Arriving for a London summer season, the Bolshoi Ballet is overshadowed by appalling backstage dramas. The great Moscow company has been plagued by factions for years; in January, artistic director Sergei Filin was the victim of an acid attack, and is now fighting for his sight. One of the dancers, Pavel Dmitrichenko, has been charged with ordering the assault. In these grim circumstances, you might expect the dancers to look demoralised, or to come out fighting. In fact, they do neither. A law unto itself, the Bolshoi sails on.
In Swan Lake, the first ballet of the season, the corps of swans flood onto the stage, speedy and strong. Their footwork is quick, while their upper bodies are bold and assured. They’re hampered by Yuri Grigorovich’s sluggish production, while leading couple Svetlana Zakharova and Alexander Volchkov make a chilly pair of lovers.
Grigorovich rearranges the traditional story, choreography and even Tchaikovsky’s music. The wicked magician becomes the hero’s “Evil Genius”, haunting him throughout the ballet. In baffling scenes, Volchkov looks gloomy while Vladislav Lantratov, the Evil Genius, lurks or dashes through bravura steps. The storytelling is muddled and badly paced. The action is slowed down further by Russian applause customs: every dancer stops to take a bow.
Zakharova, one of the company’s leading ballerinas, is long-limbed, elegant and frosty. She has presence and strong technique, but doesn’t allow much character to affect her smooth, fluid steps. There’s little sign of the Swan Queen’s vulnerability or yearning for freedom. As Odile, the heroine’s wicked double, she adds glittering virtuosity to a distant persona.
As her prince, Volchkov dances and partners efficiently but lacks dash. In the ballroom scene, the emotional temperature actually drops when the main story resumes. The company performance had much more gusto.
There’s good news here: the Bolshoi’s up-and-coming dancers shine in supporting roles. Anastasia Stashkevich and Kristina Kretova are buoyant in the first act pas de trois. In the ballroom scene, the prince’s potential brides dance with expansive verve. Anna Tikhomirova shows off her flying jump as the Spanish Bride, while Maria Vinogradova has appealing phrasing as the Russian Bride. Denis Medvedev dances the Jester with warm bravura. Swans and cygnets are clear-cut and confident. Despite the production, despite everything, the Bolshoi shows plenty of hope for the future.
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