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Review 2, 11-13: Back to the Bay
Brilliant Dancing Transcends Bizarre Bolshoi 'Swan'
By Aimee Tsao
Copyright 2002 Aimee Tsao
BERKELEY -- The Bolshoi
Ballet returned to the Bay Area last week for the first time since
1987 for a six-performance run of "Swan Lake," presented by Cal
Performances at Zellerbach Hall. 15 years ago in San Francisco's
War Memorial Opera House, I saw Nina Ananiashvili and Andris Liepa
in Coralli/Perrot's "Giselle" and the first act of Lavrovksy's "Romeo
and Juliet," Natalya Bessmertnova in the Waltz from Fokine's "Chopiniana,"
and Irek Mukhamedev in the "Don Quixote" pas de deux (Petipa) with
Lyudmila Semenyaka, not to mention many more amazing dancers whose
names are not widely recognized in the West. This time I was somewhat
disappointed by the choice of Grigorovich's version of Petipa/Ivanov's
"Swan Lake," as the Russians have so much more to offer in their
repertoire, and the company had brought "La Bayadere" as well as
"The Nutcracker" on this tour. But not to quibble, at least the
Bolshoi was dancing here again.
I believe in putting
my biases up front so no one can accuse me of trying to hide them.
When it comes to ballet, for me, that means the Russians. I can
still remember at age ten seeing the film of the Bolshoi Ballet
in "Romeo and Juliet," starring Yuri Zhdanov and Galina Ulanova
in the leading roles. In 1967 I saw Nureyev on tour with the Royal
Ballet, but my first live encounter with more than one Russian wasn't
until a year later when the Bolshoi appeared at the Metropolitan
Opera House in New York the spring of 1968. Seeing Maya Plisetskaya
in Fokine's "The Dying Swan" and Act II of "Swan Lake" were the
defining moments. Plisetskaya became my ideal, the perfect balance
of artistry and technique. Later, after studying Vaganova technique
with half a dozen teachers over the years, Russian training and
dancers became the yardstick against which I measured others. Yes,
there are other brilliant dancers and teachers, but they appear
sporadically, and are not part of a larger centuries old system
of training dancers and maintaining a company that preserves the
classical repertory at a consistently elevated level. Even while
worrying that the break-up of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic
difficulties had affected the company's ability to continue in its
traditions, my expectations were pretty high for these performances.
Opening night starts with a quick trip backstage with my current
teacher, Svetlana Afanasieva, to see her friends, once dancers with
the company and now teachers and coaches. (Afanasieva graduated
from the Bolshoi school, danced with the Moiseyev company and then
with the ballet at the Stanislavsky Theater in Moscow before returning
to teach at her alma mater.) This brief time, watching dancers wander
around in make-up and warm-up clothes, or half a costume, whets
my appetite for the coming performance and also makes me feel closer
to them, seeing their human side.
Fortunately, there is
live music, members of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra under the
baton of the Bolshoi conductor Alexander Sotnikov. I hold my breath
as the overture begins, but as it becomes clear that the playing
is precise, I relax and allow myself to enter another world. And
now unfortunately, that other world is not quite what I had envisioned.
Ultimately, Grigorovich's abstraction of this fairy tale makes it
more difficult to develop the characters, as there is no clearly
defined plot of actual human actions and reactions to shape the
interpretations. If all the important interplay is merely in the
Prince's mind, how can one define each role's motivations? (For
more on Grigorovich's "Swan Lake" conception, see Julia Ward's previous
review.) But never mind, I concentrate on what really
matters, the dancing.
With the entrance of
Andrey Uvarov as Prince Siegfried, the Zellerbach stage grows even
more cramped. Uvarov stands an entire head above everyone else and
it's obvious that he doesn't have enough room to move comfortably.
Yet his commanding elegance, floating jumps, and exquisite arching
lines (particularly in reverse) make me forget to wonder how he
would look on the expanse of the Bolshoi Theatre stage. In sharp
contrast, Morihiro Ivata as the Fool, an entire head shorter than
everyone else, fills the air with his startling elevation, clarity
and demonically swift turns. He is not merely a laughing and joking
entertainer, but colors his role with a glimpse into a darker side,
showing an cunning trickster. He constantly mixes with the crowd,
talks to everyone and reacts to whatever is happening.
