Maya Plisetskaya

When I was only about two or three years old, my father had an 8mm film of the famous Russian ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya. It was a compilation of Plisetskaya dancing Dying Swan, Bach’s Prelude, Raymonda pas de deux and the Carmen Suite.

Oh, she was simply the perfect embodiment of a ballerina for this little girl who had fallen in love with ballet when she was only two and performed her own Swan Lake to the family in the living room. I begged my father to play the film ever so often. I could not get enough of her beautiful arm movements in the Dying Swan, her graceful lightness in the Prelude where her partner was wearing black and nearly invisible against the dark background, her crystal clear footwork in Raymonda, and her explosive technique in Carmen Suite.  But above all, it was her charisma that made me fall in love with her ballet.  I could not take my eyes off her, however little she might have been doing. I spent hours in front of our bathroom mirror trying to copy her arms and facial expressions. My mother still laughs about the time her three-year-old daughter copied Plisetskaya’s seductive move in the Carmen Suite!

There are people who command the audience’ s attention and will not let go of it once they have it. Plisetskaya is definitely one of those charismatic people. Whether you like them or not, you cannot take your eyes off them. There are many talented dancers all over the world, but truly charismatic dancers are rather rare.

I was so very lucky to have seen Plisetskaya perform live. She was certainly getting on a little bit by then; she was way over fifty when I saw her for the first time! But such thoughts never occurred to me then. It is only with hindsight that I think just how old she was at the time and it fills me with even more awe.

I was really privileged in that my mother valued quality and made sure that she showed me the very best dancers in the world as much as she could afford. I learned so much from watching them on stage, especially how they could command the audience and have the crowd at their feet admiring them!

Another thing I learned from them was their musicality. Really wonderful dancers are all so very musical. They never ever look as though they are dancing to music. They become one with the music. It looks as if their dance, their bodies, are making the music. They breathe the music.

Plisetskaya is one of those dancers whose movements, even down to a blink sometimes, seem as though they are the elements that make the music. She does not dance someone else’s choreography; each move she makes seems to be born from her.

Just a few years ago I went to see her eightieth birthday tribute gala. I was a little worried that she would be so old and frail and betray my image of the strong charismatic ballerina that I knew. How mistaken I was! The moment she walked onto the stage (in a pair of very high heeled shoes!) I could not take my eyes off her. She was still the same monstrously charismatic ballerina who captured my heart all those years ago. She even performed a small piece, although not on pointe, that was choreographed for her by Maurice Bejart, using two Japanese style fans, one red, one white. Oh, the movement of her arms! The musicality! Her artistry! But above all, her eyes! Those were the eyes that pierced through me when she shook my hand when I was a very little girl. Her handshake was firm. Her hand felt large and warm. She looked into my eyes and smiled. It might have been at that moment that I knew I wanted to be a dancer for sure. I went home, all the way from Tokyo to my house, which was good two hours away, without touching anything at all with my right hand lest her handshake would be dirtied. I refused to wash my hand that night and my mother had great difficulty trying to convince me that a handshake cannot be washed off. To this day, I can feel her handshake. And I feel so very proud that I am still involved in ballet even if I am no longer a dancer myself. No matter how small my part in the world of ballet might be, I am still living in the same world as this woman with such talent and such charisma.

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La Sylphide – Bolshoi Ballet Live Transmission

I had to suppress a little chuckle as I was walking into the cinema to watch the performance of La Sylphide, transmitted live from the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow.  A gentleman nearby was telling his lady companion that, although he had never seen the ballet before, he knew that it was a real Classical ballet piece.  I know that if I turned around to tell him that it was actually the perfect example of a Romantic ballet, I would appear like an insufferable know-it-all.  Besides, although he came across as trying to appear knowledgeable, he may well have been using the word ‘classical’ in the very broadest sense to mean ‘traditional’ as opposed to ‘contemporary’.

I have already written about La Sylphide, the ultimate Romantic Ballet, in an earlier entry in this blog so I shall not go into its history in detail here, but the version presented on the 30 September by the Bolshoi Ballet was that of August Bournonville, as revised by Johan Kobborg for the Bolshoi in 2008.

The leading couple for this performance was Ekaterina Krysanova as the Sylph and Vyacheslav Lopatin as James.  Both are young dancers who joined the Bolshoi in 2003 and have risen steadily up the company ladder.

It was a lovely production, held in the new theatre of the Bolshoi, which was, in some ways, more fitting for this ballet than the large (actually huge) main stage.  The Bournonville style, although requiring very strong technique, is not the one to show off just how long a stride one can make or how big a distance one can cover in a jump. It is more to do with how cleanly one can execute batteries and how light one can make a jump look.

Vyacheslav Lopatin did this ballet justice. He created this interpretation of the role of James when Kobborg first staged La Sylphide for the Bolshoi back in 2008. He was one of the best James’s I have seen, possessing both technique and artistry in abundance.  I had seen him before in several different roles (although all on-screen regrettably) and had liked his performances every time.  Lopatin’s technique is very strong and this clearly shows, yet he dances with such apparent ease. He certainly has the same clear-cut edge to his dancing as his coach Boris Akimov had when he was a dancer at the Bolshoi.

