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Ivan the Terrible at the Paris Opera Ballet


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 25 February 2004Ivan the Terrible might be terrible, but Nicolas Le Riche in the central role was magnificent, as were both the casts I saw at the Opéra Bastille. More Bolshoi than the Bolshoi at their peak, the French company, particularly the principals, threw themselves heart and soul into Iouri Grigorovitch's blockbuster of the Soviet era. Proving once again that a bad ballet performed by exceptional dancers can not only be acceptable, but even hugely enjoyable.

Ivan the Terrible, with choreography by the man who ruled the Bolshoi with an iron hand for over thirty years, is a work in the true Bolshoi style of a quarter of a century ago. Leaning on the music composed by Prokofiev for the 1944-1945 Eisenstein film, Grigorovitch has staged, not a narrative story, but eighteen tableaux reflecting the life of the Russian people. The linking theme is the fascinating but controversial personality of Czar Ivan IV who sinks into madness after his beloved wife, Anastasia, is poisoned.

The vigor, strength and energy of the male corps de ballet was very exciting. Led to splendid heights by an explosive Nicolas le Riche, who devoured space with his high, wild, jumps, they too were virile and aggressive, in short, much the same as the glorious Bolshoi troupe twenty-five years ago. It was a wonderful theatrical experience to see the speed with which they crossed the stage. The choreography itself, well-crafted, whether one liked it or not, was a curious blend of folk and classical.

When the thirteen fiancées came on in their long floating robes, their grace and fragility were in very striking contrast, and one could only sit back and admire these women who form part of the most beautiful female corps de ballet in the world today. Ivan's choice of a bride was no easy feat. Visually, there were some spectacular scenes including the moment when Ivan, in his delirium, sees his murdered wife rise from her tomb, mummified and surrounded by ghost-like figures holding lighted candles.

Eléonora Abbagnato
Eléonora Abbagnato in Serguei Prokofiev's Ivan le Terrible
Chorégraphie : Iouri Grigorovitch
© Photo: Icare

Eleonora Abbagnato interpreted the role of Anastasia in the first cast, which was however, dominated by Le Riche who out-danced, out-shone everyone else. Nevertheless, blonde and sensual, and with an excellent technique, she held her own. The twenty-five year old Sicilian dancer is now emerging as a lovely première danseuse in her own right. Karl Paquette, miscast as Korbski did not fare quite so well, paling into insignificance in the midst of the swirling multitudes.

However, the revelations came in a third cast of members of the corps de ballet, who gave just one performance. Lucky indeed those who were there! The ballet was the perfect first vehicle for the exquisite Mathilde Froustey. Delicate and fragile, and at barely eighteen, the youngest member of the company, she was the incarnation of Anastasia, Anastasia as one would imagine her to be. She was directly chosen by Grigorovitch doubtless captivated, as was the audience, by her slender supple body and small, exotic face with its delicately etched features.

Eléonora Abbagnato and Nicolas Le Riche
Eléonora Abbagnato and Nicolas Le Riche in Serguei Prokofiev's Ivan le Terrible
Chorégraphie : Iouri Grigorovitch
© Photo: Icare

There's not a wide range of emotions in the role, mainly undying love and faithfulness, but she instinctively understood the style of the work, while her poise and innate musicality promise great things to come.

Mathieu Ganio was a powerful, elegant prince Kourbski, leader of the boyards, himself in love with Anastasia. Son of Dominique Khalfouni, the most beautiful of French ballerinas, and of Ballet of Marseilles' principal dancer, Denys Ganio, Mathieu is now a prince in his own right. Off-stage, a tall, softly spoken, nice-looking nineteen year old, he takes on a distinct stage personality once the curtain rises. Not only did he fly across the opera stage with three long, strong leaps, beautifully light, he also demonstrated great artistic gifts. He became the character he was interpreting.

Performing the role of Ivan, a part requiring experience and very great acting ability could not have been easy after the passage of giants*, but Stéphane Bullion, stylish and strong, rose to the challenge, fulfilling his early promise, surprising more than one with the ease with which he tackled the demanding choreography.

Karl Paquette
Karl Paquette in Serguei Prokofiev's in Ivan le Terrible
Chorégraphie : Iouri Grigorovitch
© Photo: Icare

One can perhaps thank Igor Grogorovitch and Brigitte Lefèvre for programming three such young, inexperienced dancers, a foretaste of what the future holds. And particular praise to Natalia Bessmertnova, an extraordinary Anastasia in her time, for her very careful coaching as well as to Grigorovitch himself who taught the corps de ballet.

Ivan the Terrible is indeed a heavy, overpowering epic, which many believe to be obsolete, but it is nevertheless part of dance history and should be preserved, particularly when superlatively danced by the French company.

* In a second cast, the role of Ivan was danced by José Martinez, actually at the height of his powers.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for

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