Tradition is often frowned on. Yet, if properly handled, it can be sheer fun and pure bliss, as demonstrated by the Bolshoi Ballet’s current season in London. Far from being museum pieces, the classics so far presented stand out for their vibrant and captivating theatricality. According to an enlightening note by Yuri Grigorovich, the father of Russian contemporary ballet, much of it depends on an approach that favours performance tradition over sterile philology. In other words, care is taken to note the cuts, the interpolations, the revisions and the additions that have helped each ballet stand the test of time, instead of going for a much idealised ‘original’.
The outcome might occasionally look odd to audiences used to the trendy rediscoveries and reconstructions of long-lost originals. But balletic oddity is central to the fun; geographical and cultural incongruities are integral to the choreographic 19th-century Orientalism that a ballet such as La Bayadère (1877) relies on. Any attempt to make things more realistic would spoil the work’s essence.
It was thus a delight to be entertained by the naively and slightly un-PC character dances that, in line with 1877 aesthetics, conjure up intoxicating images of faraway lands. And it was a pleasure to see that, in line with performance tradition, the final ‘white act’ — known as the Kingdom of the Shades — was performed here by 32 members of the corps de ballet, instead of the reduced 28 we get on these shores. The correct number adds greatly to the scene’s effect, as the repetition of their first step creates a mesmerising visual experience.
On the opening night, Svetlana Zakharova took the title role next to Vladislav Lantratov as Solor, her lover. She still has hyper-extended legs and a body that seems to bend in every possible way. Yet, in spite of what her many admirers might think, neither quality suits a classical context such as this one, as was particularly evident in the final, classical act. Maria Alexandrova, as the rival Gamzatti, looked much more suited to the 1877 choreography with her neat technique and majestic deportment. Unfortunately, owing to a midair collision with Lantratov, she was seriously injured and had to leave the stage a few minutes into Act II’s grand duet. Apparently, she tore a tendon and had to be flown back to Moscow the following day. I am sure I am not the only one who’d like to wish her a speedy recovery.
This new 2013 production of La Bayadère, designed by Nikolai Sharonov, is utterly splendid, and the designs combine past and present ideas. The same can be said of the 2011 Sleeping Beauty, as Ezio Frigerio’s and Franca Squarciapino’s designs give an appropriately refined grandeur to what is the last court ballet in history. Choreographically, this production also draws on a well-balanced combination of historical development and performance tradition. It was interesting to see that the mime gestures performed by the evil fairy Carabosse were much more in line with those created in 1890 by Enrico Cecchetti than with those performed in the Royal Ballet’s version, while the Lilac Fairy’s intervention had little or no mime; the contrast worked beautifully, though, and added dramatic depth to the characters. But it was the dancing that made the evening a special one, and I am not just talking about the sensational Artem Ovcharenko as the Prince or Ekaterina Krysanova as Aurora, but of the whole company. Luckily, there is more to come.