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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 14 SEPTEMBER 2011 — For those of us born in the 1950s, when the Bolshoi Ballet astonished audiences in London and New York, the very names of Ulanova and Bolshoi became synonyms for dance, conjuring up whole new worlds of brilliance, excitement and glamour. However, despite the creation of such explosive works as Igor Grigorovitch's Spartacus, exhausted by heavy foreign tours when the ballet was performed repeatedly along with Ivan the Terrible and The Golden Age, to which such legendary artists as Maya Plisetskaya were excluded, the 1960s proved to be the Golden Age of London's Royal Ballet rather than of the famous Russian troupe whose reputation was slowly tarnishing. The directorship of Grigorovitch, whose stagings of the classics were extremely heavy-handed, became openly criticised, and his star performers, Maximova and Vasiliev, began to appear with Western companies such as American Ballet Theatre, Béjart's Ballet of the 20th century, and the Ballet of Marseilles.

By 1990, the year when the outstanding Bolshoi dancer, Irek Mukhamedov, creator of The Golden Age, left to work in the West, standards of performances were falling. Little use was being made of the company’s enormous reserves of talent, and by the time Vasiliev himself took over the ballet and opera company after Grigorovitch’s thirty year reign, there was little money available and matters went from bad to worse.  The once beautiful theatre in Moscow, badly in need of restoration, and the magnificence of the orchestra did not make up for the mediocre performance of The Nutcracker I saw there, accompanied as it was by tacky costumes and a doubtful décor. Lack of funding might have been one of the reasons for this sorry display, but did not explain everything.

Bolshoi Ballet: Don Quixote

However, when the troupe arrived in Paris in 2008, a revolution had taken place, for this was the Bolshoi of bygone years, full of vitality and life. Fabulous new dancers including Maria Alexandrova and Natalia Osipova as well as the established Svetlana Lunkina and Sergei Filin danced with their hearts as well as their perfectly trained bodies, the man responsible for this dramatic change being Alexei Ratmanski who had been appointed artistic director in January, 2004. He revitalised the company, bringing in new works and a regain of confidence alongside the new dancers and the company blossomed, regaining much of its former glories. Now resident artist at American Ballet Theatre, his principal dancer, Filin, has taken over the directorship and hopefully will continue the same trajectory.

The results at the Palais Garnier in Paris recently were mixed. Four performances of Don Quixote, in the new, 1999 version by Alexei Fadeyechev, were programmed. Originally created for the Moscow public in 1869 by the French choreographer, Marius Petipa, at the beginning of his career, Don Quixote is a light-hearted piece full of fun, ideally suited to bring out the brilliance and sensational technique of the Russian dancers. Taken from the second volume of Cervantes' novel, it is centred around the love-affair of Basilio and Kitri and their attempts to avoid Kitri's arranged marriage to the foppish but wealthy Gamache.

Bolshoi Ballet: Don Quixote

While Act 1 was most enjoyable, one wondered just what was happening at the beginning of Act 2, when a relentless succession of stunningly beautiful dancers came on one by one performing showy solos which had little to do with the ballet. One could admire their high, light leaps and supple backs, and the gymnastic quality they brought to their dancing with their legs in the air knocking their noses, but it was all faintly boring. However, Don Quixote’s dream of his ideal woman, resulting in the lyrical vision scene with the Driads, bringing the wonderful surprise of the exquisite Anna Nikulina as their Queen, was beautifully danced. Nikulina, who floated rather than jumped, would, one felt, have made a most lovable Kitri.  Anastasia Stashkevich, smiling, young and full of charm, was an enchanting Cupidon.

Disappointment set in with the third act which took place in a palace devoid of atmosphere. What was Fadeychev thinking of? Kitri is an innkeeper's daughter and Basilio is a barber. What were they doing in such opulent yet empty surroundings? The ballet was much more credible, more lively and colourful when the wedding took place in the village square where it rightly belonged.

Bolshoi Ballet: Don Quixote

However, the dancing of Ekaterina Shipulina as Kitri with Alexander Volchkov as Basilio could not be faulted. The dazzling rapidity of Volchkov’s spins and turns had the audience gasping in amazement and he soared high above the stage in a series of exceptional leaps and bounds. The trouble was that as a couple they were ill-assorted.  Volchkov was too slender and lacked the height necessary for Shipulina, a tall, willowy ballerina. He had trouble with his lifts, his arm actually trembling on the one-arm lift resulting in her slithering gently down his chest onto the floor, albeit gracefully. Indeed, he carried a worried look on his face from beginning to end, the only true smile being when the curtain came down.

Shipulina, although technically gifted, lacked the humour, vivacity and warmth so important to Kitri; she would have been better cast as the Queen of the Driads, a role she frequently interprets. One simply did not believe in their love affair.

The star of the show was Andrei Merkuriev, a larger-than-life Espada. Tall, blond, handsome, the charismatic Andrei stole all hearts. Completely at ease with the choreography, a mixture of Spanish dance and the purely classic, he possesses the humour and charm which would have made him an ideal Basilio.

But even with the unequal casting, it was nevertheless an entertaining evening despite the fact that a change of cast prevented me from seeing Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vassiliev, a couple on stage and off, who danced to such enthusiastic audiences in London and whose dancing was sublime in the recent live transmission of the 6th of March from the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the Spanish danseur étoile José Martinez 

Related Culturekiosque Archives

Spartacus and His Gladiator Slaves Battle Roman Legions at the Bolshoi

An Interview With Alexei Ratmansky

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