Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema – The Sleeping Beauty

The Sleeping Beauty has all the requisite elements of a classic fairy tale. A princess, a king, a queen, suitors to the princess, good fairy, bad fairy, magic, a prince who wakes the princess up with a kiss! And in the ballet, a hand-full of characters from other fairy tales come to celebrate the wedding of the said prince and princess.

Despite all the right elements, it never really became my favourite ballet. However, in recent years I started to realise that this was probably because there have been surprisingly few performances of The Sleeping Beauty I truly enjoyed. There were, of course, a few really wonderful productions. I grew up watching the video of an amazing production by the Kirov Ballet (today’s Mariinsky Ballet) with Irina Kolpakova, Sergey Berezhnoi and Lubov Kunakova. I saw a video of Margot Fonteyn as Princess Aurora and I was also fortunate to get the chance to see the great Ludmila Semenyaka in The Sleeping Beauty on stage. In comparison to those, most productions I saw since seemed dull and colourless.

For a long time I thought it was because I had got somewhat bored of the ballet having watched it countless times on our old fashioned laser discs. But more recently I started to notice that it was due to the fact that the so well-known and loved music of the Sleeping Beauty is deceptively difficult to dance to. The third act grand pas de deux of Aurora and Prince Desire particularly so. It is not “difficult” as such in terms of time signature or change in tempo, buy there is a very clear rhythm depicted under the fluid beautiful melodies. The difficulty for the dancers is that they need to embody  both rhythm and melody in order to look at ease and brilliant at the same time.

Bolshoi Ballet’s live transmission of this ballet to cinemas around the world was a very pleasant surprise. Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin both have a brilliant musicality that makes them look as though they are creating music by their own bodies. Their technique is flawless but neither show off in any vulgar way. Smirnova was an innocent and shy Aurora who was excited at her party, a translucent and dreamy vision, and a radiant and happy bride. Chudin was noble and yet determined to save the beautiful vision he saw, and a very secure partner who in turn knows how to make his partner look at her most beautiful.

Yulia Stepanova did not really live up to expectations. She did not manage to portray the essence of the graceful yet regal Lilac Fairy. Alexei Loparevich’s Carabosse was also disappointing. He seemed a little like a comic dame. It was a complete contrast too the former Kirov (today’s Mariinsky) Ballet dancer, Vladimir Lopukhov, whose Carabosse was portrayed as a bitter old woman who had nothing left but her magical power.

Artemy Belyakov, who danced the roles of Bluebird and one of the suitors, had caught my eye a while back. He rapidly became one of my favourite Bolshoi dancers, especially after I saw his Evil Genius in Yuri Grigorovich’s Swan Lake when Bolshoi Ballet was performing in London last Summer. He was given this big role within three years of graduating from the Bolshoi Ballet School (Ilya Kuznetsov’s class) and is proving to be a well rounded dancer with a true panache. With his strong and high jumps that make him look as though he is hanging in the air for a moment every time he leaves the floor, his steady pirouettes and sense of control that makes things look so effortless, I dare say he is on his way up to the rank of a principal dancer.

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Artemy Belyakov as the Evil Genius in Yuri Grigorovich’s Swan Lake. (Photo: Bolshoi Ballet)

Yuri Grigorovich first staged this current version in 2011. He has cut a fair bit of the music to make the ballet – that usually has three acts and a prologue – into a two-act ballet. Although it is noticeable that some of the music has been shortened or omitted, the cuts do not seem to affect the flow of the story and certainly keep the audience’s fidgeting  to a minimum. To my delight, he kept the Prince’s entrance solo which the legendary former Bolshoi star Vladimir Vasiliev danced at Asaf Messerer’s 80th birthday tribute in 1982. It makes the character of the prince a lot more solid and vivid.

All in all, Smirnova, Chudin and Belyakov restored my love for fairy tales, and made me fall in love with the Sleeping Beauty all over again.

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Spartacus – Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema

20th October 2013, via live feed to the cinema from the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow.

Vladimir Vasiliev

Vladimir Vasiliev

Vladimir Vasiliev, the former principal of the Bolshoi Ballet and the creator of the role of Spartacus when this Grigorovich ballet premiered in 1968, was interviewed during one of the intervals.   Vasiliev was and still is my hero.  Even at the age of 73, standing on a corner of the historic stage of the Bolshoi Theatre being interviewed, Vasiliev commanded the attention of the audience, captivating them with his charisma.  He talked with excitement, as though it was only yesterday, of being the character and said that he lived the life of Spartacus whenever he danced the role on stage.  His Spartacus was so passionate and tragic and so extremely powerful.