The third night of the
run I see Nikolay Tsiskaridze as the Prince and Denis Medvedev as
the Fool, and I miss the extreme contrast of heights, as both are
almost the same size, but temperamentally very different from the
first cast. Tsiskaridze is more the petulant, sulky late adolescent,
wrapped up in his own problems. Though his lines were beautiful
and his jumps crystal clear, he hopped the majority of his pirouettes.
Medvedev is lighter and happier than Ivata, though lacking the latter's
complexity and depth. His jumps and turns were excellent, yet again
without Ivata's edge.
In the pas de trois,
Maria Alexandrova is fabulous, very musical and utterly charming.
As the other Prince's friend, Maria Allash is a bit tentative, but
two nights later seems to have overcome any problems and redeems
herself with a radiant rendition. For the first time in many years,
I realize that a corps de ballet is dancing so perfectly, in total
synchronization musically and stylistically while expressing their
pleasure in moving, that I am actually swept away by their momentum;
it's as if I'm giddy from waltzing around the stage with them.
In this version, instead
of Von Rothbart, we have the Evil Genius who is either a shadowy
force who reveals dark secrets to the Prince, or is another aspect
of the Prince's personality, an alter ego. In this part, Dmitry
Belogolovtsev is the main reason this story has any impact. The
strength of his characterization shows in every detail of his body
language. From the power of his jumps to the intensity of his gaze,
from the sinewy arch of his back to the peculiar gestures of his
hands, Belogolovtsev is a study in total commitment to every aspect
of a role.
The casting of Odette-Odile
is always difficult as there are few ballerinas who can play both
white and black swan equally well. Usually they are more suited
to one and manage to get through the other. Both casts I saw proved
the point, with Nadezhda Gracheva excelling as Odette and Galina
Stepanenko as Odile. Gracheva, with her beautiful, tragic face,
is more swan than woman, her supple back and fluid arms creating
the necessary illusion of being part bird. She successfully conveyed
her initial fear of Siegfried, gradually warming to him, but never
arriving at being a woman in love as Stepanenko so ardently does.
Stepanenko dances more in the old Soviet style, showing sturdy technique
and emotion from the heart without the refinement that marks Gracheva's
interpretation. Gracheva appears more womanly in the ballroom scene
than she does by the lake, more alluring without being evil. I sense
from the moment she begins her solo that she isn't an unflappable
turner, and anticipate that she won't pull off the best 32 fouettes.
Indeed, she almost falls off pointe attempting three singles and
a double fouette before quickly regaining her balance to complete
the sequence with singles.
Stepanenko is a whirlwind,
whipping out a single fouette, followed by a single tour a la second
(leg extended to the side), pulling in for a double, all repeated
four times, then finishing off with sixteen very fast singles. As
the audience cheers wildly at this bravura display, Tsiskaridze
finds even more to sulk about; not only is he about to betray Odette,
but now he is competing with a very confident Stepanenko. In a rather
baffling move during the curtain call, he flings his bouquet of
yellow orchids at her feet and retreats to the back line with the
corps de ballet while she takes her bows with Belogolovtsev and
Sotnikov, the conductor. They do come out together in front of the
curtain, so it's not apparent what has really happened. (Perhaps
it's all in the Prince's mind.)
The soloists dancing
the Brides-to-be deserve special mention: the stately Maria Allash
in Hungarian, a joyous Svetlana Uvarova as the Russian, Anastasszia
Yatsenko as a very spirited Neapolitan, Marianna Ryzhkina glowing
as Polish, and Maria Alexandrova standing out as a scintillating
Spanish senorita. Hopefully, some of these very talented dancers
will be back in principal roles in the future.
Despite a little disappointment
in some of the leading dancers, I am still in awe of the corps de
ballet and the soloists, whose every gestures so remarkably resonate
together. How rare to see a stage filled with bodies moving as if
to the same heartbeat, responding so similarly to the music!
Aimee Ts'ao, a dancer,
teacher, and writer, is the Dance Insider's West Cost Editor and
Senior Ballet Writer.
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