Spartacus and Swan Lake in Salford
Spartacus, Swan Lake
The Bolshoi Ballet
by Marc Haegeman
copyright ©2006, Marc Haegeman
As part of a 25-day tour in the UK, the Bolshoi Ballet performed Yuri Grigorovich’s "Swan Lake" and "Spartacus" at the Lowry in Salford/Manchester. For a company which is, under the inspiration of artistic director Alexei Ratmansky, working hard to expand its repertory, it’s disappointing to see that this tour brought nothing but the predictable classics. For the outside world it locks the Bolshoi up in that bygone image of a stick-in-the-mud classical troupe, because it’s still only mostly in Moscow where they do Balanchine, Neumeier, the new creations, and the more experimental work. On the other hand, it can be argued whether the general public abroad wants to see the Bolshoi in anything else than these classics? It’s this sure-fire repertory that sells the tickets, as the tour promoters know all too well — and apparently so it did again.
Still, by bringing old warhorses like "Swan Lake" and "Spartacus," the Bolshoi doesn’t give itself any presents. It’s exactly this kind of repertory the company is supposed to do really well; even more: better than others. Especially "Spartacus." However, as was already apparent in previous seasons, this ballet company par excellence for nearly four decades has in recent years become something of a problem child. If the initial rhetoric no longer holds, at least the theatrical power of Grigorovich’s creation is usually kept intact by the energy and conviction with which the Bolshoi dancers and orchestra can still attack this ballet. For some reason in this particular performance at the Lowry, the big thrills weren’t always delivered.
Part of the problem resides at the top. With Dmitry Belogolovtsev as the Thracian slave-leader and Vladimir Neporozhny as his opponent Crassus, the leading male roles underwent a definite physical shift, but I am not readily convinced by what these men offer on a dramatic level. Dmitry Belogolovtsev is a tall, powerful and indefatigable dancer who can get away with all the required athletics. Yet, deadpan throughout the whole evening, he doesn’t seem to find any reason for his actions. For someone who has been dancing the role for more than ten years now, this Spartacus remains curiously faceless. Vladimir Neporozhny, slim and tall as well, is a rather tame Crassus, calculating before every jump or turn, and lacking authority in dancing and in presence. We know he is probably thinking he still needs to dance another ten on this tour, but this reluctance to go over-the-top isn’t doing the role any favours. Again, the character remains vague and undefined. Grigorovich’s characters aren’t exactly models of psychological analysis, but at least previous performers have proven capable to handle the heroics in grand style.
Fortunately, the ballerinas are still able to inject the roles with a sense of purpose and do find delight in dancing them, ironically, as if reclaiming the dramatic attention that Grigorovich initially took away from them. Maria Allash as Aegina is a joy from start to end. Her monologues were superbly danced, she could command at least half a cohort, and with Neporozhny as Crassus there was no doubt that she was eventually responsible for suppressing that annoying slave revolt. In Anna Antonicheva, too, sincere, devoted, and beautiful as Phrygia, Spartacus had more support than he could handle, but we could believe in her. The legions of Bolshoi men swept once again through Grigorovich’s choreography, even if they didn’t always manage to set the stage on fire in this performance, while the Bolshoi Orchestra under Pavel Klinichev remained rather detached as well.
Swan Lake generally went down better. Grigorovich slightly revised his staging when it was taken back into the repertory in 2001, but except for the tragic ending—which perversely enough doesn’t really convince here—choreography and intent remain the same. Ekaterina Shipulina may not be the company’s most agreeable swan queen—her Odette is somewhat bland and distant, and she only came into her own as Odile—yet young Alexander Volchkov proves an admirable prince: handsome, elegant, and boasting a plastique and style that places him firmly in the lineage of the great Bolshoi males like Fadeyechev, Bogatyrev, and Liepa. His dancing is full of youthful enthusiasm, and what soul, what theatrical impulse. Grigorovich gave prince Siegfried a more central role in the ballet and Volchkov grabs the dramatic opportunities with both hands.
Here, more than in "Spartacus," the company revealed its true strength and depth as an ensemble. Unlike the Maryinsky where some recent performances showed starlets dancing on their own, the Bolshoi is unmatched as a team with virtually no weak link in the chain. The corps and the demi-soloists turn this "Swan Lake" into something beyond the mere ballerina show. Anastasia Yatsenko, sparkling and fleet in the pas de trois and as Neapolitan princess; Natalia Osipova, vivacious and with an awesome jump and ballon as the Spanish princess; Nelly Kobakhidze, musical and precise as the Hungarian princess; Ekaterina Krysanova, dancing with clarity and gusto in the pas de trois and as the Polish princess— all bring that something extra and splendidly solidify the overall theatrical canvas. Part of the secret seems to be that these mostly young dancers are excellently cast. Even Yan Godowsky’s jester seemed right in place and Dmitry Rykhlov’s Evil Genius was a stronger presence than most. And no matter what some Russian critics may have to moan about, the Bolshoi female corps de ballet is a distinguished ensemble.
The Bolshoi Ballet returns in full force to London’s Covent Garden this summer with, thankfully, a more varied offering. The unavoidable "Swan Lakes" and "Don Quixotes" are still there, but at least they will also show some Balanchine ("Symphony in C"), the newly acquired Yuri Possokhov "Cinderella," and works by Ratmansky and Roland Petit. In any case, for this viewer, this is the European summer ballet event to go for.
Photos, both by Marc Haegeman, of the Bolshoi men (top) and Maria Allash as Aegina in "Spartacus."
Volume 4, No. 16
April 24, 2006
copyright ©2006 Marc Haegeman