Bolshoi’s ‘Lake’ is sometimes choppy, sometimes smooth

The Bolshoi Ballet's Semyon Chudin (Prince Siegfried) with the ensemble in "Swan Lake."
(Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles Times)

Moscow’s mighty Bolshoi Ballet, the brash and emotionally outsized one of Russia’stwo historic companies, inspired a déjà vu experience of bittersweet intensity with its return Thursday to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Onstage was Yuri Grigorovich’s “Swan Lake,” closing out this season’s Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center series (through Sunday). Grigorovich ruled the Bolshoi as director and chief choreographer for 30 long years, finally stepping down from the top position in 1995.

The nearly sold-out run and enthusiastic audience response reflects the continuing American attraction to this crowd-pleasing ballet and the Bolshoi, which hasn’t performed at the Music Center for more than a decade. It hasn’t, however, been a smooth trajectory for this infamously fractious troupe, and that too was reflected in the performance.

Former Bolshoi principal dancer Sergei Filin is now artistic director — the fifth in 17 years. Grigorovich’s exit mostly freed the colossus from a stale repertory, but not entirely. This “Swan Lake” (built atop a foundation from choreographers Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov and Alexander Gorsky) was updated 11 years ago, but it largely resembles the flawed version that was last seen here in 1990 at the Shrine Auditorium.

The ballet’s most bitter pills are its altered, nonsensical story and some rearrangement of Peter Tchaikovsky’s score. By stripping away mime and other narrative devices, Grigorovich left the dancers with little means for expressing big feelings, and the audience has little that binds it to the characters, besides admiring their physicality.

That latter characteristic is the Bolshoi’s sweet side, worthy still of acknowledgment and praise. The dancers’ athleticism is thrilling, as is the inspiring synchronization and elegant upper-body positioning of the whole cast, from the corps de ballet to principals. Watch the women become swans, and the diagonal rows of courtiers in the first act, and all was well.

All was less well with Thursday evening’s principal couple, Anna Nikulina as the enchanted swan queen Odette and her evil alter ego Odile, and Semyon Chudin as Prince Siegfried. They were several steps down from what is reasonable to expect from the Bolshoi; that is, star-caliber performers. It would have been unthinkable on previous American tours to cast a soloist like Nikulina as the swan queen. Not so, alas, on this trip.

The boyish Chudin possessed a youthful and humble charm that was appealing for this believably naive and inexperienced prince. His many solos — Siegfried performs in the Act 1 pas de trois — were executed cleanly, with precision. His flashing beats and arcing leaps were distinguished.

Nikulina too managed an arsenal of technical feats, but she failed to effectively muster them. Her swan-woman was effortful, lacking in stylistic cohesion and the beautiful line that makes this the seminal ballerina role. She shined more during Odile’s solos, when she had free rein to focus on her multiple whipped turns and high extensions — as though this were a competition.

Other soloists fared better, including the high-flying and persuasively evil Pavel Dmitrichenko as the Evil Genius (a.k.a. Rothbart). Cast as the Fool (a.k.a. Jester), Vyacheslav Lopatkin was a bright light, with his easy athleticism and sweet demeanor.

Anzhelina Vorontsova and Anna Tikhomirova joined Siegfried in the pas de trois, performing with fire and class. Tikhomirova failed to return onstage for the final threesome, but Vorontsova kept going, and she and Chudin covered for their colleague’s absence.

The night’s real heroes were not onstage, but in the pit. Conductor Pavel Klinichev and local musicians honored Tchaikovsky with a lush, often achingly beautiful rendition of the score. Klinichev kept the dancers on the beat and looking good, making sure they and the orchestra finished neatly together.

It’s a safe assumption that it’s thanks to the popularity of the film “Black Swan” that 2012 will be the year of “Swan Lake” in Southern California: Los Angeles Ballet earlier this year and now the Bolshoi. If you haven’t gotten your fill — and the hooting and hollering for the dancers suggests you haven’t — there’s always the Mariinsky Ballet in Orange County in October.