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The Return of Grandeur

By Joel Lobenthal and Nina Alovert


When Moscow's 200-year-old Bolshoi Ballet first began visiting the West in the 1950s, it thrilled audiences with its unabashed bravado and abandon. Today’s troupe retains the bigness and boldness, but its performing profile has evolved intriguingly. The Bolshoi men’s style, which was sometimes vigorous to the point of athletic near-brutality up through the 1960s, has become more refined. Indeed, as will likely be visible when the Bolshoi returns to the United States this June (“Where They’ll Dance,” page 34), among its current roster of principal dancers are some of the most meticulous classical stylists in the world.  

 

The Bolshoi’s first visit here since 2007 comes at a time of ascendancy as well as anxiety. That’s in part because of Russia’s once booming oil revenues, which have been reduced amid a contracting world economy. Recently, a Bolshoi tour to Mexico and a new production of Verdi’s opera Othello were cancelled. Anatoly Iksanov, the theater’s general director, told a Moscow newspaper that budget cuts are inevitable. And the renovation of the theater and school that was scheduled to be completed this year may stretch into 2011 (for technical reasons). Neverthe­less, the Bolshoi remains an enormous troupe of 220 dancers, as well it should be, given that its name translates as “big”—a big troupe, and a great one.

 

In recent years, the company has brought in guest teachers and coaches, such as Violette Verdy, Suki Schorer from the Balanchine Trust, and Ghislaine Thesmar and Michel Denard of the Paris Opéra Ballet, who have enhanced the dancers’ speed, attack, and petit allegro. And one of the strongest champions of internationalism has been choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who directed the Bolshoi from 2004 until 2008, before joining American Ballet Theatre as artist-in-residence. Ratmansky expanded the Bolshoi’s repertory with his own new ballets as well as international voices: The repertory now includes Wheeldon, Tharp, Neumeier, and Petit, as well as Bournonville, Petipa, Fokine, and Balanchine. 

 

One of Ratmansky’s last directorial projects was a new production of Le Corsaire, which the company will perform in Washington. Ratmansky worked on it together with a little-known choreographer named Yuri Burlaka, who ended up succeeding Ratmansky as artistic director.

 

So who is Burlaka, and where is he taking the company?

 

Like other accomplished Russian male dancers—Vladimir Malakhov, Yuri Possokhov, Gennadi Saveliev, and Nikolai Tsiskaridze—Burlaka studied with the Bolshoi’s great men’s teacher Pyotr Pestov. After graduation, he did not get into one of the large companies, but instead found his way to Vyacheslav Gordeyev’s Russian Ballet in Moscow. Eventually he took over the helm of that small troupe.

 

His interest is in old, classical ballet, and he reads Stepanov notation. He plans to keep 19th-century ballets and 20th-century Russian choreographers, like Grigorovich and Lavrovsky, and would also like to bring in work by choreographers in Europe, like John Neumeier and Nacho Duato.

 

He has recently overseen a new production of Coppélia, reconstructed by Sergei Vikharev, who has been responsible for the Maryinsky’s restorations of recent years. These reconstructions give us a gentler, less frenetic vision of ballet than the one developed later in the 20th century. Here, both pantomime and character dance have privileged places.

 

Completely different from these reconstructions is Yuri Grigorovich’s Swan Lake. Grigorovich, who directed the company from 1964 to 1995, brought to fruition its heroic brand of Soviet virtuosity. The Grigorovich aesthetic replaced character and pantomime with classical choreography. Here, the Act III ballroom dances are on pointe and full of great big, gusting jumps that epitomize the Bolshoi style.

 

In his La Bayadère, which the company will perform in Berkeley, he tried a different, more historical approach. Grigorovich attempted to reconstruct the earthquake finale, which had been cut from Russian productions after the Communist revolution.

 

Although he has focused on reconstructions, Burlaka says he is open to new choreographers. “We welcome any new choreographer who would make work specifically for us.” And, of course, the door always remains open for Ratmansky. “We’ll wait for when Alexei is ready to do something for us. We would change our whole schedule to do it.”

