The Pharaoh's Daughter, Royal Opera House, London

Living the Egyptian dream
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The last ballet of the Bolshoi's London season, The Pharaoh's Daughter, sits firmly in the Cecil B DeMille tradition of entertainment. Between processions, it finds room for two lions, an ape, a (real) horse and a boat that glides briskly across the stage. The heroine sinks (on wires) to the bottom of the Nile, and an unlucky servant is executed by the bite of a glove-puppet cobra.

This spectacle isn't quite a 19th-century ballet. Pierre Lacotte has based the production on Petipa's1862 ballet - his first big Russian ballet, years before Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. Lacotte has made his own dances "in the spirit of" the 19th century, adjusting the plot and Cesare Pugni's rum-ti-tum score to fit.

Early on, Lord Wilson turns up in his pith helmet to sketch some ancient monuments. As a storm blows up, he and his guides are forced to take shelter inside a pyramid, where they smoke opium.

The rest of the ballet is Lord Wilson's dream sequence: he becomes Taor, an ancient Egyptian, and falls in love with Aspicia, the Pharaoh's daughter. Her father wants her to marry the King of Nubia (Andrei Melanin). Aspicia throws herself into the Nile to escape the king, which gives Petipa, and now Lacotte, the chance to stage an underwater divertissement. The Ruler of the Nile returns Aspicia to the surface, where all is explained and forgiven before Taor wakes up.

Our first sight of ballet-Egypt is a hunting scene: girls galloping in yellow tunics and tutus, bows in hand. Groups of dancers cross and re-cross the stage in diagonals, with fast, buoyant footwork. Lacotte started his reconstruction-cum-recreations with early 19th-century ballets, and he uses that vocabulary here. His Pharaoh's Daughter is full of the quick jumps and beaten steps of Romantic ballet, with showcases for the men as well as for the women.

As the ballet goes on, Lacotte does use later style: fouetté turns, overhead lifts, and kisses between principals.

The Bolshoi is known for big, dynamic dancing, but it plunges eagerly into Lacotte's quick little steps. There are dozens of solos, and some terrific solo dancing. As Lord Wilson/Taor, Sergei Filin has beautifully fast, light footwork, and he phrases crisply to the music. His Aspicia, Svetlana Zakharova, dances strongly but with less focus. She has a good technique and lovely proportions, but doesn't give dances dramatic or musical shape. She lacks resonance, and Lacotte's steps can't do the job for her.

19th-century ballet is sometimes very silly, but it can be powerful in the theatre. Compare The Pharaoh's Daughter to La Bayadère, another exotic melodrama, and Lacotte's pastiche looks very thin indeed. We rush through the dotty plot without coming to care for its characters, and the dance scenes don't give the ballet a distinctive character. Lacotte's choreography can be charming, but it is never magical.

His best scene is his underwater divertissement. The grotto set (also by Lacotte) is greenish-blue, the lighting is blueish-green, and the corps de ballet are grouped for a romantic vision. The solos for visiting rivers are the highlight of the evening - a Spanish number for the Guadalquivir, Russian for the Neva. I don't think the Congo had any particular national flavouring, but Ekaterina Shipulina's dancing was gorgeous: featherlight turning jumps, arched feet and soft, flowing movement. It's the most memorable moment in a lightweight evening. Lacotte's ballet is fun, but it doesn't stay in the mind.

Comments