Friday, 19 August 2016

The Bolshoi Ballet at the Royal Opera House

The Bolshoi Ballet has enjoyed a summer season at the Royal Opera House while the Royal Ballet has been having a holiday. It's the 60th anniversary of the Bolshoi's first shows there and, since I've never seen them before, I had to get tickets to see these famous exponents of ballet.

I got tickets to see 'Don Quixote', 'Swan Lake', 'The Flames of Paris' and 'Le Corsaire' (hey, pirates, obv I got tickets!). The tickets were more expensive than normal but that's only to be expected for a special attraction and all shows sold out. The thing that I was quite surprised about when I attended 'Don Quixote' was that there was merch! I don't know why I was so surprised - if I was touring the Bolshoi I'd have merch (and a lot more than they had) but it did have surprise element to it. Tee shirts, tote bags, teddy bears in lunch baskets, and, of course, a special (and specially expensive) tour brochure. I bought the brochure but avoided the other stuff.

My first Bolshoi show was the quixotic 'Don Quixote', the tale of the good Don's misadventures along with his side-kick, Sancho Panza, but it's not really about them. They're a means for other things to happen in true picaresque style rather than them being the things happening. We have a short introductory scene that shows us the ancient knight deciding to head out into the world and then we're off. We did see windmills in one scene but no knightly charging and vanquishing.

On the other hand, the production was a riot of colour and movement and an incredibly full stage. One of the many things the Bolshoi does really well is crowd scenes, people everywhere but not impeding the principals as they show off. And that's what I learned from 'Don Quixote' was the main difference between Russian and British ballet - the Russians do endless showing off of their technical excellence, including bows mid-scene, whereas those reserved British types don't! And it was wonderful! To see the principals doing their thing and then the whole audience exploding into applause was wonderful. I'll never forget Maria Alexandrova starting at the back of the stage and going up on tippies and going round and round and round and round gradually moving in a straight line to the front of the stage. Wow! That deserved applause and she certainly got it!

The second performance was 'Swan Lake' which I had been looking forward to for a while. I've seen (and love) Sir Matthew Bourne's version of the classic tale but never seen the traditional 'Swan lake' so I was very keen to see it danced by the Bolshoi. And I wasn't disappointed, it was really good with much showing off from the Swan as well as from the prince.

The Swan was beautifully and elegantly danced by Olga Smirnova and the prince was danced by Vladislav Lantratov who also danced our hero, Basil, in 'Don Quixote'. Both of them - and the whole corps - deserved every bow they got, they were splendid! Olga's party piece is obviously dancing round and round and round on hippies but diagonally down the stage and Vladislav's in making impossible leaps across the stage. Such athleticism from them both, captured together and creating beauty. I loved it.

The third production was 'The Flames of Paris' about the French Revolution and this was the only ballet from the 20th Century and the least enjoyable. It seemed to not really know what it wanted to be or what it wanted to say (other than down with the aristocracy). The first act was full of exposition as to why the current regime needs to go and then virtually the whole of the second act is taken up with a court entertainment with no story telling at all until we hear the shouts of the crowd off-stage as the revolution begins. Having said that, I loved the court entertainment and all the fancy footwork and showing off it contained!

This again starred Maria Alexandrova and Vladislav Lantratov as the main characters, along with Denis Savin, and, although they struck some really good revolutionary poses, it was more hit and miss than previous productions. Not through any fault of their or of the corps, but because it was an odd production that kept seeming to stall after running forward with the story. That made it quite confusing to watch - what are we looking at now? I'm pleased I saw it if only to show that the Bolshoi is subjected to the material it's given but what a joy their crowd scenes are, very spectacular!

The final production was 'Le Corsaire', a ballet I'd seen danced by the English National ballet last year and which I've wanted to see again. The Bolshoi gave me the perfect opportunity.  It has scenes of men in turbans and colourful robes, of pirates vigorously fighting and swashbuckling, and of beautiful courtesans winning custom by their exceptional dancing. It's an exotic tale of love and mutiny and the power of wealth and weapons - well, it's based on a poem by Byron. It was also, ultimately, rather disappointing in its delivery.

The principals of Anna Nikulina, Mikhail Lobukhin and Nina Kaptsova were excellent but the corps were less so. The dancing wasn't terribly synchronised and the lines weren't always straight - hardly a big thing but we expect perfection every time from the Bolshoi and that's not what we got except for the glorious floral dance scene which was a spectacle to behold. It didn't really help the plot move forward at all but it was gorgeous.

The Bolshoi Ballet was excellent and I'm so pleased that I've seen them so early in my 'ballet appreciation career'. I have seen some tremendous dancing and technical achievements, spectacular  sets and costumes and great music (the ballet brings it's own orchestra with it, of course). I did find stopping the ballet for the principals to take a bow after every grand piece rather frustrating - at the same time as wanting to clapclapclap - since it interrupted the narrative but it's nice for them to get their own applause. Ultimately it was technical brilliance over story-telling and romance and that's what I'm used to from the Royal Ballet. I love a bit of showing off but I also want to fall into a story and be swept along by it.

The next time the Bolshoi comes back to the Royal Opera House I'll be there in the audience ready to be amazed but I'll have a better idea of what to expect - and I'll bring my special pair of clapping hands! Thank you Bolshoi!

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