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In her final column, Ismene Brown salutes the Bolshoi’s real stars: the corps de ballet

They made the ‘Jardin Animé’ scene in Le Corsaire into a piece of kinetic theatre, and created a marvellous spectacle in Stalin’s favourite ballet The Flames of Paris

20 August 2016

9:00 AM

20 August 2016

9:00 AM

The Taming of the Shrew; The Flames of Paris; Le Corsaire

Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Opera House

The second half of the Bolshoi tour brought much fresher fare than the first: following the ubiquitous warhorses Don Quixote and Swan Lake, we got three jolly nights of Moscow speciality: an iffy Shakespeare comedy nailed by superb performing, a giddy rewrite of Stalin’s favourite ballet and a breathtakingly fruity restoration of a 19th-century ballet entertainment, with pirate ships, dancing gardens and a vision of the hedonistic life of abducted women somewhat at odds with Boko Haram’s.

The sexual politics of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew are potentially tricky for ballet since the woman is physically dependent on the man. But Monte Carlo choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot was quite smart in his very modern-mannered 2014 creation for the Bolshoi at exploiting how body language can contradict or invert the intention of classical vocabulary, the psychology of movement.

For sure, oafish Petruchio drunkenly drags Katharina about by her armpits, but in the glowering Kristina Kretova’s expressive flounces, this girl radiates total impatience with the kind of feline wiliness of sister Bianca — brilliantly smug Nina Kaptsova, all pretty-pretty, smiley-smiley, men drooling all over her — and she loathes dapper types.

The whole cast was infectiously in tune with the don’t-care swagger of the Shostakovich medley of film and operetta, and the TV-commercial, exhibition-stand ephemerality of the designs. Yanina Parienko was a pricelessly glossy Housekeeper, and Denis Medvedev and Igor Tsvirko perfect comic idealisations of ridiculous men. Maillot sweeps the narrative along very neatly with the musical numbers, apart from a lumbering wedding night for Katharina and Petruchio, with the ninth symphony stomping ‘DSCH’ all over it, and some E.L. James-ish sexual psychologising. Still, all ends happily in a tea party and multiple happy couples. While it’s a superficial creation and won’t last, this felt vibrant and young on stage, like the Bolshoi of today, entirely unlike the rote performers of Don Quixote the other week.


Much more interesting as balletic artworks are The Flames of Paris and Le Corsaire, historical landmarks of the early Soviet era and the mid-19th century, revised by the Bolshoi’s former artistic director, Alexei Ratmansky. Flames is a flag-fluttering romp about the French Revolution, beloved of Stalin, with paysanne Jeanne and actress Mireille de Poitiers joining the hordes storming the effete, glittering Bourbon court.

But Ratmansky’s reworking of the relics of the original 1932 Vainonen choreography and plot now adds multiple layers of enjoyment of choreographic styling — folk, ballet, court dance — and a liquorice-dark undercurrent about the saleability of loyalties. I’ve seen it several times since its 2007 debut, and I find more and more to appreciate in it (not least Boris Asafiev’s admirable Lully/Beethoven pastiche score). It’s marvellous spectacle, intelligent artifice, and tremendous dancing, entirely Bolshoi, especially the highly kitsch ending with a head in a bag.

And so, too, is the new Le Corsaire, Petipa’s picturesque companion piece to Don Quixote, written in the same decade, the 1860s, but this one about swashbuckling in the Levant, rather than castanet-clicking in Seville. Both of them are nuts, but dependably at some point the girls will dance an extended number in such floral glory as to break your heart, and the lead pair will dance a terrifically difficult pas de deux. In this case, the pas de deux washes over the British audience with warm familiarity, because it’s the one with which Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn enslaved us all in a legendary video: the queen and the slave, she in all her gorgeous demure sexiness, he unclad, wild and panting like a stallion.

We could have done with some Nureyevan sizzle, I thought, on the Bolshoi’s final night. I love redheaded Ekaterina Krysanova’s taste in execution of Medora’s pernickety steps, though she didn’t entirely appreciate Pavel Klinichev’s masterly conducting of the delicious entertainments of the original score, dominated by Adam and Delibes. Igor Tsvirko made a fabulously chic pirate in his mullet, moustache and ringlets — more Johnny Depp in style than Nureyev — but the soloists generally seem rather unenthusiastic about the 19th-century style that Ratmansky’s production with the historian Yuri Burlaka attempts to restore to us. It’s much quieter in the legs, more delicate and lilting, than the all-guns-blazing athleticism of the later revisions — more Ashton-ian perhaps than the Bolshoi are famed for.

The Act 2 ‘Jardin Animé’, cramming the Covent Garden stage with both flowerbeds and the entire Bolshoi corps de ballet bedecked in garlands, is a piece of kinetic theatre to enchant the eyes, more intricately woven and gorgeously detailed than any choreographer since Petipa could make. With the leg-up quotient reduced, the swing quotient is enhanced, most visibly in the oriental lushness of the corps de ballet’s bodies. Moscow’s corps de ballet remain, for me, the stars of the Bolshoi — rather than its ‘stars’ per se — so elegant, light-hearted, individual, and alive to the stage.

This is my last column as The Spectator’s dance spectator. It’s been the deepest pleasure to wander on your behalf around the fertile landscape of dance, but I’m off to Oxford University to do some research. Thank you for bearing with my thoughts and I hope you bought a few tickets as a result.


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