 

Burlaka will proceed with Ratmansky’s idea to commission the edgy French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj to make a piece next season; the plan is to mix 12 of Preljocaj’s dancers with 12 Bolshoi artists onstage. And Burlaka plans to revive the much-recycled Esmeralda, which would have made the late Clive Barnes happy (“Bring on Esmeralda,” he intoned in “Attitudes,” Sept. 2004).


Chapel Hill will see the company’s Swan Lake as well as Don Quixote, a surefire hit wherever the company goes. Created by Petipa for the Bolshoi in 1869, the current production encompasses later revisions by Gorsky and, most recently, Alexei Fadeyechev. It has charm and passion as well as humor, and just as much coherence as needed.

 

Many of the company’s brightest stars will appear on the tour. Among them is classicist Svetlana Zakharova, whose body and feet are considered by many to be works of art in themselves. Maria Alexandrova is a combustible mix of flamboyance and precision. Natalia Osipova, who is also slated to guest with American Ballet Theatre this season, is gifted with a sensational jump  (see cover story, Sept. 2008). And then there is the young firebrand Ivan Vasiliev.

 

But beyond individual dancers, the Bolshoi’s visit to the U. S. is above all an opportunity to experience the majestic ensemble of one of the world’s great ballet companies.

 

 

Joel Lobenthal is assistant editor of Ballet Review. Nina Alovert is a photographer and writer with Dance Magazine, Ballet Review, and Russian Bazaar. Among her books are Baryshnikov in Russia and Vladimir Malakov.

 

Photo: courtesy CalPerformances

 

 

The Next Great Vasiliev

Among the dancers on board for this tour will be Ivan Vasiliev, who is something of a throwback to the old days of spectacularly heroic Bolshoi men. He stopped the show at last year’s Youth American Grand Prix gala in New York, and he wowed Kennedy Center audiences as Basilio in the Bolshoi’s Don Quixote in 2007. At 21, Vasiliev is younger and less polished than most of the Bolshoi’s current stars. But his gasp-inducing jumps and turns do not eclipse his sense of artistry.

 

Vasiliev did not come up through the Bolshoi School. He studied at the State Choreographic School in Dnepropetrovsk (Ukraine) and finished training in Minsk, Belarus, at the State Choreographic College. He won the Moscow ballet competition in 2005, earned the Grand Prix in Varna in 2006, and was named a Dance Magazine “25 to Watch” in 2007. He joined the Bolshoi in 2006 under the direction of Alexei Ratmansky.

 

Although Vasiliev dazzles as Basilio in Don Quixote, Grigorovich’s Spartacus has provided his favorite role to date. Vasiliev prepared for a whole year for dancing the hero of a slave uprising in Roman times. “Technically it’s difficult,” he says, “but I would like to show that Spartacus also has a strong spirituality. I bring everything I feel to this role.” In last year’s debut, he was so successful that Vladimir Vasiliev, the great dancer who originated the role (no relation to Ivan), came to the stage and embraced him.

 

Vasiliev appreciates the personal attention he’s gotten from Ratmansky. “Alexei is a very emotional and creative person. If I wanted to dance a particular role, and he believed I could do it, he would give me a chance—even if everybody around said no. He used to say, ‘If everything will be good and you will be successful, we will be happy. If not, we will cry and go ahead anyway.’” He also felt Ratmansky struck he right balance between classical and contemporary.

 

With the new director, Burlaka, Vasiliev has a wait-and-see attitude. “I love classical ballet, but there must be a balance. The Bolshoi should not live only in the past. Life is continuous and ballet is continuous. We have to move ahead, or else the Bolshoi will become like a big trunk in the attic.”

 

Of course, if the ballets do occasionally get musty, it’s up to dancers like Vasiliev to bring vivid and heart-pounding life to them. —N.A. and J.L.

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