Vladimir Vasiliev and Maris Liepa

Vladimir Vasiliev and Maris Liepa

Tonight’s male leads, Mikhail Lobukhin and Vladislav Lantratov did exactly what Vasiliev spoke of; they lived the lives of Spartacus and Crassus for the three hours they were on the stage. Lobukhin and Lantratov were very different from Vladimir Vasiliev and Maris Liepa, who were in the premiere cast of this iconic piece and remain my favourite Spartacus and Crassus, yet they managed to create their own Spartacus and Crassus whilst staying very faithful to the original intention: Spartacus so passionate and energetic and Crassus powerful, noble, arrogant yet charismatic. I was rather glad that neither Lobukhin nor Lantratov appeared to be trying to emulate anyone else’s portrayal of Spartacus or Crassus.

The fact that there are so many wonderful forerunners from which they can and do learn is a priceless asset for the dancers in the Bolshoi company. I have long wondered, however, seeing just how many of its former stars are coaching at the Bolshoi Ballet, whether or not this flow of experience might actually restrict new personalities from emerging. Being coached by such charismatic and talented former dancers, on the one hand, is an opportunity any dancer would do anything to get, but could younger dancers resist copying the great dancers of the former generations? It does seem though, that as well as having been fantastic and charismatic performers, they are influential but inspirational guides who are keen to let the younger dancers explore their own paths and discover their own roles.

Mikhail Lobukhin as Spartacus with Marianna Ryzhkina

Mikhail Lobukhin as Spartacus with Marianna Ryzhkina

Lobukhin, who was trained at the Vaganova Academy, joined the Bolshoi Ballet three years ago. I had not been overly impressed with his Tybalt in Grigorovich’s Romeo and Juliet, and the only other role I have seen him perform was a young agricultural student in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream. I was a little worried that I might be disappointed with him dancing Spartacus, but I shouldn’t have been. His Spartacus was passionate, loving and very moving. In certain ways he was more delicate than some other iconic Spartacus’ I have seen, but this added sensitivity did not diminish the powerfulness of the performance.

Vladislav Lantratov as Crassus and Svetlana Zakharova as Aegina

Vladislav Lantratov as Crassus and Svetlana Zakharova as Aegina

Vlad Lantratov was recently promoted to the rank of principal dancer and he lived up to his title very well. Having so far seen him mainly in more gentle and sincere types of role, I was pleasantly surprised that he managed so convincingly to grasp the somewhat manic and arrogant atmosphere of Crassus.

The two male leads have very clear-cut technique and beautiful control, which they both used in order to convey their characters and their emotions. Technique in itself was not the goal for either of them.

Svetlana Zakharova as Aegina Photo by Marc Haegemen

Svetlana Zakharova as Aegina
Photo by Marc Haegemen

The same thing could be said about Svetlana Zakharova, who danced the role of Aegina. She was glamorous, confident and beautifully provocative. She also appeared to be enjoying herself. I liked her more in this role than many others I have seen her dance so far; it seems to have freed her in some way that much of the classical repertoire does not seem to.

Whereas those three dancers seemed to move from their hearts and it was the emotion they conveyed that I felt before thinking about their technique, Anna Nikulina disappointed me in the role of Phrygia, Spartacus’ wife. She looked as though she was just going over a well rehearsed set of movements without knowing why she was doing what she did. This was very unfortunate as the concluding scene of the ballet is Phrygia’s lament over her husband’s death. It used to reduce me to tears when I watched Ekaterina Maximova or Ludmila Semenyaka perform this scene. This time, not only did Nikulina not bring tears to my eyes, she made me miss all the other wonderful dancers who have danced this role.

Ekaterina Maximova as Phrygia

Ekaterina Maximova as Phrygia

Grigorovich’s choreography along with Aram Khachaturian’s music makes it impossible not to be swept up in the emotion of this ballet. The dancers, from the leads to the corps de ballet, all seem to have felt it today.  As a whole, it was a fantastic production that showed off what the Bolshoi Ballet is all about. Phrygia is a difficult role. Of the four leads she has the most subtle character, but it can be easier to dance a stronger character. Nikulina still may develop into a mature dancer who can do justice to the part of Phrygia.

There was one small change to the choreography as I remembered it; for me this small change made a rather big difference to the experience. A masked Spartacus is dragged out in front of Crassus and his party to fight a fellow gladiator. After a very tense few minutes, the opponent gladiator (wonderfully danced by Denis Savin, whom I would love to see more of as he is a very dramatic and able dancer) is stabbed and dies. In the older productions (as far as I know), when Spartacus removes the opponent’s mask, his eyes are wide open and Spartacus very tenderly closes them. In tonight’s production, his eyes were already closed, although I must admit Savin looked very vulnerable. I always assumed that Spartacus knew this other gladiator personally and that this is the moment he seems to make the decision of rebelling against Crassus and what he embodies: the Roman Empire.