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Flash Review 2, 11-13: Back to the Bay
Brilliant Dancing Transcends Bizarre Bolshoi 'Swan'

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2002 Aimee Ts’ao

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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