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Perspective: With intermittent success, Bolshoi preens as it readies ‘Swan Lake’

MOSCOW — Placards for Van Cleef & Arpels decorate the main street of Russia’s capital, heralding the Bolshoi Ballet premiere of George Balanchine’s “Jewels,” with the best seats costing between 7,000 and 8,000 rubles ($233-$266). Expectation runs high.

This three-part company showpiece was called the first full-evening abstraction when New York City Ballet introduced it in 1967, and since that time some five dozen ensembles, foreign and domestic, have faced its challenges. Now it’s the Bolshoi’s turn.

Inspired by the radiance of gemstones and also — inevitably with Balanchine — profound musical issues, the ballet seems to evoke different periods in ballet history. “Emeralds,” danced to the music of Fauré, embodies the refinement of early French Romanticism. “Rubies,” to Stravinsky, captures the jazz-accented bravado of all-American neoclassicism. “Diamonds,” to Tchaikovsky, resurrects the grandeur of the imperial Russian ballet.

“Diamonds” should be a perfect fit for the Bolshoi dancers and even a metaphor for their antique theater, which recently reopened after a controversial $720-million renovation. This big fix attempted to repair seemingly everything, from disintegrating foundations to enormous cracks in the walls and ceiling, besides making room-by-room decorative restorations that replaced the hammer and sickle of the Soviet era with the new/old double-headed eagle.

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The company too has cracked and crumbled in recent years, with administrative instability and even sexual scandal taking its toll on an institution that was once the nation’s flagship ballet but has since yielded that status toSt. Petersburg’sMaryinsky (formerly Kirov) company. Might “Jewels” help restore Bolshoi primacy?

Perhaps, but it doesn’t. At the premiere, the company’s great international stars are conspicuously absent — and will be just as conspicuously absent from the Bolshoi “Swan Lake” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Thursday through June 10. (More on that subject shortly.) The physical production ranges from an evolving spray of stars at twilight for “Diamonds” to formalist backdrops for “Emeralds” and “Rubies” that suggest commercial boutique windows.

Worse, the dancing remains faceless, with ragged corps passages and assorted mistimings contributing to the impression of ruinous under-rehearsal. The lead couple in “Diamonds” cautiously works through its glorious duets as if trying to avoid mistakes. The central male in “Rubies” so carefully husbands his energy that he looks bottled up until the end. “Emeralds” fares best, marred chiefly by soloists trying to make an impression instead of bonding with the music. Even so, the men’s final pose of heart-sore yearning achieves a promising level of interpretive depth in an evening of glittering disappointments.

If “Jewels” at the Maryinsky represents a display of stratospheric achievement, it’s one more opportunity squandered at the Bolshoi.

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Exactly what “Jewels” needs can be found next door at the Bolshoi annex in coaching sessions for the company’s North American tour (Toronto and Ottawa in Canada as well asWashington, D.C., and Los Angeles). There, in intimate studios, stars past and present work meticulously with their protégés, one on one, leaving nothing to chance but at the same time helping each dancer make a distinctive contribution to familiar roles.

In one room, for example, world-class firebrand Nikolai Tsiskaridze (one of the original “Kings of Dance” in 2007) guides Anzhelina Vorontsova through the serene Dryad Queen solo from “Don Quixote.” In another, 79-year-old Nikolai Fadeyechev (who partnered the legendary ballerinas Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya in the 1950s) rehearses Ruslan Skvortsov in bravura solos from “Coppélia” and “Swan Lake.”

The powerful, charismatic Skvortsov will dance Siegfried twice in the Music Center “Swan Lake” run, while the willowy Vorontsova is announced for several secondary roles (the Russian bride, the first-act pas de trois) throughout the engagement. In an hour’s time, they dance ceaselessly, harder and longer than in an actual performance. And even when physical control inevitably begins to falter, the coaches heighten their artistry by emphasizing niceties of placement and bearing. To an outsider, the refinement of Russian technique is always a pleasure, whatever the role. And it proves one of the saving graces in “Jewels.”

“We have a very good school, but a lot depends on the intellect of the dancers,” Tsiskaridze comments, speaking through a translator while sitting in a Georgian restaurant eating khachapuri (cheese pie), which he says was one of Balanchine’s favorite dishes.

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Looking casually dapper in a white Prada T-shirt, Tsiskaridze is outspoken about problems with the Bolshoi renovation: “The greatest tragedy is the change in acoustics. It can only be called a crime.” But he reserves his greatest scorn for the company’s artistic policies. “The administration doesn’t want any stars,” he says. “They want people who can be substituted for anyone else and nobody will notice the difference. To them, it doesn’t matter who dances because the house will always be full.”

That explains the “Swan Lake” casting in Los Angeles, he says, and the opening-night principals in “Jewels.” “They are what the administration calls stars. But they cannot represent the true brand of the Bolshoi Theater.”

As expected, Sergei Filin disagrees. The current Bolshoi Ballet artistic director (and former leading dancer) said in a written response to interview questions that he was “very happy” with the premiere of “Jewels” and satisfied that “our dancers could perform Balanchine’s choreography at a very high level and could discover new sparkling facets in their talent.” He also said that there was no point in talking about his casting policies and that “many international stars from the Bolshoi” were cast in “Jewels” and in the Los Angeles performances of “Swan Lake.”

Adapted and choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich for the Bolshoi in 1969 (two years after “Jewels”), that “Swan Lake” originally had a tragic ending. “However, it happened just before the Bolshoi tour to London, and the government asked him to change it,” Filin says. “He could come back to his original concept with a sad ending only in 2001. … In this production the Prince remains alone and his ideal love is destroyed by his betrayal.”

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Whatever the ending, this “Swan Lake” lies dead center in the Bolshoi’s comfort zone, and generations of coaches have honed every detail in it. So it’s almost certain to offer a more positive picture of the company’s current prowess than Balanchine’s balletic troika. Filin sees “Swan Lake” in terms of “internal conflicts between ideal love, reality and the imperfections of human nature.” Those internal conflicts and imperfections are very, very evident in the reality of the Bolshoi Ballet 2012. But there’s still plenty of hope for ideal love.

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Segal, formerly The Times’ staff dance critic, is a freelance arts writer. His critical essay on Nikolai Tsiskaridze appears in Nina Alovert’s study of the dancer, published in Moscow in 2010.


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