The Bolshoi is back: How the world's greatest dance company reinvented itself

The Bolshoi Ballet is back in the UK, bringing its dazzling young virtuosos and a clutch of ballets that mine the company's rich Soviet and pre-Soviet past. Zoë Anderson looks forward to a season of delights
Click to follow

The Bolshoi is back. The Moscow company is one of the biggest names in ballet: its name even means "big", covering both the company's vast home theatre and the huge, heroic dancing for which it is famous. This summer, the Bolshoi return to London for the first time since 2007. Anticipation is high, for the new productions and for a fresh sight of one of the world's leading companies. The last visit showed the Bolshoi in exuberant, confident form. Will this new season show the same gusto, the same dash and authority?

Three years can be a long time in ballet. The young dancers who were making a name for themselves are now established stars. One of the brightest is Ivan Vasiliev, who kicks off the season by dancing Spartacus. In 2007, he made an astonishing impression as a teenager. Now 21, he's still very young for the role of Spartacus, which demands great strength. He could also be a rejuvenating force for Yuri Grigorovich's war-horse of a ballet, a Soviet blockbuster that has looked tired in recent years.

It's an eye-catching tactic, presenting the boy wonder in a ballet that represents old Bolshoi history. Here, in one night, is what the company used to be, and where it's going. But dancing around the past has become characteristic of the new Bolshoi. This is a company finding a new sense of itself, and of its history.

Soviet-era ballet was a powerhouse. The Communist state made this a flagship art form, pouring in money, support and prestige. Ballet was chosen because of existing Russian expertise: theatres that had produced cornerstones of the ballet repertory, strong schooling. In the Czarist era, the Mariinsky theatre of St Petersburg had ruled the roost. Under Communism, the Moscow company found special favour: less Europeanised, more of the people.

When, in 1956, Bolshoi made its first visit to the West, audiences were bowled over by the strength and power of the dancing. The male dancing, in particular, was spectacular, with great leaps and breathtaking lifts. There was a ripple effect across the world of Western ballet, as other dancers and companies set themselves new standards.

Those were standards in technique and performance, more than in choreography. Ideological pressures came to limit artistic development, with ballets banned and gifted choreographers pushed out of favour. Still, the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky – then renamed the Kirov – could draw on a continent of talent for its dancers. This was a career that many aspired to.

Though lavishly supported, Soviet ballet began to stagnate. Dancers such as Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov defected in search of artistic freedom. The Bolshoi was dominated by the choreographer Yuri Grigorovich, who directed the company from 1964-1995. Alternatives to his heroic, bombastic style were squeezed out.

As the Soviet state crumbled, Russian ballet was no longer protected. With glasnost, perestroika and then capitalism, even big companies such as the Kirov – which now returned to its old, pre-Revolutionary name, the Mariinsky – and Bolshoi were vulnerable. Dancers left, no longer obliged to defect if they wanted lucrative foreign careers. The companies themselves found that big, international tours were more grueling and less well-received. For the Bolshoi, the depressing low was a fiasco of a visit to Las Vegas, dancing to an empty theatre as gamblers preferred the slot machines. The company has had a long way to climb back.

Besides the pressure of new economic and political realities, the company needed to find a new artistic direction. Even without a drastic change of political system, moving on from Grigorovich's 30-year reign would take some doing. The company found fresh impetus in Alexei Ratmansky, a young choreographer from outside the company.

In four years, from 2004-2008, Ratmansky reshaped the Bolshoi, bringing in new works, promoting new talent. There were plenty of controversies, including public criticism from established dancers, but he put the company back on top of the world. In 2008, Ratmansky left to concentrate on his international career as a choreographer, but he remains closely associated with the company. The company is currently directed by Yuri Burlaka, a specialist in reconstructing older works.

As director, Ratmansky rethought the repertory, keeping some of the Grigorovich productions – Spartacus is still a calling card – but finding plenty of different strengths for his new-look Bolshoi. Surprisingly, some of Ratmansky's biggest successes came from looking back to the past, to the Soviet and the pre-Soviet eras, but looking in a very different spirit.

