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Russian Evolution

A revamped Bolshoi Ballet makes its first New York appearance in years -- but is its new, streamlined look a change for the better?

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Star turn: The Bolshoi's Nina Ananiashvili in Giselle.  

Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet has just been in town -- at the New York State Theater for a week after ten years' absence. It's a new, modernized Bolshoi, led by Alexei Fadeyechev, who is overseen by Vladimir Vasiliev, director of the whole Bolshoi Theatre, both men distinguished dancers in their time. Alongside nineteenth-century masterworks -- Giselle to represent the Romantic era, the "Kingdom of the Shades" scene from La Bayadère to represent the Classical -- and an excerpt from Spartacus lest we forget the Soviet aesthetic, it danced Balanchine's Symphony in C. Banned for decades from Soviet ballet stages for its ostensible political incorrectness, Balanchine's dance for dance's own sweet sake, with its prodigious extension of the traditional classical vocabulary, poses a challenge the new Bolshoi responds to with mettle.

Staged by John Taras, the Bolshoi's rendition of Symphony in C was commendable. Yes, the dancers looked slightly behind the beat because the New York City Ballet typically anticipates it. Yes, they looked studied because, trained to emphasize the sculptural aspect of dancing, they can't be as wild and free as NYCB dancers, whom Balanchine urged to throw caution to the winds for the sake of fleetness and spontaneity. But as a group they were strong, clear, and unmannered -- committed, despite some evident residual puzzlement, to learning the unfamiliar language without imposing their prejudices on it.

The Giselle, Vasiliev's version, performed in a storybook-pretty set, is an uneasy amalgam of old and new. For instance: The mother's mime monologue, presaging the heroine's fate after death, is omitted, though it's a telling part of the original choreography, while the peasant pas de deux, a hallowed-by-time interpolation, is transformed into a simplistic exercise for four couples organized to show off how nicely they do the steps they learned in school. The acting is disappointingly tame -- the ballet is, among other things, a marvelous melodrama -- presumably held in check to give pure dancing every chance to shine. Pure dancing shone to far greater effect in the sublime "Kingdom of the Shades" scene, where no acting whatsoever is called for.

In accordance with the company's reconfigured ideals, the brawny, impassioned manner of moving with which the Bolshoi first wowed America in 1959 has completely given way to a cool, svelte, light-as-a-cloud style, with streamlined bodies, rather than feistily chunky ones, clearly the model. The company has decided to cultivate the ineffable. As if by edict, muscular effort is now concealed: Leaps float in space, turns are ball-bearing smooth, small jumps with beats appear to be incised on the air with etching tools. The ebb and flow of energy has been rendered invisible, and it is sorely missed, since it contributes to the rhythmic element at the heart of dancing. Sadder still, this suave idiom is being imposed uniformly; today's Bolshoi is a mythical kingdom that acknowledges only aristocrats -- no sturdy bourgeoisie, no earthy peasants, no one fascinating for the way in which he or she inflects or even contradicts the norm. The beauties of this sort of dancing are essentially inhuman. Once your initial admiration for the exquisiteness evaporates, you realize how overcontrolled this approach is, how asexual (attributes such as the extreme flexibility in the hip joint that makes for sky-high leg extensions having been cultivated in men and women alike), and how monotonal, physical and emotional excitement constantly being muted so that a superrefined harmony can prevail. Watch the new Bolshoi for any length of time and you have the eerie sensation that you've been damned to perfection.

Because of the uniformity imposed upon the dancers, however, the corps de ballet is especially satisfying. The women, softly synchronized, give an overall pearly glow to the Wilis' passages in Giselle and to the "Kingdom of the Shades," in which the ensemble is, collectively, equal in importance to the principals and soloists. The male contingent is terrific as the lusty warriors of Spartacus and in a brief passage in the finale of Symphony in C where they gather and jump, in unison, higher and more incisively than I've ever seen in my dozens of viewings of that piece over the years.

All but one of the performers featured in this engagement were unknown to the New York audience and are relatively young. Nikolai Tsiskaridze stood out among them, equaling his colleagues' elegance without consenting to becoming a cipher. As the exotic prince in "Kingdom of the Shades," a flesh-and-blood Albrecht in Giselle, and the engagingly devilish lead in the ebullient third movement of Symphony in C, he lets some individual temperament break through. The tall, flawlessly proportioned Dmitri Belogolovtsev is the most promising of the new faces. He's still quite raw, executing his wonders -- those leaps, for instance, which are both thistledown light and precisely chiseled -- with the air of a youthful prince or god who hasn't fully realized he's about to come into his kingdom. As for the women, the company seems to be placing its bets on the 20-year-old Svetlana Lunkina. Her technique -- showcased in Giselle -- is as highly cultivated as her mentors might wish, but she's not yet interesting as an artist.

The only great mature artist on the roster was Nina Ananiashvili, an international star familiar to the local audience through her regular guest stints with American Ballet Theatre. Reabsorbed into her home company for this season, she looked -- to me, for the first time -- like a ballerina sure of a place in the history books. In full command of the impeccable technique the Bolshoi strives for nowadays, she unites it with nuanced interpretations of her roles. Her ability, in the celebrated adagio movement of Symphony in C, to give the abstract choreography a deep, soulful dimension earned her comparison with predecessors like Suzanne Farrell and Allegra Kent. At the opposite end of the spectrum, she made the virtuoso exploits of the "Don Quixote" pas de deux witty as well as breathtaking, a feat I've seen brought off only once before -- by Natalia Makarova. Her Giselle was marvelously realized: the dancing ravishing, the characterization poignant, and both elements so richly modulated they might usefully serve as an object lesson to the rest of the company.


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