A Bastion of Bravura, The Bolshoi Wows Its Fans

In 1874, the great Danish choreographer August Bournonville traveled to St. Petersburg, where, as he tells us in his memoirs,

In 1874, the great Danish choreographer August Bournonville traveled to St. Petersburg, where, as he tells us in his memoirs, “I saw in turn Le Papillon, La Fille du Pharaon, Don Quixote, Esmeralda, and Le Roi Candaule …. I did justice to the richly imaginative arrangement of the settings and transformations as well as the magnificent appointments; acknowledged the considerable advantages that lay in the use of a corps de ballet consisting of more than two hundred, partly young, pretty, and clever people; and was not blind or indifferent to the superb talent that displayed itself especially among the female members …. I sought in vain to discover plot, dramatic interest, logical consistency, or anything that might remotely resemble sanity. And even if I were fortunate enough to come upon a trace of it in Petipa’s Don Quixote, the impression was immediately effaced by an unending and monotonous host of feats of bravura, all of which were rewarded with salvos of applause and curtain calls.”

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No, no—Bournonville can’t be reporting from Petersburg 130 years ago; he must have been at the Met these past couple of weeks, watching the Bolshoi’s current versions of two of those ballets, Don Quixote and La Fille du Pharaon (The Pharaoh’s Daughter). True, the corps didn’t have 200 members. It didn’t even have the 72 dancers in Pharaoh who, the historian Krasovskaya tells us, “bore flower baskets on their heads from which small children emerged in the finale.” But it had everything else, from a prancing monkey to a dead lion to a giant killer asp to coffins that suddenly tilted up, revealing the mummies inside, as in a Dracula movie. And it certainly had the same applauding audience, presumably transported intact across time and space to cheer the same feats of “bravura.” Pharaoh was the turning point in Petipa’s career—it stayed in the repertory for more than half a century after its triumphant premiere in 1862. But who knows what such great dancers as Kschessinska and Pavlova were actually dancing when they appeared in it? The original ballet has been more or less lost, and the version we’ve just been exposed to is the recent creation of Pierre Lacotte, who has performed the same disservice for Paquita and La Sylphide. Ignoring the few existing clues to what Petipa actually did, he has started from scratch, or rather (as the program puts it) has based his work on “motifs from the ballet of the same name by Marius Petipa,” one of those motifs being the story itself: English explorer in Egypt falls into an opium trance and finds himself back in Ancient Times transformed into Ta-Hor, in love with Aspicia, the Pharaoh’s Daughter. And then—hours later—he wakes up and, guess what, it was all a dream!

I would state categorically that Lacotte’s Pharaoh’s Daughter is the dopiest classical ballet I’ve ever seen, but it’s possible I’ve wiped potential rivals from my memory, the way we’re told (though I don’t believe it) women forget labor pains.

Monsieur Lacotte, imported from Paris, would seem to believe he’s improved on Petipa, but all he’s got going for him is his chutzpah. He can’t choreograph for the corps—everything’s confused and clichéd; important action is blocked (could anyone actually see Ta-Hor shooting that mangy lion?); he’s completely lacking in dance invention; he doesn’t characterize—Aspicia and Ta-Hor are the blandest couple in all balletdom; there’s no urgency (or coherence) to the narrative—it’s just endless stretches of generic dance, with constant changes of costumes. And speaking of costumes, they (as well as the pathetic sets) are also by M. Lacotte, and they make the dancers look like those imitation-Erté figurines that live in the windows of going-out-of-business stores.

At the first performance, the beautiful Svetlana Zakharova, newly defected from the Kirov, was Aspicia—as beautiful as ever, with those amazingly arched feet, those endless limbs, that small, perfect head, that strong technique. Luckily, she couldn’t sneak her outrageous hyper-extended kicks into ancient Egypt, but she made up for it with her relentless smile, her calculated wooing of the audience (this tendency was even more pronounced in Don Quixote). Her best moments came in the underwater-vision scene, in a simple, lyrical solo, with no Ta-Hor to get in the way. As for poor Ta-Hor, the role lacks any defining characteristic other than a bare chest, but Nikolai Tsiskaridze’s touchingly naïve effeminacy gave him (and us) something to hold on to.

What can the Bolshoi have been thinking? On top of the rest, the ghastly score, by Pugni, only pointed up the vast superiority of Minkus’ Don Quixote. (Those who deride Minkus got what they deserved.) I suppose the powers-that-be were thinking box office, and they were right: There was standing room only at the Met and the usual bravos, bravas and bravis from a largely Russian-émigré audience.

It’s to the credit of the Bolshoi’s new artistic director, Alexei Ratmansky, that this ersatz resurrection of The Pharaoh’s Daughter was taken aboard before he was. Far more important: Ratmansky himself choreographed the one unclouded artistic success of the company’s season, a brand-new version of an ill-fated ballet from the 30’s, The Bright Stream. It sounded ominous—fun and romance on a Soviet collective farm—but it turned out to be sunny, funny, modest, pleasing.