That was clear from The Bright Stream, the 2003 ballet that won Ratmansky the job of director. A new production of a Shostakovich score, it was a sensational hit for the Bolshoi, immediately loved by audiences at home and abroad. The Bright Stream is a buoyant romantic comedy, set on a collective farm in the 1930s – a grim period of Russian history, with its Stalinist purges and forced collectivization. The original version, choreographed by Lopukhov, was banned in the 1930s, when Shostakovich fell out of favour with Stalin.

Ratmansky's new version acknowledges that troubled history: the frontcloth quotes damning original reviews from Soviet newspapers, arranged in period graphic style. The ballet that follows is a joyous romp, complete with toy tractors and a parade of giant vegetables. Ratmansky was able to look at his country's history, acknowledge its troubles, and sail on over them. It's a confidence that comes through in the Bolshoi's new identity. This has become a company that can dance around its own past, rather than forgetting or timidly clinging to it.

Bringing back Soviet-era ballets has become a fashion. Ratmansky went on to create The Bolt – to another Shostakovich score – and, more recently, The Flames of Paris, a French Revolutionary tale of popular revolt and spectacular steps. Other Russian companies have taken up the trend.

The Mikhailovsky Ballet of St Petersburg also visits London this month, bringing a brand-new production of the 1939 ballet Laurencia. Based on Lope de Vega's play Fuente Ovejuna, Laurencia tells the story of a peasant rebellion, an obviously appealing subject for a Soviet Russian company. Where Ratmansky made new choreography for old scores and stories, the Mikhailovsky has painstakingly reconstructed its Laurencia. The original dances, by the star dancer Vakhtang Chabukiani, mixed classical and folk material, creating virtuoso roles for men and women. The exuberance of early Soviet ballet is back in style.

It's not only Soviet works that have been re-examined. For the Bolshoi's London visit, the biggest new production is Coppélia. Based on a tale by E T A Hoffmann, this 19th-century classic has an encounter between a pair of young lovers and Dr Coppélius, an eccentric, creepy inventor of mechanical dolls. The second act, which takes place in Coppélius's workshop, is full of dancing automatons – including his Coppélia, the doll he hopes to bring to life.

Created in Paris in 1870, Coppélia has stayed in repertory ever since. Over time, ballets tend to change in performance. Dancers drop steps they don't like, substituting easier or more spectacular moves. Some versions try to stay true to the original sources; others get inventive. Sergei Vikharev's new production for the Bolshoi goes back – nearly to the ballet's roots. After its success in Paris, it was staged in Russia, and repeatedly restaged. Vikharev's production goes back to the hugely influential 1894 St Petersburg staging. Steps have been reconstructed from contemporary notations. The lavish scenery and costumes come from original designs.

Like the rediscovery of Soviet ballets, the new/old production is a recent fashion. Nineteenth-century productions could be the special-effects spectaculars of their day, stuffed with extravagant stage effects and sumptuous scenery. The lavishness of those productions has a new charm for modern audiences. In many cases, these are also classics of international repertory: it's fascinating to go back to the original sources.

There are two more new/old ballets in the Bolshoi's London season. Le Corsaire is a 19th-century melodrama, packed with shipwrecks, kidnappings and vision scenes. It's a mix of careful reconstruction and bright pastiche. Yuri Burlaka, the Bolshoi's current director, recreated original steps; Ratmansky filled in missing scenes with his own choreography. Burlaka has also reconstructed the Grand Pas from Paquita, a spectacular showcase for the company's ballerinas.

In going back to the roots of these older ballets, the Bolshoi is sidestepping its Soviet past. The Bright Stream had been lost, Laurencia hasn't been seen for decades – but Paquita, Coppélia and Le Corsaire are ballets that had survived in performance. Choosing to reconstruct them, the Bolshoi is rejecting the changes and alterations of Soviet producers, staking its faith in a more "authentic" view of these works.