The character of James can sometimes come across as weak-willed and indecisive.  Lopatin’s James was caring, passionate and full of life.  He made it very clear that his fascination with the Sylph was different from his love for Effie.  His grief at the end was heartbreaking.  Rather than the usual sort of stupor, he was sobbing his heart out. He really showed that his heart was shattered at the knowledge that both this fantastic creature and his earthly love were lost forever.

Lopatin is a very interesting dancer and one to look out for.  I look forward to seeing the announcement that he is to be promoted to a principal dancer.

Krysanova managed to display the lovely lines of the Bournonville dancing style and was technically very sound all the way through.  However, despite that,  I felt that there was still a little something lacking in her portrayal of the Sylph.   In comparison to those wonderful dancers, Eva Evdokimova and Carla Fracci, both of whom I was incredibly fortunate to see perform this very same role live, Krysanova had not mastered the unbelievable lightness that made the  aforementioned look so ethereal. She jumped lightly and high, and yet one could still see that she was kicking off the floor. Fracci and Evdokimova seemed simply to just take off and float. I would very much like to see Krysanova again in another ballet to see how she is in a different role.

Krysanova at times seemed a little too serious for a carefree happy spirit of the wind, and I could not see much of the playfulness that was very obvious in many other wonderful dancers who have danced the Sylph. I wondered whether this was Kobborg’s interpretation of the role.  Kobborg made several changes from the original Bournonville version, although it was a relief that he followed it fairly faithfully without making drastic changes to the dancing styles.

One relatively big change was the role of Madge, the witch.  Traditionally this role is played as an old woman who needs a staff to walk.  In this version she is made a lot younger and was here played by a female dancer rather than a male dancer, as is commonly done.  This Madge looks more like a gypsy than a witch;  rather glamorous with red curls and normal clothes in place of a ragged cloak.  This certainly made an interesting change, although I was a little confused when, later on, I discovered that Kobborg himself had played Madge in some of the Bolshoi performances of his own version of La Sylphide.  Although photographs of him in this role show that he wasn’t playing it as the old hag, he certainly wasn’t a young gypsy.  Had it been changed more recently? I must confess I preferred the traditional old hag look while I was watching the first act but, as I watched the second act, I started to see why Kobborg might have made Madge as she was.  When she appears in front of James with the bewitched scarf, it seems quite convincing that James should be fooled into believing her.  That is the point in the story that always makes me wonder: why does James believe what the witch tells him?

Kobborg’s Madge does not necessarily hide her hostility towards James for having been rude to her before, but she nevertheless draws James’ attention by her strong character and convinces him that he should get the scarf.  There is, however, a confusing moment at the very end of the ballet. As James collapses under her feet, Madge briefly and rather abruptly lifts up her skirt.  I might have missed this had I not heard the interview with Irina Zibrova, who performed Madge, during the interval.  She was explaining that Kobborg made Madge more “earthly” and that Madge would lift her skirt up at the end to reveal some white tulle. Zibrova said that the interpretation of this was left to the audience.  Had Madge once been a sylph herself or was she something different all together?  When I heard this I was very intrigued, but was rather disappointed with what actually transpired:  firstly, the white tulle was not obvious at all amongst her long skirt and layers of petticoats; and secondly, the lifting of the skirt was done in a way that seemed really quite abrupt and not at all theatrical.  It could be that this gesture did not come off quite as intended and that her skirt got accidentally caught; the accompanying photo of Kobborg indicates that it should have been much more obvious.

There was a short but lovely additional sequence inserted in the famous pas de deux in the second act, coming  between the part where the Sylph brings James water and the part where they start doing grands jetés around the stage and the Sylph catches a butterfly.  This sequence seems to have been used by Kobborg in order to emphasise the fact that James could not catch the Sylph in his hands.  Whereas I found this part lovely, I felt it disrupted the flow of such a well known pas de deux and I’m sure it could have been inserted in a different place for just the same effect.

Another change, although fairly subtle, was the character of Gurn, a youth who is also in love with Effie, and marries her in the end. Often he is depicted as a little slow and comical, and certainly not as a hero who would get the girl in the end.  Denis Savin – Gurn in this particular performance – was tall, handsome and very charming.  He has that rare talent of playing comedy without losing his masculine charm and sophistication.  He played a young man in love, who at the end finally gets the girl of his dreams.  Kobborg gave Gurn a short solo which is usually danced by a separate soloist.  This solo precedes the famous solo of James and was very effective in showing that Gurn is a very worthy rival to James (although James does not realise this). Savin’s expression at the end of the first act, as they all realised that James had gone and left Effie was exquisite. He showed concern, his love for Effie and his hopes of gaining her hand in the end.

I am glad that Kobborg largely preserved the Bournonville style.  Having been trained in the Bournonville style himself, he is in a perfect position to hand the traditions down to the next generations of dancers.  It is such a beautiful style and La Sylphide remains one of my favourite ballets of all.