August 13, 2007


Bolshoi Ballet

London Coliseum

August 13–14, 2007

Reviewed by Margaret Willis


Christopher Wheeldon has become the first British choreographer to create for the Bolshoi Ballet. But it has been no easy task. His original condensed narrative on Hamlet was scrapped last December after several false starts due to challenges in getting the dancers and their coaches to accept his style of working and technical demands. After a Christmas break, he returned with new vision, distilling the Shakespearean tragedy into an abstract, atmospheric, medieval ballet called Misericordes. But “distillation” is not something that the fiery Bolshoi with all its traditions does or comprehends.      They love meaty drama and defined characters—as do their expectant audiences both in Moscow and in London.

    However, with the dedicated and powerful dancing by the cast, the “new” ballet looked visually beautiful, even if the scenario remained perplexing. Now renamed Elsinore, Wheeldon uses four couples with a central brooding figure, presumably Hamlet, danced by Dmitri Gudanov. With his haunting, emotionless face and shock of blond hair Gudanov reveals his inner turmoil in skyward arm thrusts and flying leaps. At times he skulks around the back pillars spying on the others. In the dark and shadowy set, Wheeldon gives his couples emotions rather than characters to convey—Maria Alexandrova in red (is she Gertrude?), always graceful and musical, slashes the air with her long limbs, dragged along on pointe by Yegor Khromushin, in moments of anguish and submission, while Svetlana Lunkina (presumably Ophelia) entangles herself in passionate outpourings of love, weaving her movements seamlessly together. As to whom the other two couples represent remains a mystery, but they graphically convey a sense of doom and violence.

    Wheeldon has allowed for Bolshoi strengths in big jumps and high extensions. But he also demands of his dancers, unnatural (for them) asymmetrical line and stillness at unexpected moments. His forte in this work is in the visually pleasing geometric patterning—making angular “cat’s cradle” poses with arms and legs—very effective here against the darkened background. Composer Arvo Pärt’s sonorous score hints at cold castle walls and dastardly deeds, harmonizing with the dark introspective mood ballet.

    This work was sandwiched in the middle of a triple bill. First was a super restaging of Asaf Messerer’s Class Concert by his nephew Mikhail Messerer. The exhilarating piece shows a dancer’s daily warm-up leading to the fabulous pyrotechnical leaps and individual talents of today’s company. The final work was Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room in which the company zipped enthusiastically around the stage in an aerobic work-out, wearing “convict” stripes and swapping pointe shoes for sneakers. Outstanding was Natalia Osipova who moved with grace and speed and fizzed like the best champagne.