Big time

Russian ballet is alive and well.

RUSSIAN BALLET—whether it's describing the imperial companies of the 19th century, the brief but exotic life of Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russe, its later American touring offshoots, or the Soviet manifestation of classical ballet, the phrase has always connoted a certain kind of authenticity. Now, in the post-Soviet era, the idea of Russian ballet has taken on yet another life.

Bolshoi Ballet

Paramount Theater, June 14-18

The Bolshoi Ballet's production of Romeo and Juliet is so loaded with significance, it would stall right in its tracks if it wasn't such a powerful locomotive. It was made for the Bolshoi's chief rival, the Kirov, while the company was evacuated to the sticks during WWII. The choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky worked closely with Sergei Prokofiev, the composer, and by the time the work premiered in 1946 it had become a symbol of the survival of Russia and Russian culture. Many of the "politically correct" ballets of the Soviet era have either fallen out of the repertory or been revised considerably, but Romeo and Juliet has remained relatively untouched. The huge crowd scenes, the dramatic set pieces in many of the solos, and the familiar score—verging on bombastic—have made this ballet into an audience favor-ite. Indeed, this was the work that made Romeo and Juliet ballets into what some call a "warm-weather Nutcracker." This production so popularized the piece that there are easily 25 different productions in contemporary repertories, including Kent Stowell's version for Pacific Northwest Ballet.

OBSERVERS OF the current tour have consistently noted that the members of the Bolshoi are dancing much better than in the recent past. Shortly after the demise of the Soviet Union, both the Kirov and the Bolshoi went out on a series of increasingly embarrassing international tours to generate hard currency. But the lack of support at home and the continued defection of leading dancers made it difficult for the artistic directors to maintain the kind of integrity the companies were known for, and the main selling point for their performances became the one big thing they couldn't deliver. Fortunately, things have stabilized, the schools have continued to graduate skilled performers, and the companies have regained a certain amount of their former reputations. And although the sets and costumes for Romeo and Juliet could be refurbished, the ballet's dramatic potential remains intact. This is a ballet about characters, not steps, and the Bolshoi is particularly wealthy in that regard.

The company is indeed big, as their name indicates, and as phalanx after phalanx of dancers poured onto the stage during the first big crowd scene, I kept thinking that each group would be the last. In the end there were more than 50 people onstage at the Paramount, in a mass fight that had to be very tightly choreographed to prevent people from being injured left and right by errant rapiers. The "Pillow Dance" at the Capulet's ball had the same kind of grandeur, as the men strode through the space on the back of Prokofiev's familiar score.

Nina Ananiashvili, the tour's headliner, exemplifies the current Russian style, with its emphasis on a flexible and expressive upper body and a tendency to legato dancing. She has an admirable technique and skillfully kept it in service of the choreography. Even in the overly swoony bits she was extremely convincing. I'm told that when she entered the Spanish Ballroom at the Four Seasons Olympic for the opening night reception she had the same kind of aplomb as she did onstage—another example of the thrill of Russian ballet.

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