Maria Alexandrova
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The Bolshoi Ballet in London

by Marc Haegeman
Summer 2001

Theatre Royal Drury Lane April-May, 2001

The engagement of the Bolshoi Ballet in London last Spring was awaited with as much curiosity as scepticism. Some were wondering what this most famous of Russian companies would resemble after the abrupt and drastic changes at its artistic and adminis-trative top in the second half of 2000. With the dis-missal of the people who masterminded the comeback of the Bolshoi in the late nineties, illustrated by successful major tours in the UK and the USA in 1999-2000, as well as by a definite artistic blossoming of the company, it seemed as if the key to further development and hope was deliberately thrown away.

Others were criticizing the way the Bolshoi Ballet was being presented on this London tour. As a direct consequence of the crisis of the Bolshoi management, the initial project of bringing both ballet and opera companies to Covent Garden for the summer was abandoned in favor of a new Kirov season, the Bolshoi's historical rival. However, a different promoter booked the Bolshoi Ballet after all for an engagement in "Stars Of -" style, a formula which in previous years has blemished the artistic credibility of this company more than anything else.

The prospect of having the two illustrious Russian companies almost back to back and bickering promoters incited the London press to a rather pointless comparison. With the musical-theatre Drury Lane as a performing venue for the Bolshoi against the classy Covent Garden for the Kirov, and with four weeks of classical lollipops, danced by a cut-down group of 45 against several full length ballets brought by the Petersburg company, the Bolshoi dancers were condemned by the majority of the critics even before the first steps had been made.

In all fairness, this was more than just a little rash. True, I too, would have preferred to see the full troupe of the Bolshoi Ballet as in 1999, bringing complete ballets instead of popular highlights. True again, even if the sightlines in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane are better than in the refurbished Royal Opera House, it is far from an ideal setting for this company. The dancers feel more comfortable on a bigger stage and Drury Lane would not have suited the large-scale Bolshoi productions in any way. The orchestra pit is shallow and too small to house the full orchestra, while the stage lighting was often unsubtle. And finally, presenting the same program nine or ten times in a row is not exactly the most attractive imaginable, either for the dancers nor for the audience. Yet, in spite of all that, what could not be denied was the quality of the dancing that was on display. And that's not such a bad start.

The Bolshoi gave three different programs, each with a complete act (Swan Lake Act 2 or Shades Act of La Bayadère) or Chopiniana followed by a divertissement, providing a fair pattern-card of the Russian classical repertoire. Not only familiar Petipa and Bournonville, but also many of the Russian and Soviet greats of the twentieth century, Fokine, Gorsky, Vainonen, Lavrovsky, Goleizovsky, and Grigorovich (of whom only adaptations of the classics could be seen). The ubiqui-tous Black Swan pas de deux was shown next to rarities like La Fille mal gardée pas de deux in Gorsky's version, or the pas de deux from Vainonen's Flames of Paris. Led by their new director, former principal Boris Akimov, fourteen principals and soloists were joined by twenty-eight female members of the corps de ballet, plus the Bolshoi Orchestra under veteran conductor Alexander Kopylov.

Having watched program two and three, five performances in all, I am delighted to report that the company looked in splendid form. The corps de ballet had nothing to reproach itself in Chopiniana and the Shades Act of La Bayadère, and the soloists, some of them quite young and new to London, were utterly interesting. The Bolshoi has always been effective in divertissement programs. The male dancers make as strong an impression as the ballerinas, the pas de deux work better than with many other companies.

Moreover, these artists possess an unerring ability to adapt to the different pieces and a rapport between partners is created in no time. Also, the Bolshoi dancers of today look less of a kind. While most of the Kirov leading ladies (at least those favored by the current management) are cast in pretty much the same, uniform mold, their Bolshoi colleagues present more variety in bodies, shapes and proportions.

What struck me most was the general respect for style and tradition, even with the youngest soloists. With the exception, perhaps, of Anna Antonicheva, whose extensions in La Bayadère seemed performed to call attention to the dancer, none of the Bolshoi ballerinas indulged in the now commonly seen extreme shapes and flashy gymnastics. Even easy targets like the Don Quixote or Le Corsaire pas de deux, as danced by young Maria Alexandrova, remained harmonious in pose and phrasing, emphasizing on placement of body and clarity of steps, with the excitement naturally growing out of the dynamics and the speed, rather than out of cheap effects.

