writers on dancing


Silent Triumph of Tradition

Giselle – Gala evening
The Bolshoi Ballet
Théâtre de la Monnaie
Brussels, Belgium
18-21 February 2006

By Marc Haegeman
copyright 2006 by Marc Haegeman

The Bolshoi Ballet—or indeed any of the major ballet companies of today—visiting Belgium is by any cultural standard an important if extremely rare event. The renowned Moscow company, led by Alexei Ratmansky, performed with a 74-strong group accompanied by its own orchestra for three consecutive days at the Royal Theatre La Monnaie in Brussels, as the closing part of the prestigious Europalia Festival, an annual multidisciplinary arts happening dedicated this year to Russia. It was in this very same theatre that the Bolshoi performed when it first came to Belgium back in 1958.

Any fears of commercial viability—would the traditional Bolshoi still stand a chance on these shores saturated with contemporary dance and physical, movement theatre? – were soon dispelled by a total sell out of all four performances several months in advance. Even if the appearance in the temple of Béjart and Rosas/De Keersmaeker may have had an unplanned provocative effect, at least it proved that there is a public for a strictly classical program in this country while the short Bolshoi stint was far from sufficient to satisfy all demands. The Belgian press virtually ignored the Bolshoi performances, but that, again, is no big surprise when the prevailing climate is one in which Jan Fabre and the likes are considered to set the standards.

Restricted by the smallish stage of La Monnaie the Bolshoi brought Giselle in the 1997-staging by former dancer-director Vladimir Vasiliev and a gala evening of pas de deux, generously browsing through the company’s current repertory.

Audiences were treated to at least two first-rate performances of Giselle, led by two of the company’s foremost ballerinas—Svetlana Zakharova and Svetlana Lunkina (I didn’t see Marianna Ryzhkina in the matinee). Say of Vasiliev’s staging what you want —and it certainly does have its shortcomings, although the often panned flashes of male virtuosity he introduced are in line with the Bolshoi tradition—at least it tells the story in a straightforward fashion, leaving the dancers plenty of room to flesh out their characters—and very few fail to do so convincingly. Yet, what makes these performances so persuasive is that here we have a true company, not a group of individuals, but a team sharing and living the same sense of direction, which underpins every moment and gesture. No matter that de Givenchy’s costumes are overdone or that Sergei Barkhin’s scenery looks artificial, the dancers transcend these limitations easily.

Svetlana Zakharova gave a strongly dramatic reading, once more giving proof of how beneficiary her transfer to the Bolshoi has turned out for her. Sweet and feminine, she was sophisticated for a village girl, but also vulnerable. Her happiness seemed shaded by a sense of foreboding which ran through the whole 1st Act, making the outcome almost inevitable. Her mad scene (as with most Russian dancers) was restrained, but grew completely natural and was more poignant than the wildest fits of hysteria. Giselle was one of Zakharova’s first major roles when she started out with the Kirov now almost ten years ago. She has since then performed the ballet in at least five different productions around the world. Her dancing now acquired such fluidity and sense of purpose that she can get away with the sky-high extensions.

Her Albrecht—Andrei Uvarov, tall, noble and refined—has been a frequent partner to Zakharova, and it shows. Their rapport appeared as natural as that his experienced Albrecht was well aware of the consequences of his actions. Unfortunately, disaster struck near the end of the press night when Uvarov suffered a serious injury during his variation, cutting short an otherwise excellent performance. Zakharova bravely and highly professionally completed the ballet, improvising on the spot an ending without any Albrecht.

Back in 1997, Svetlana Lunkina was one of the first interpreters of this Giselle. She was then just 18 and brought above all an irresistible physical suitability, freshness and stylistic integrity to the character. These qualities are now completed by authority in technique as well as in interpretation. Soft and understated, but still a lively girl in the 1st Act, she appeared as if truly transformed in the 2nd. Yet it was her completely silent way of moving and the stillness of her shapes more than her physical frailty which created this spellbinding supernatural feel.

Ruslan Skvortsov was a sensitive and romantic Albrecht, sincere in his feelings for Giselle and clearly less of a schemer than Uvarov. Skvortsov covered for the announced Dmitry Gudanov, but turned out to be an ideal match for Lunkina. When walking to Giselle’s cross he revealed more of his character than many Albrecht’s do in the whole ballet. Their meetings in the 2nd Act had an almost otherworldly quality, with both dancers moving and breathing like one. The final scene when she pulled the exhausted Albrecht off the ground without touching him was an unforgettably intense moment.

Ruslan Pronin danced Hilarion—clad in that impossibly green outfit—in both performances. Vasiliev gave this Hilarion a lot more to dance, but that only succeeded in making him more of a nuisance. Some truly exciting dancing, though, firmly rooted in the grand Bolshoi tradition, came from Maria Alexandrova’s implacable Myrtha, who reigned over her nocturnal forest not only by her imposing presence but also by the mere quality of her dancing. The stage was too small for her jumps.

