were captivating as Jeanne and Philippe, while Yulia Stepanova was excellent as the actress Mireille - but it was the latter's scenes that made me realize what classical ballet actually was all about!
Ballet seems to be about what usually happens in stage directions; take the first act of FLAMES: the first scene set up Jeanne and Jerome joining the revolution but Jerome falls foul of the nasty Marquise who imprisons him, the second scene is Adeline releasing Jerome as she secretly loves him, but the third scene is maddeningly long, set in Versailles where the Court watch a ballet starring actress Mireille. No doubt in a film or play it would say "the royal court watch a ballet" but move on to something that furthers the plot but here, no. Thirty minutes were taken up with watching Stepanova and Artem Ovcharenko have solos and duets, broken up by dances from the ensemble within the play. Whatever happened to our brother and sister?? The scene ended with a bizarre routine with King Louis XVI doing a weird party dance before the company all froze in terror at the sound of a distant crowd singing "Les Marseilles". Actually that final moment *was* very effective as was the final moment when the mob advanced on the audience disregarding the grieving Jerome, but for most of the time, the ensemble numbers seemed more suited to the Irving Davies Dancers on the stage of the London Palladium in the 1970s.
Our last production was LE CORSAIRE which we had seen previously danced by English National Ballet; that production we felt was ultimately a bit ho-hum... sadly so was this one. Again - and you might have heard all this before - there were some fine work from Anna Nikulina as the indefatigable heroine Medora, Nina Kaptsova as a spunky slave girl and Artem Ovcharenko as the slave and the Jardin Anime scene was impossibly grand with flowering bowers and limpid ballerinas en masse.
But as with all the productions, at no time were my emotions or tear ducts engaged; they were as involving as a firework display seen from miles away. There were also some dodgy spotting of spins and if I am honest, it all seemed a bit tired. But again it's a storyline made up of minutes of plot and hours of incidental routines. It's like seeing a musical where all the numbers are performed by the third supporting cast members. Not even the *dramatic* shipwreck in the last moments could rouse much interest due to the murky lighting which gave you no idea what was happening and to whom.
A final point: It's an obviously a Bolshoi thing but it really is distracting for principal and soloist dancers to step out of the action and take a bow at the end of *every* solo or pas de deux. It just makes a fairly uninvolving production even more of so. At times it was like going to see HAMLET and for the lead actor to take a bow after every famous speech.
I am happy to have seen this legendary company and saw some wonderful dancing - but give me the Royal Ballet anytime.