DANCE / A bumpy ride on the suite trolley: Louise Levene on triple bills from the Royal Ballet at the Opera House and the Bolshoi at the Albert Hall

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RUMOUR has it that Irek Mukhamedov smuggled 20 old Bolshoi chums into a rehearsal for the Royal Ballet's triple bill. They must have emerged profoundly depressed. While the Bolshoi blackens the name of the mixed bill, the Royal Ballet is proving that three well-chosen masterpieces can make great theatre.

The god Apollo was danced by the Dance Theatre of Harlem's Eddie J Shellman with leisurely divinity. His sculpted physique and commanding stage presence contrasted thrillingly with Darcey Bussell's cooler English manner. Balanchine's Apollo and Symphony in C sandwiched MacMillan's The Judas Tree, which starred Irek Mukhamedov as the surly misogynist in oil-stained jeans who leads a gang rape on a predatory and half-naked Viviana Durante. Her complicity is presented with a disturbing lack of analysis, but nothing can detract from the inventive choreography or the riveting performances it inspires. This cast appears again on 28 January. Be there.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, the Bolshoi was riding the wave of adverse criticism with a succession of ballet snacks. Grigorovich's 'suites' have been justly spat out by the critics; his epic ballets simply do not make sense in 45-minute chunks. Why is Ivan the Terrible dancing with his wife's corpse? Why is the Queen in The Legend of Love being so nasty? If you didn't know the story, Maria Bylova's agonised solo for her lost beauty and unrequited love would seem a histrionic floorshow by a jealous bitch. The young lovers were danced by Elina Palshina and Yuri Klevtsov in a sequence of Grigorovich's athletic pas de deux that, like much of his pairwork, had nothing to do with courtship or sexual embrace and everything to do with unlikely ways of displaying the female form. Maria Bylova and Gedeminas Taranda (who will clearly be spending the season in a permanent typecast fury) were more successful, perhaps because the choreographer is on firmer ground with the uglier passions of jealousy and hate. Fortunately, the spectacular ensembles retained their dynamics; at times the crowd and the orchestra disappeared and one was alone with the choreographer and the Big Idea.

The triple bill was completed by snatches from The Nutcracker. In theory this ballet should cut neatly into bite-sized gala pas de deux. In practice it is a disaster. It is a toss- up which is the uglier: Virsaladze's grotesque costumes or Grigorovich's vulgar, awkward choreography. What are the corps de ballet wearing on their heads? They must be wigs (they've got partings and plaits) but they look more like gilded scabs encrusting the dancers' skulls. Just when you've managed to stop giggling at the Indian dance with its corny Karma Sutra poses and tiresomely unflexed feet and upturned palms, the French couple weigh in pulling a small sheep on wheels. Ashton might just have got away with this, but even he couldn't have carried off this moth-eaten specimen. One glance at this production would be enough to tell you that the company is in big financial trouble. The frightening part is that any money they make will probably only be enough to tart up existing productions, not mount new ones. Perhaps they'll buy a new sheep.

I saw Friday's Tchaikovsky triple bill from a second tier box, a view that cuts out the orchestra and gives a better sense of the geometry of the ensembles. The corps de ballet in Swan Lake Act 2 looked younger and more conscientious than the tough old birds that accompanied the Stars of the Bolshoi tour in 1990. But even on top form, the Bolshoi's swans earn backhanded bouquets like 'well- drilled' and 'disciplined'. It's as if you could hear the collective count under the breath. That isn't all you could hear; the indifferently sprung floor has played havoc with the Bolshoi's pussy- footed leaps. This, combined with hard Russian point shoes, means that the corps bourrees across the stage with the delicate purr of a passing tube train.

Saturday's matinee was a performance of Giselle, the only full- length work on offer and the only classic not seriously monkeyed about with by Grigorovich. This supernatural ballet is woefully unsuited to being presented without a curtain in a well-lit auditorium, but it was, on the whole, well danced. Inna Petrova, with her pretty face and light jump, was instantly endearing in the first act and the mad scene was powerfully presented. Petrova seems less sure in adagio and was therefore a little unsteady in the slow arabesque penchees and lingering developpes in Act 2.

The unlikely hit of Act 1 was Maria Bylova ludicrously miscast in the peasant pas de deux. What a metropolitan glamourpuss like Bylova would be doing in a Rhineland hamlet is anybody's guess, but her pantomime of girlish glee and a virtuoso display of technique milked a few cries of 'Brava' from a dry audience. The other big casting problem came in the large blond shape of Yuri Vasyuchenkowho, for all his strengths, is devoid of romantic charm. Not so the rest of the company, who seemed to relish the chance to act in a coherent drama rather than trudge through an emotional desert of suites.

Royal Opera House, London WC2 (071-240 1066); Royal Albert Hall (071-589 8212)

(Photograph omitted)

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