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Flash Review 1, 6-20: Transcendence Through Spectacle
Sure Bolshoi Corps Saves Meandering Grigorovich 'Swan'

By Julia Ward
Copyright 2002 Julia Ward

WASHINGTON -- If the choreographic muddle of Yuri Grigorovich's retooling of a retooling of a retooling of "Swan Lake" could have been saved by a single gesture, it might have been Prince Siegfried's point skyward from bended knee at the close of Act I. An economic movement, it was free of adornment or specific, mimetic meaning. His arm's upward extension was an abstract expression of longing -- thoroughly modern in its execution and effect.

A modernist's desire runs through the choreography, on view last week when the Bolshoi returned to the Kennedy Center. Less the narrative ballet of Petipa and Ivanov's era, Yuri Grigorovich's "Swan Lake" is a psychological play on Siegfried's reality and imagined desires. Little of Petipa and Ivanov's 1895 choreography remains in Grigorovich's interpretation, but the Russian government's desire to stabilize the Bolshoi by perpetuating a Communist Era, Cold War fantasy for audiences does.

Last week's performances at the Kennedy Center marked the first Washington appearance for the Bolshoi since Russian president Vladimir Putin reasserted the government's authority over the company by ousting Bolshoi director Vladimir Vasiliev (whose own "Swan Lake" was derided for its elimination of Odile and the creation of a father-son rivalry for Odette's affections) and placing the company under the Ministry of Culture's direct control. While the Bolshoi had never been independent of the government, it had been granted a substantial degree of autonomy following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Through Vasiliev's departure and the appointment of Anatoly Iksanov as the Bolshoi's executive director in August 2000, Putin had hoped to instill an administrative accountability into the fiscally mismanaged company and reestablish the Bolshoi's mainstream appeal and reputation for being the greatest purveyor of grand scale, narrative ballet in the world -- the competing Kirov not withstanding. More than one commentator noted the deep irony of this return to the essentially Soviet system of strict governmental control over culture.

Grigorovich is forced to play between a marketable, government-driven narrative version of "Swan Lake" and his own contemporary impulse towards an abstraction that manifests itself by basing the story's action entirely in the psyche of Prince Siegfried. Grigorovich ultimately fails to come down on either side with a convincing interpretation of his own. Despite the muddy artistic (and political) agendas pulling at the ballet, the production is well served by a handful of wonderful performances, well-executed sets, and a breathtaking corps. The company's stylistic coherence in the face of such organization turmoil, alone, made the evening worthwhile.

Burnished gold drops, that appear appropriately sepia-toned, set the stage for Siegfried's real world of the court. Black and blue drops represent the realm of Siegfried's imagined ideal. They are spare but rich in their suggestive power; designer Simon Virsalasdze deserves recognition for making the shifts between Siegfried's interior and exterior worlds possible. Unfortunately, the Kennedy Center stage pales in comparison to the size of the Bolshoi Theatre's. The color saturation provided by the backdrops, while creating a compelling jewel box tableau out of the proscenium theater, visually hemmed in the dancers, who already seemed to be holding back because of the performing space's size.

Fortunately, Siegfried's dilemma is this "Swan Lake"'s focal point, for the ballerina Anna Antonicheva was something of a disappointment in the lead roles. Gorgeous, high extensions and expressive, featherweight arms could not compensate for a lack of emotion. No risk was taken and little poetry conveyed. Dancers Maria Allash, Olga Suvorova, Maria Aleksandrova, Nina Kaptosa, and Mariana Ryzhkina proved to be superior performers as the Second Act's brides-to-be.

Andrei Uvarov portrayed Siegfried with gravity and nobility. A powerful dancer with an emotive countenance, Uvarov took particular advantage of each act's closing, striking simple and pained poses that gave the evening whatever pathos can still generated by this familiar ballet. His massive jumps and physical heft lent him a figurative weight that has the potential to be read as an unattractive excess of reserve in another role, but it served him well as Siegfried.

Morihiro Ivata as The Fool and the indomitable Corps provided the evening's remaining poetic moments. Ivata brought the evening's menace and flash through his whirlwind turns and energetic, sharp jetes. Ivata was the only performer not held back by the stage's dimensions. The final proof that great dance can overcome the rise and falls of governments, management problems, and a succession of personalities in leadership as different from one another as a socialist revolutionary and a capitalist entrepreneur is the unchanging Ivanov choreography for "Swan Lake"'s corps de ballet. Danced exquisitely by the Bolshoi, it personified everything President Putin is hoping his strategic management maneuvers keep alive -- transcendence through spectacle, all wrapped up in one nation's identity.

Julia Ward is a writer and arts administrator based in Washington, DC. She is the editor of Washington Performing Arts Society's Insights, a annual publication dedicated to contemporary dance.

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