The corps of Wilis, led by Nelly Kobakhidze and Olga Stebletsova, was impeccable in its unison and discipline. I don’t know whether this is the Ratmansky-effect, but in any case judging by these performances the current Bolshoi female corps can measure itself against the best.

The gala evening, attended by the Belgian royal couple and members of the royal family, was a beautifully balanced and well-paced programme of pas de deux, of which the Bolshoi seems to own the secret. It showcased part of the company’s current repertory as much as the versatility and flexibility of the dancers—arguably no bigger a contrast than between Bournonville’s Sylphide and Grigorovich’s Spartacus, yet Svetlana Lunkina was convincing in both.

Each half of the programme worked towards an exciting climax, be it in the form of a captivating Dying Swan or a high-spirited grand pas from Don Quixote, both featuring Svetlana Zakharova. Touching a range of styles and moods along the way and presenting some of the company’s new hopes alongside established stars, the overall high standard of the dancing on display completely made you forget the absence of any scenery. It was one of those rare evenings that sent you home with a smile on your face.

The opening was an unexpected 2nd Act pas de deux from Frederick Ashton’s Fille mal gardée, a ballet that was acquired in 2002, staged by Alexander Grant, who was in the audience. This short fragment provided a tantalizing glimpse of a still relatively unknown new Bolshoi. Marianna Ryzhkina and the always bright Denis Medvedev, joined by a small female ensemble, easily brought out the charm and fun of the piece.

The following pas de deux from Bournonville’s La Sylphide danced by Lunkina and the young Andrei Bolotin may still not have been the repertory one readily associates with this company, but Lunkina gave such a beautifully sensitive reading, with a careful eye for detail that this excerpt made you look forward to see her do the complete ballet.

The pas de deux from Vainonen’s Flames of Paris definitely was and is Bolshoi territory. Natalia Osipova, a ravishing dark-haired soubrette who only graduated in 2004 and is a laureate of among others the 2005 Moscow competition, brilliantly tackled the technical fireworks, although as yet she couldn’t make us forget that other young soloist Anastasia Goriacheva a couple of years ago. Yan Godovsky proved that Bolshoi male dancing can still mean bold bravura, with high leaps and forceful manèges.

Other up-and-coming young soloists featured were the eye-catching Nelly Kobakhidze, partnered by Egor Khromushin in the Waltz from Fokine’s Chopiniana, and Ekaterina Krysanova dancing with Godovsky The Sleeping Beauty grand pas. Both Kobakhidze and Krysanova were ideally cast.

The only false note of the evening to my mind was Balanchine’s Agon pas de deux with Ekaterina Shipulina and Dmitry Belogolovtsev. When I saw the full-length Agon in Moscow two years ago it was the ballet in their Balanchine bill which worked least of all. The excerpt made even less sense. Shipulina still approaches her part as a flirtatious beauty display, while the overall result remains an unconvincing mix of enthusiasm and cautiousness—not helped by a messy orchestra. The other Balanchine piece of the evening, the Tarantella, appeared closer in spirit to the traditional Russian virtuoso pas de deux, and the cheerfully energetic Denis Medvedev and Marianna Ryzhkina had no trouble in hitting the right note.

Pulled out of its context, the 2nd Act pas de deux from Pierre Lacotte’s La Fille du Pharaon isn’t a grateful number either, yet both Maria Alexandrova and Ruslan Skvortsov gave it grandeur and dignity.

Lunkina and Skvortsov were again an excellent match in a smoothly danced adagio from Spartacus: her delicacy and sense of yearning quite ideally complemented his virile and comforting presence.

It was left to Svetlana Zakharova and Dmitry Belogolovtsev, joined by a small female group, to close the evening with the feisty grand pas from Don Quixote. Zakharova, dressed in a flashy scarlet tutu, Belogolovtsev dashing in black, burst on the stage and as we expected no less pulled out all the stops. A bigger contrast with Zakharova’s serene Dying Swan earlier that evening, was hardly imaginable, but as a finale to this gala one couldn’t have found better.

The Bolshoi Orchestra conducted by Pavel Klinichev, made up in theatricality and excitement what it lacked in precision and sophistication. We shouldn’t be too picky, though. Like most of the rest of this Bolshoi stint, it was a triumph: after all, for the last decade every Giselle in this country has been performed to tape. May they soon return.

Photos of Zakharova in "Giselle" (with Andrei Uvarov as Albrecht in the first photo) all by Marc Haegeman.

Volume 4, No. 8
February 27, 2006
copyright ©2006 Marc Haegeman


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last updated on February 27, 2006