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Flash Review 1, 7-20: Bravo Bolshoi!
More Lessons from the Russians

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2000 Alicia Mosier


The Bolshoi Ballet in the "Kingdom of the Shades" scene from "La Bayadere."
Photo courtesy Lincoln Center Festival

I could have watched them bow forever. At the end of every piece in the Bolshoi Ballet's mixed program at the New York State Theater last night, at the end of every variation, and in the standing ovation at the end of the evening, these dancers took such bows as I have never seen before -- it was absolutely clear in their faces and gestures how seriously they took the audience's applause, how much they had wanted and worked to earn it, and how much they were grateful to be honored for the way they themselves had tried to honor the ballets, their teachers, their tradition, and their art. The lesson the Bolshoi gave us last night in the art of ballet is one that will be unfolding in my mind for a long time -- and those bows were an essential part of the lesson.

The four ballets on the program were the "Appian Way" section of Yuri Grigorovich's Soviet-era blockbuster "Spartacus"; the Grand Pas de Deux from "Don Quixote"; the "Kingdom of the Shades" from "La Bayadere"; and George Balanchine's "Symphony in C." Next to two by Petipa and one by Balanchine, the Grigorovich piece looked terrifyingly dated. In this encomium to the anthropology of the USS -- er, Rome, all the women are strong, with ponytails, and all the men are trusty Neanderthals. There is an awful lot of snaggle-toothed, shaggy-haired acrobatic business in this piece; it reminded me of a sort of Russian "West Side Story," except that there was only one gang, and it was made up of cave men instead of juvenile delinquents. But "Appian Way" was included in this program, I suspect, to be a showcase for the Bolshoi men -- and that it was. They are spectacular. These men come launching out of the wings with an astonishing lightness and loft, punched up into the air, it seems, by some divine being that lives inside their sternums. Dmitri Belogolovtsev was appropriately melodramatic as Spartacus, and his very long and almost boyish body was an interesting complexifying agent in a role that is, almost by definition, a caricature. It was his excellent technique that allowed him what freedom he had in this part; this was only the first instance of that phenomenon.

Don Q can be a caricature, too (see Asimina Chremos's analysis of the trouble here in Flash Review 2, 6-10: The Bolshoi Lives), but last night in the Grand Pas, thanks to Nina Ananiashvili, it was nothing of the sort. So much has already been said in these pages about Ananiashvili, but it deserves to be repeated: she is an artist of the very finest caliber. What makes her so exceptional is the incredible control she has over her body at every moment -- when she does that little coupe, addressed to her partner (last night it was Andrei Uvarov, a dashing dancer who depends a bit too much on the "exciting" effect of snapping his head), she is doing it for a reason and not just because she knows it comes next. Her arabesque is just as full of intentionality, and so are her balances -- and the fact that she is able to come out of them by rolling ever so slowly down through her foot makes them even more suspenseful and delightful. In the quick passes in her first variation, Ananiashvili didn't give an inch; every single one went right up to the knee from a perfect fifth position.

But the point, in her dancing, is not technique -- the point is what technique enables her to do. For her, it is precisely that by which her individuality is revealed. Ananiashvili's dancing is really like great poetry: just as through the structure of the sonnet form Shakespeare and Donne made their different voices heard, so through the discipline of ballet technique her intelligence and spirit burst out. (She knows how to build excitement, too: the emotion comes through the medium of the steps; different steps give different emotions; the more the steps' momentum grows, the more the emotion is heightened.) The same was true of 21-year-old Maria Alexandrova, who in her Don Q variation took us to the very heart of grandeur with only her textbook leaps. Her grand jete is impeccably Russian -- the front leg goes up, then up just a little further, and it's that second push that gets you -- and it is a perfect synecdoche for the constant wonders this dancer presents.

I was disappointed by the "Kingdom of the Shades" for several reasons. First, the corps (whose finest hour this is meant to be) looked dishevelled and a bit too zombie-like even for ghostly bayaderes. There were general problems with turn-out, bent knees in arabesque, and unpointed feet that proved distracting even in the most riveting moments. That said, the corps could still, all forty or so of them together, do a plie and releve in fifth that brought tears to my eyes -- and how anyone can make the most ho-hum basic step in ballet do that is a mystery even the Bolshoi cannot explain. And there's the wonderful Russian trick of dancing a fraction of a beat behind the music -- that's part of what makes this piece so haunting. Second disappointment: the three soloists here were like the three bears' porridge -- the first, Natalia Malandina, looked and danced like she was about thirteen years old; the second, Nina Speranskaya, took the other end of the age and demeanor spectrum; only Maria Allash, in the third variation, showed she could connect the steps, and she did so very maturely. Third disappointment: Galina Stepanenko, a natural dynamo, as Nikiya, who by this point in the story is another one of Petipa's disembodied souls. Her dancing was unquestionably good (she has that perfect balance and that still, still bourree) but it seemed to me that, with her stiff arms and even stiffer jaw, she was miscast in such an ethereal part. Fourth disappointment: that we did not get to see even more of Nikolai Tsiskaridze, whose eloquent hands alone gave Solor all he needed to get my eternal devotion.