Among the Bolshoi men, Sergei Filin and Andrei Uvarov are familiar faces. Now in their early thirties, both dancers have attained a degree of maturity, presence and authority which was evident by their manifold appearances during this season. Sergei Filin is a stylish and attractive danseur classique, especially good in Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet pas de deux, but also rewarding as Basilio in the Don Quixote pas de deux. Andrei Uvarov is for my money one of the best Russian dancers of this moment. His performances as Solor, as the Poet in Chopiniana, and as the Prince in the Black Swan and The Sleeping Beauty pas de deux, were simply in a class of their own. Tall but with the proper weight, a beautiful long line, soaring high jumps, smooth landings (his assemblés in Bayadère were a model, with every landing in perfect fifth position) and a gently aristocratic presence. Most impressive and every inch a danseur noble.

New for London were Yan Godovsky and Dmitri Gudanov, both promising demi-caractères. Gudanov hit the right note and was extremely convincing in Spectre de la Rose, enlivened by strong jumps and turns and a beautiful quality in the arms. Fleet-footed and catchy, Godovsky was excellent in La Fille mal gardée and even more so in the spirited Flames of Paris pas de deux. Slightly build yet virile, none of these men remind us of the heroic-superman image of the previous generations of Bolshoi male dancers. Neither does Gennady Yanin, who was brought in as a replacement for the indisposed Nikolai Tsiskaridze. Yanin, another short demi-caractère, gave a spirited performance in Goleizovsky's picturesque miniature Narcissus, created on Vladimir Vasiliev.

As for the ballerinas in this season, there was plenty to enjoy as well. Galina Stepanenko and Anna Antonicheva both danced Nikiya in the Shades Act of La Bayadère. I preferred Stepanenko, at least in this part of the ballet, cool, solid and understated, triumphing with ease over the choreography without ever going for cheap effects. Antonicheva is undoubtedly more lyrical (and would probably make a better Nikiya in the full-length ballet), yet her opening night performance was marred by wobbly turns and lack of concentration (or maybe it was just fatigue taking its toll). Stepanenko was also an imposing, seductive and fearless Black Swan.

One of the revelations of this season was undoubtedly Anastasia Goriacheva. Just over twenty, a sparkling, swift soubrette-type dancer, combining virtuosity with irresistible girlish charm (the young Ekaterina Maximova is not far away), Goriacheva was excellent in the Flower Festival of Genzano, but truly unforgettable in the dazzling Flames of Paris pas de deux. Well matched by Godovsky, it was nonetheless Goriacheva's fluent, effortless execution of the terre-à-terre passages and the brisk hops on pointe in the variation which every time brought the house down.

Another delightful and interesting soubrette, Nina Kaptsova could be seen to good effect in the La Fille mal gardée pas de deux. Quite a different type of dancer, but no less appealing, is Maria Alexandrova. She was one of the eye-catching newcomers in the previous Bolshoi tour. Magnificent in manner and grand in scale, bold in attack, mature in assurance, yet always stylish in appearance, Alexandrova's performances in the Corsaire and Don Quixote pas de deux with Filin provided a physical intensity and directness that I found quite captivating. Her ballon is pure delight. It's straight-forward bravura, but it's delivered with superb artistry. The Don Quixote pas de deux also enjoyed excellent dancing from Maria Allash and Olga Suvorova in the variations of Kitri's bridesmaids.

Svetlana Lunkina, the other resplendent discovery of the tour in 1999, praised and considered by former director Alexei Fadeyechev as "the hope of the com-pany," was cast in Romantic works like La Sylphide and Giselle pas de deux in the beginning of this season. I saw her as the leading ballerina in Chopiniana, gently evocative and beautiful in style and manner. However, as Dying Swan in the final program Lunkina was miscast. Lacking the flow of the movement and all the poetry that goes with it, the work completely eluded her. It was one of the very few regrettable moments of this otherwise thoroughly enjoyable season.

The main thing to remember from this Drury Lane stint is that in spite of the recent upheaval the Bolshoi Ballet retains its qualities noticed in 1999. The level of the ensemble hasn't been going downhill and Boris Akimov seems to keep his company on its toes. The theatre was in the performances I attended (especially the matinees) embarrassingly empty, yet those present were thrilled and loudly voiced their appreciation. One hopes that next time the Bolshoi Ballet visits London (which, further calamities notwithstanding, should occur in the Summer of 2002, at Covent Garden), this great company is seen, treated and rewarded as it should.

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