It isn't an approach that always goes down well with Russian audiences. The Mariinsky, the other great Russian company, took a similar plunge into new/old production with its reconstruction of the original 1890 Sleeping Beauty. Toured around the world, the Mariinsky new/old Beauty was admired by audiences and critics, praised for its richer choreography. Back home, audiences pined for the simpler 1950s production they were used to. They didn't like the 1890 version's more elaborate patterns, its greater stress on mime and storytelling.

Perhaps they also pined for the confidence of the 1950s, a time when Soviet ballet was lavishly supported, sheltered from the outside world. The Mariinsky has quietly dropped its new/old production, returning to the skimpier Soviet text. It's had harsh reviews when the Mariinsky tours – as a Western critic, I don't see why St Petersburg fans love that creaking production, with its stagnant pacing and ugly designs – but it's still popular at home.

In this climate, the Bolshoi's eagerness to look again at Coppélia, at Paquita, is a sign of assurance. This is an adventurous way of looking back. Recently, we've seen that self-belief in the company's dancing, too. In 2007, Vasiliev caused a sensation in London, dancing Don Quixote with another young star, Natalia Osipova.

This virtuoso ballet is a long-standing Bolshoi hit. Don Q isn't subtle, being all oompah tunes and flashy steps, but danced with gusto it can be enormous fun. And gusto is a Bolshoi speciality. Generations of its great stars have made an impact in Don Quixote, from Maya Plisetskaya to Irek Mukhamedov. In 2007, it was clear that the Bolshoi had a new generation who could make this ballet sensational again.

Vasiliev whirled and span with dazzling abandon, flinging himself delightedly into the work's challenges. Osipova has witty timing to go with her superb technique, giving her heroine a flirtatious energy. They brought the house down.

Osipova and Vasiliev are both back this season, with new roles to play. Vasiliev is dancing Spartacus, which needs great strength and vast sincerity. He's also dancing Petrushka, playing the puppet hero of Fokine's fairground ballet, a role created for the famous Nijinsky. Both ballets are famously difficult, but for very different reasons. Where Spartacus has enormous jumps and one-handed, overhead lifts, Petrushka is almost a mime role. In a week, Vasiliev has to go from the heroic leader of a slave revolt to a puppet with a soul.

Osipova will also appear in Petrushka, playing the ballerina doll. On the same mixed bill, she dances the lead in Ratmansky's Russian Seasons. Danced to music by Leonid Desyatnikov, with folk echoes in music, steps and costumes, this work was actually made in America, for New York City Ballet. It's Russia remembered from abroad, now brought back to a Russian company. Once again, the Bolshoi reflects the Russian past, the Russian identity – but it does so by looking outwards.

Star turns: the best of the Bolshoi

Ivan Vasiliev

Ivan Vasiliev made his name as a high-flying virtuoso when he was still in his teens. Now 21, he's being heavily promoted this season. The lead role in Aram Khachaturian's 'Spartacus' will show off his jumps and turns, but will also test his partnering skills, while the title role in 'Petrushka' will show him as an actor. In the classical repertory, Vasiliev has a firecracker technique and a buoyant personality.

Natalia Osipova

Dark-haired and exuberant, with a brilliant grin, Natalia Osipova has become an international star. She has a high, bounding jump and terrifically strong footwork. Hopping on pointe, Osipova can sweep across the stage, building up triumphant momentum.

Maria Alexandrova

Maria Alexandrova is a tall, long-limbed dancer, with a grand flow of movement. She has fast, secure turns and a strong jump. Alexandrova is a forceful dancer, with a confident personality – at her best, she's regal, though she can look complacent.

Svetlana Zakharova

Svetlana Zakharova is one of the Bolshoi's most controversial dancers, though she still gets plenty of star roles. Tall, blonde and slender, with exaggeratedly high leg extensions, Zakharova has a glamorous but frosty stage presence.

The Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) 19 July to 8 August