The heroine is young Zina, “the Bright Stream Collective’s morale officer,” living contentedly among the wheat sheaves with her husband, Pyotr. A troupe of performers arrives from Moscow to entertain The Workers (you see their little train passing by, puffing smoke). Among the performers is The Ballerina, and it turns out that she and Zina were at ballet school together! What’s more, Zina—who not even her husband knows was a dancer—is just as good as she ever was, whipping off fouettés and matching The Ballerina jeté for jeté. (So much for dancers having to keep in shape.) Pyotr is quickly flirting with his wife’s old friend, and the rest of the plot deals with his mild comeuppance—there’s a touch of Fille Mal Gardée, a touch of Coppélia, a touch of Marriage of Figaro, yet it adds up to its own charmingly realized world.

You’d have to know more than I do about the Soviet Union in the mid-1930’s to understand why Stalin shut down this ballet, with its amiable Shostakovich score. Perhaps collective farms were too serious a matter to be made into comic ballets. But Stalin’s loss is our gain. With its generous array of character roles—the schoolgirl, the milkmaid (who jauntily milks the five fingers of the faux-cow), the “Anxious-To-Appear-Younger-Than-She-Is Wife” and her put-upon husband, the tractor driver (who doubles as a doggy), the accordion player et al.— The Bright Stream rushes along on its merry way, its individual bits of schtick perhaps too extended, but all of them cleverly carried out and amusing.

I won’t try to explain why The Ballerina’s partner gets himself up like a Sylphide, or why The Ballerina turns up in male drag—the important thing is that Ratmansky has made a cohesive whole out of drag and cow and ballerina and the Toonerville Trolley. And unlike Lacotte, he understands his corps and knits it joyously into the fabric of the ballet. Although there’s nothing Bournonville-like about the manner of Bright Stream, Bournonville might well have approved: Like his own ballets, it creates a real world with real people who are believable as lovers, friends and members of a community.

The first Zina was the ravishingly charming, fragile-seeming Svetlana Lunkina, whom Ratmansky promoted to principal dancer during the curtain calls—a highly popular move. But the second Zina, Anastasia Yatsenko, was also entrancing—the company’s depth is formidable. The two guys who took the drag role were both brilliant on pointe and wildly funny—our old friend Tsiskaridze could melt into the Trocks at a moment’s notice. The Bright Stream isn’t in the same league as Ashton’s Fille Mal Gardée, but arriving unheralded in the middle of the Bolshoi’s boom-boom season, it was precious balm, particularly coming, as it did, after the unspeakable Spartacus, a very different kettle of Soviet kitsch.

Spartacus has always been a smash success, with its unspeakably vulgar Khachaturian score, its agitprop posings and posturings, its noble slaves and wicked Romans, its endless opportunities for the most blatant kind of heroics: Stalwart men leap and leap and leap, brandishing swords and muscles. There’s a loving, long-suffering heroine, a vicious vamp of a villainess, a nasty Roman general and, of course, the quintessential Stalinist hero, Spartacus, who manages to destroy all his followers as well as himself. The Kremlin has always liked this one, New York has always cheered its pyrotechnics, and the fans from Brighton Beach were in seventh heaven.

As for the Don Q, it made almost no sense, but there were so many superb character dancers flaunting their fans and swirling their ruffled skirts that it hardly mattered. So what if you couldn’t tell who was who, or why all those gypsies were carrying on, or why Kitri, the innkeeper’s daughter, and Basil, the barber, were getting married in a palace, or why the ballet had no big climax but ended with the famous pas de deux. You were looking, maybe, for narrative integrity? We did get Petipa’s beautiful vision scene, replete with dryads and a thrilling short variation by a very young new girl, Natalia Osipova, whose body is problematic but whose open, flying jumps and eager spirit were electrifying. Zakharova, in the lead, did all the right things—her technique doesn’t falter, except (like most of her colleagues) in supported turns—but she’s really not a Kitri; her flamboyance is pasted on, not natural to her: She’s at her best in more lyrical ballets like Bayadère and Swan Lake. Far better suited to the role is the company’s splendid workhorse, Maria Alexandrova, who has the necessary push and thrust and—yes—bravura, tearing through space with her tremendous jeté.

You can’t really familiarize yourself with a major company by watching half a dozen performances of four ballets—you only get a superficial sense of who’s who and what’s what. On the basis of the Bolshoi’s two-week visit, I see a company with a split aesthetic, trying to decide what it wants to be. How many more obscure Petipa ballets can be exhumed and tarted up? How much Soviet-period stuff is worth reviving? Can Ratmansky build on his success with Bright Stream? (His Cinderella has had a mixed reception abroad.)

There’s a basic problem here: With the exception of the sublime Ulanova (like Zakharova, imported from the Kirov), the Bolshoi’s stock in trade has long been its explosive Übermensch, with ballerinas to match—the consummately flamboyant Maya Plisetskaya, after all, was for years its emblematic dancer (and the greatest of Kitri’s). Now, in a post-Soviet world, the company has begun catching up—to Balanchine, in particular. What will happen if good taste, long its missing ingredient, begins to manifest itself? Will the company lose its innocence—and its doggedly retro-Soviet audience? Cautiously, Ratmansky is feeling his way. Who would have believed that the Bolshoi would ever be giving us guys got up as Sylphides? Meanwhile, despite its schizophrenic repertory, it’s in excellent shape and well worth looking at: It’s got strong dancers, conviction, pizzazz—and lots of beautiful girls.

A Bastion of Bravura, The Bolshoi Wows Its Fans