"Bolshoi" Means "Big"
The Bolshoi Ballet's Ravishing Don Quixote *
by Kate Dobbs Ariail
June 10, 2009, Chapel Hill, NC: Carolina Performing Arts has achieved a dream so far beyond ordinary imagining that,
even having experienced the reality, one can hardly believe it. The Bolshoi Ballet is performing in Memorial Hall!
The fabled Russian company, source and defender of so much in classical ballet, launched its four-performance run
with its revised version of Marius Petipa's Don Quixote, the original of which it premiered in Moscow in 1869.
The evening-long, three-act ballet is set to a beautiful score composed for the dance by Ludwig Minkus.
Conducted by Pavel Sorokin from the Bolshoi, 60 members of the North Carolina Symphony filled the hall
with the delightful music while, above them, on the stage, the dozens of dancers exhibited the grand and gorgeous
dancing that has made the company's name, which means "big" or "grand," synonymous with greatness in this greatest of performing arts.
Although the company received mixed reviews from the first stop on its current three-city US tour, everything about
this production is marvelous. If it were danced on a bare stage in workout clothes, even by lesser dancers,
it would be thrilling in its mix of bold charging action and rich detailed steps that are like embroidery over embroidery.
But the dancers are some of the best on this planet, and it is not performed on a bare stage but in a fantastically realized
world behind the proscenium arch. None of that stuff about breaking the fourth wall here: we have the exquisite pleasure
of looking through to a parallel world which we cannot touch, only devour with our eyes. The elaborate sets,
the richly-colored costuming, the excellent lighting, and the full, smooth music all combine with the kinetic
sculpturing of the dancers for a sublimely aesthetic experience.
Principal dancer Maria Alexandrova as Kitri intoxicated the audience with the beauty of her lines, her adroit precision,
her lovely jumps, and the joyous sass of her characterization. She has you captivated from her entrance, but once you've
seen her whip along a sharp diagonal in a long series of travelling fouettes, or bouree backwards in and out of a slalom
course of knives upright on the stage, or launch herself through the air, flying into the arms of Basilio, you'd do
anything to see more. (The highest priced tickets for this performance ran $160, and after two minutes of this dancing,
that seemed like the bargain of the century.) Her Basilio on Thursday was danced by the "young firebrand" Ivan Vasilev,
who did things I had never seen and wouldn't have thought physically possible. He is like a spectacular swallow, scissoring
his legs through the long beats while he holds himself aloft before homing in on the precise spot to land on one knee before
Kitri and then rise like a geyser and lift her overhead with one hand. What makes ballet so wonderful is its ability
to express psychological truth physically, undeterred by the ambiguity of words. Here was the truth of a young man in love,
its incandescent beauty explanation enough for why humans ceaselessly repeat our search for its real-life manifestation.
Also particularly notable were the weightless Chinara Alizade, who danced one of Kitri's friends, and in the second variation
of the grand final dance; Anna Antropova as the preternaturally flexible gypsy dancer; and Ekaterina Shipulina, dancing
the Queen of the Dryads who appear in Don Quixote's second-act dream. Shipulina is extremely elegant, and it was immensely
satisfying to see her (and two dozen others) in classical tights and tutus after the previous scene danced in long skirts.
Shipulina will perform as Kitri on the 11th, and as Odette-Odile in Swan Lake on the 13th.
*First published by CVNC on June 11, 2009.
But what do these old 19th century ballets have to do with anything in the 21st century, you may ask?
Where is the art of our time? You may as well ask why we read history, or literature, or listen to music made before yesterday.
Every art flows out of the art that came before, and we cannot understand the new without knowing the old. Just as every
portrait painted in America subsequently shows the influence of those made by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) in the 19th century,
so contemporary ballet, no matter how punk, shows traces of the masters like Petipa.
"At the present time we possess enormous choreographic capital, inherited by us from ballet masters of old.
This capital forms the historical fund of balletic art..., so it is natural that the task of the ballet master should
break down into two parts: he must preserve and cultivate the old ballets, and he must be the initiator and continuer
of new creations in this area." * The prolific Russian critic Akim Volynsky wrote this in 1925, but Bolshoi artistic
director Yuri Burlaka made an almost identical statement this week in an interview. Speaking through an interpreter,
he said that the major ballets of the 19th century are "the basis that allowed dance to develop into the future,
and that allows in the 21st century so many styles and movements." There was some trepidation on the part of international
ballet-watchers when Burlaka, who is a specialist in 19th century works, was named last year to replace the more modern
Alexei Ratmansky, who many believed had revived the post-Soviet Bolshoi during his tenure as artistic director.
In regard to balancing the old and new in the company, Burlaka says, "I think this is the most difficult question
for any artistic director of a major theater. This was always a theater that showed big productions...;
it is a large part of what we do. But this doesn't mean we only have three-act ballets we also have new work."
When asked what significant new choreographers he works with, Burlaka drew himself up like the Russian dancer he is,
flaring his chest and unsheathing the steel spine. "We are the Bolshoi," he said. "We don't work with any
insignificant choreographers." And so greatness continues to exalt itself, and us.
*Akim Volynsky: Ballet's Magic Kingdom, Selected Writings on Dance in Russia, 1911-1925, p. 232.
Translated, edited and with an introduction and notes by Stanley J. Rabinowitz.
New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2008.
The quote is from "The Ballet Master" chapter of Volynsky's 1925
The Book of Exaltations: The ABCs of Classical Dance.