During the intermission everyone seemed very eager -- anxious is perhaps the better word -- to see what the Bolshoi would do with one of Balanchine's greatest masterpieces. The performance these dancers gave of "Symphony in C" would, I think, have delighted Mr. B no end. Bolshoi dancers are not built for speed, let alone the swivel-hip action that came so naturally to Balanchine's American dancers. But this ballet, created for the Paris Opera in 1947, knows no nationality: it is simply the classical dance, and of course, so much more than that. What the "more" is is just what the Bolshoi dancers demonstrated throughout the program: the absolutely window-like quality of perfectly objective dance -- you see right through to a reality that is larger and longer-lasting than even the greatest artist. But of course it is the greatness of the artists that enables them to pull back the curtains on that pure, clear pane of glass in the first place, determining themselves just what you will see.

What made the Bolshoi's performance of "Symphony in C" (staged by John Taras) so interestingly different from City Ballet's performances was precisely this control and objectivity. Edwin Denby, writing of City Ballet in 1952, said that in this ballet, "the company is not trying for an emotional suggestion; it seems to be trying for that much harder thing, a simple statement." That's what we saw last night. There was not a hint of irony or shrugged shoulders about this old-fashioned piece; it seems to me that, with their long tradition, Bolshoi dancers are much wiser than our own about the possibilities inherent in the simplest steps. Of course this ballet is entirely new-fashioned too, and although some dancers had trouble with the Balanchine pretzels and high-speed turnarounds, and although the arms were generally sluggish, they brought to the piece a fresh maturity that linked the coexisting dimensions -- old and new -- of the choreography. Svetlana Lunkina, one of the Bolshoi's rising stars, said in an interview in the Times that she wanted the company to show "the beauty, strength, and emotions of this ballet." Imagine: Balanchine with heart.

Lunkina, unfortunately, hurt her ankle yesterday and was unable to perform. (She is expected to be well enough to dance "Giselle" at the July 22 matinee and July 23 performance.) She was replaced by a wonderful corps member named Anastasia Goriacheva, whose delicacy and strength were perfect for the first movement; her partner Sergei Filin was extra-sharp and gallant. The second movement was all Ananiashvili. Watching her was like watching Balanchine's mind at work: the opening bourrees; the snatches of weird partnering in the midst of ultra-traditional structures; the whispering, message-sending gestures a la "Les Sylphides"; the hints of loose hips here and there; that strange, deeply honorific opening of the man's arms around the woman.... You could see Ananiashvili finding the precedents, finding the reasons, even finding the humor in these inventions. It was a revelatory performance. Maria Alexandrova brought a very modern spirit to the third movement -- with Tsiskaridze, she was noble and charming and straightforward, her personality singing out from every inch of her body. She absolutely stole the show. And Stepanenko, who got another shot in the fourth movement here, gave it her all and then some; this, I think, is what Balanchine meant by "going for it." The men kept shocking me with their fluidity and power; at the end, all lined up in beautiful black, they were just magnificent. The corps did very well here, too -- it was marvelous to see them in these quick, sharp formations after the long lines of "Bayadere." The finale of "Symphony in C" can hardly help but be exciting; last night it was simply spectacular. What we saw at the end was diamond-like: simple, majestic, and radiant. In the straightforward stuff of great technique, there was heart and soul all over that stage.

And so they took their bows, and there once more was the pride and humility of artists who know who they are. My Russian ballet teacher used to say that whenever someone, no matter how amateur, performs one of the great variations, all the ghosts of all the dancers who ever performed it are sitting up in the third ring, watching. In the Bolshoi you see that tradition, you see the coaching, the work, and the history, you see that to them their craft is a sacred thing. It makes for great spectacle, to be sure. It also makes for great art, the importance of which the Bolshoi will remind you never to underestimate.

The Bolshoi's mixed program repeats Thursday and Friday night.

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