The Magazine

The Bolshoi's Back

And updating some of its greatest hits.

Sep 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 02 • By PIA CATTON
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THE BOLSHOI BALLET'S RECENT TWO-week engagement at New York's Metropolitan Opera House was like a marvelous party. There were good stories, feisty politics, funny jokes (albeit, ballet jokes), and lots of dancing. Oh, and there was an orgy--a proper Roman one, with satyrs and red-haired courtesans. More on that later.

About halfway through this good time, I ran into a senior critic, who described America's reaction to this company when it toured the 1960s. Busloads of fans would follow it around the country, she reflected. In New York, the appeal was so broad that people who never went to the ballet (men) were captivated. Well, as good as the old days were, the current days are intoxicating. This time around, the Bolshoi presented four lavish full-length ballets: "Spartacus," "The Bright Stream," "The Pharaoh's Daughter," and "Don Quixote." These are quite different from each other, but they are similar in sensibility: big, unapologetically traditional, and entertaining.

The most important, in terms of politics, is "The Bright Stream," a 1935 comic ballet set on a collective farm. Upon seeing the original production, Stalin banned this ballet and fired the choreographer Fyodor Lopukhov from his post as the director of the Bolshoi. Dmitri Shostakovich, who wrote the score, composed no more ballets. The author of the story ended up in the gulag.

Stalin's objections were said to be that the work did not accurately portray Soviet life. He was probably right: "The Bright Stream" makes a collective farm look like a blast. Think Three's Company at harvest-time.

The action begins when artists from Moscow visit a farm. Zina, the morale officer, realizes that she and the troupe's ballerina are childhood friends. She also realizes that her husband is smitten with the pretty dancer. Meanwhile, a pair of old dacha-dwellers join the festivities--and they, too, are flirting with members of the troupe. But those with roving eyes are quickly taught a lesson: Zina and her friends (including the ballerina) dress up as each other to trick and shame the would-be philanderers. After the disguises are revealed, there are laughs and a harvest party.

There is more acting and contemporary choreography than classical ballet here, which comes together nicely. The comedy unfolds clearly and with good timing. Nikolai Tsiskaridze, as the ballerina's partner, deserves special note. He disguises himself as the ballerina--and dances on point with surprising grace. The laughs are in the ballet jokes: Here he's a sad Wili from "Giselle," there he's a nymph from "La Sylphide." Though this ballet is already a gem, Tsiskaridze gave it even more sparkle.

Before this reconstruction, "The Bright Stream" had never been seen in the West. The choreographer of this production, who is also the Bolshoi's current artistic director, Alexei Ratmansky, labeled it a homage to those who suffered under Stalin. Which is only fitting.

Artistically, the most important ballet is "The Pharaoh's Daughter." It, too, had never been brought to these shores. Created in 1862, it was Marius Petipa's first hit, and its last performance (prior to this production) was in 1928. French choreographer Pierre Lacotte rebuilt it by way of limited documentation and a few elderly dancers who remembered key details, including a few minutes of Petipa's original choreography.

Lacotte should be crowned with laurels: "The Pharaoh's Daughter" is a no-holds-barred spectacle. The story concerns an English explorer who, in an opium-induced dream, imagines himself a muscle-bound Egyptian. He saves the daughter of the Pharaoh from a brutal fiance. It takes three acts and a whopping 400 costumes to get this couple from the pyramids, to the jungle, to the palace, to the Nile, then underwater and back to dry land, and then to the pyramids again.

Svetlana Zakharova danced the lead, Aspicia, with Tsiskaridze as her Ta-Hor (the dreaming Brit). Zakharova has limbs that seem to go on forever. She dances as much with her arms as with her reed-thin legs. Tsiskaridze, whose stocky build brought heft to the stage, made for a devoted partner. Very much in tune and in line with each other, they dazzled even more together than apart.

The one truly Soviet ballet in this mix is "Spartacus." Monumental, dramatic, and laced with anti-German overtones, it gives a man of the people a chance to fight his lascivious captor. Yury Klevtsov danced the lead role with meaty passion. Svetlana Lunkina, as his beloved Phrygia, was captivating, especially in her morose sorrow. As for that orgy, it's a pretty tame affair--especially as compared with a later scene. Crassus's girlfriend gets a bunch of shepherds drunk, then lures them over to the Roman side by doing a full-on pole dance against a staff. Don't bring the kids.