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After Many a Summer

Wounded by scandal, the Bolshoi returns to America

Aug 11, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 45 • By SOPHIE FLACK
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This was the first time in nine years that the Bolshoi Ballet had performed in New York, and rather than bring any of Alexei Ratmansky’s contemporary ballets, which helped catapult the company into the 21st century—under Ratmansky’s direction, the Critics’ Circle named the Bolshoi “Best Foreign Company” in 2005 and 2007—they brought a Soviet-era production of Swan Lake, along with Don Quixote and Spartacus. But the opening night of Swan Lake, on July 15 at Lincoln Center, had a particular draw, for two reasons. 

Svetlana Zakharova as the Swan Queen

Svetlana Zakharova as the Swan Queen

First, the company has been lately riddled with scandal, including an acid attack in January 2013 that left the company’s director, Sergei Filin, battling for his sight. In the aftermath, the company has been reeling from speculation about casting politics and corruption. Second, David Hallberg, the first-ever American star to permanently join the Bolshoi, was cast as Prince Siegfried, and his performance felt like a homecoming. On opening night, the full house, including throngs of Russian balletomanes, was predisposed to love Yuri Grigorovich’s two-act version of Swan Lake, and the Bolshoi did not disappoint.

The original production of Swan Lake, choreographed by Julius Reisinger, was first performed in the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1877. It was a flop. But it was reworked several times, and this 1969 version, revised by Yuri Grigorovich in 2001, incorporates choreography from the Marius Petipa/Lev Ivanov 1895 version as well as elements of Alexander Gorsky’s 1911 adaptation. 

The libretto, based on German and Russian folklore, tells the story of Princess Odette, who is transformed into a swan by Rothbart (in this production, referred to as Evil Genius), and only true love can break the spell. On Prince Siegfried’s 21st birthday, his mother asks that he select a bride, but he isn’t interested in any of the prospects. He then finds himself in the forest, where he falls in love with the Swan Queen, Odette. 

In other productions, the character of Siegfried enters the forest with a hunting party, with bow and arrow drawn. In this staging, Siegfried wanders alone and bowless, suggesting a more isolated and brooding character. What feels unusual about Grigorovich’s libretto is that it is from the masculine perspective rather than Odette’s: Here, Siegfried and Odette dance a comparable amount, but that’s not the case in most productions of Swan Lake. And while Odette and her antithesis Odile are both danced by one ballerina, the masculine struggle between good and evil is divided between two dancers, Prince Siegfried and Rothbart (danced by Vladislav Lantratov). While in most productions Rothbart is more of a character role, here the choreography made it an extremely demanding, acrobatic role. Rothbart often chases Siegfried around the stage, mimicking his movements like a shadow. 

The Bolshoi Orchestra, conducted by Pavel Sorokin, was astonishingly precise and made Tchaikovsky’s score come alive in a way I had never heard before. The sets consisted of painted scrims and backdrops, appearing particularly dinky behind such grand dancers. (There was one awkwardly placed scrim that plopped down in the center of the action on numerous occasions, often in the middle of a musical phrase, and its appearance became almost comical. 

In most productions of Swan Lake, the emphasis is placed on the versatility and strength of the ballerina, but the corps de ballet also dances constantly and in multiple roles, often enduring many quick costume changes. A single corps dancer might dance in the court scene, or as part of the divertissement, then reappear as a white swan, and then go back to court—only to change again into a black swan. The Bolshoi corps de ballet was flawless in its placement: Each movement, no matter how small, was considered and given meaning. Their precise formations were enviably military and certainly put American companies to shame. Of course, the upper body is stylized differently than in Western ballet: The women lean forward slightly and look under their raised arms, and they cock their head when their arms are low. 

In the opening court scene, David Hallberg was convincing as royalty. It was a wonderful showcase for his virtuosic technique, his long, lean line, and his pure, clean movement. As he executed difficult jump sequences, his hips and sternum remained fixed, giving the audience a pleasing sense of calmness. Hallberg is a nuanced actor, and you could follow the story just by watching him from the neck up. His ease and humility might not arouse the kind of enthusiasm from the audience that a dancer with more bravura or charisma would, but he is more subtle and restrained than some of his Russian colleagues.

That said, without the energy of Igor Tsvirko, who brought genuine joy to the role of the Fool, Anna Tikhomirova (the only female dancer on stage with any real chutzpah) as the Spanish Bride, or the commanding presence of Vladislav Lantratov’s Rothbart, the production might have felt a little stiff. These dancers brought much-needed fire to the stage while the rest of the cast, though technically impeccable, bordered on grim at times. 

Svetlana Zakharova, a seasoned principal who rose through the ranks of the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov) before joining the Bolshoi, selected Hallberg to partner her in The Sleeping Beauty soon after his arrival in Moscow in 2011. The two are well-matched, and it’s easy to see why they are so frequently paired: Both Zakharova and Hallberg are virtuosic technicians with bulbous arches, ceiling-high extensions, and classical lines. But while Hallberg is naturally emotive and expressive, Zakharova sometimes comes off as cold. She may, however, be the most technically proficient dancer ever to grace the David H. Koch Theater stage, and technical mastery is an art form in itself. 

Zakharova’s Swan Queen is guarded, as if threatened by the presence of an intruder, and she conveyed this through her icy movement quality and tense body rather than by her acting chops. During the pas de deux, Siegfried gradually tames Odette, and as the dance progresses, she goes from folded limbs to exposed throat. She opens herself to him, and then literally falls backwards into his arms as if gaining his trust. At the conclusion of their first pas de deux, the ballerina beats her foot during the violin trills, possibly representing the beating of Odette’s heart. It is never clear if Odette actually loves Siegfried or is just desperate to break Rothbart’s spell and return to her human form.

While some ballerinas humanize Odette, others interpret the role as bird-like. In the first act, Zakharova appeared not as a bird, or a human, but as a dancer. She is, in fact, best watched from a distance, because it is her movements rather than her facial expressions that are thrilling. And surprisingly, it was not Zakharova’s transformation from the guarded Odette to the seductive prowess of Odile that was impressive; it was her range within the single role of Odette that made me fall for her as an artist. Her second-act Swan Queen showed the soft fragility the role is known for, and she brought more humanity to Odette than she did in the first act. Although she doesn’t have the softness of certain predecessors (Maya Plisetskaya, Galina Ulanova) that made them so emotionally accessible, the effect here was heartbreaking.

In this version, Siegfried’s mistake in swearing his love to Odile ultimately results in Odette’s death. This is different from Soviet-era productions, which had more optimistic conclusions. Here, the ending fell a little flat as Odette collapsed at Rothbart’s feet and that silly scrim made its final appearance while a forlorn Siegfried looked out to the audience, breaking the illusion of the fourth wall. It was “psychological” in tone, and the effect was a little anticlimactic. 

Still, the audience offered a standing ovation, and the company took several well-deserved curtain calls. And while the staging may have felt somewhat outdated, it seemed appropriate for the company that originated the most beloved ballet of all to trump all previous productions in virtuosic ability and technical prowess.

Sophie Flack, author of Bunheadshas contributed to the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and Ballet Review

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