The Bolshoi in HD and the Danes

I had an absolutely packed day of ballet today. I woke up today to see the Bolshoi in HD again -- this time, it was Swan Lake. I've greatly enjoyed the Bolshoi in HD series, but there had to be one clunker among the lot, and I'm afraid this was it. I was disappointed in everything, from the choreography (Grigorovich's quite awful production, which I'd only seen a long time ago on video) to the Odette/Odile (Maria Alexandrova), to even the corps de ballet work. Afterwards I knew I needed a palette cleanser, so along with my friends that I met at the cinema, we all walked over to Lincoln Center and saw the Royal Danish Ballet's final performance of their tour. So despite the quite awful Swan Lake, the day wasn't a waste, because the RDB made it all worth it.

How awful can the Bolshoi in Swan Lake be? Pretty awful. It's hard to get past Grigorovich's production, which both rearranges the score in all sorts of terrible ways, adds a whole bunch of "pure dance" that somehow became mind-numbingly similar, and is ugly aesthetically to boot. Grigorovich's main conceit is to have Rothbart/Evil Genius a sort of alter ego of Prince Siegfried. Evil Genius (played with campy perfection by Nicolai Tsiskaridze) mirrors the Prince in much of his steps. I suppose this was to give more dancing opportunities for the Bolshoi's famously strong male roster, but after awhile it was sort of "Okay, please go away anytime." Prince Siegfried isn't given a bow and arrow for his birthday, he's just sort of led astray by Evil Genius. All the mime and any sense of story is erased. In this version, the whole second act is a sort of "vision" by the Evil Genius, which means that in the lakeside scene, all the swans and Odette are already onstage by the time Siegfried arrives. Odette doesn't make her famous entrance by boureeing onstage and then doing a grande jete -- she's already onstage, so she circles around the stage on pointe and then jumps. This arrangement also robs Swan Lake of one of its most magical scenes -- the entrance of the swans, all flying onstage on arabesque saute.

Grigorovich's other idea is to absolutely butcher Act Three and Act Four. No other way to put it -- all the character dances are gone, and danced on pointe. The mazurka, the czardas, the Neapolitan dance, all gone, gone, gone. Odile makes her entrance with a gaggle of black swans to music usually played in Act Four, and the Black Swan pas de deux is mix-matched in terms of musical arrangements. Act Four is even worse -- the Drigo arrangements are gone, but there's no music in place of the Valse Bluette and Un poco di Chopin. Most unforgivably, Grigorovich cuts the music Tchaikovsky wrote for the Apotheosis, and instead reinserts the music that usually starts the Act Two lakeside scene. I suppose this was because Grigorovich's 2001 version of Swan Lake ends with Evil Genius whisking Odette's image away, and Siegfried left alone. So sad ending = sad music? I have no idea. But whatever the case, I know the end result was to rob Tchaikovsky's ballet of all meaning and poetry and instead make it another Big Ugly Grigorovich Spectacle. Petipa and Ivanov are but bit players in the Grigorovich Show.


Maybe a good Odette/Odile could have saved this sorry mess, but Maria Alexandrova was not that ballerina. I like Alexandrova in everything I've seen her in, but this was a major case of miscasting. Or maybe a bad performance? Alexandrova is renowned for her powerful jumps and bubbly stage personality. She's a famous Kitri, Myrtha, and Gamzatti. As O/O, she looks like someone who's gone to Swan Lake School, and memorized all the steps and imitated all the hand-flapping mannerisms. But not for a second was she actually believable as the Swan Queen. She was very by-the-numbers, but there was no beauty or soul. She doesn't have a very free upper body or a pliant back (Makarova would call it a "singing" line), so the famous, arching arabesques of Odette never come to life. The best Odettes will make one feel her yearning for freedom with just one arabesque. With Alexandrova, it was just steps, nothing more. One would expect her to be a better Odile, but she wasn't. She was technically fine, but, perhaps conscious of her natural tendency towards bubbliness, had her face frozen in a tight smile. She wasn't seductive enough. Again, her stiff, blocklike torso lacked sensuality. Her fouettes had some fancy changes in port-de-bras but by that time I had already tuned out of her O/O.

I want to say I liked the Bolshoi swans, but I didn't. Their unison was excellent, but somehow Swan Lake really isn't their ballet. The same corps de ballet that dazzles so much in Don Quixote looked dull and inelegant in Swan Lake. It didn't help that Grigorovich had them constantly arranged in these geometric formations that looked fussy rather than beautiful. The saving grace of the whole performance (besides Tsiskaridze's delightfully old-fashioned, hammy Evil Genius) was Ruslan Svortsov's Prince Siegfried. He was strong and muscular in the Bolshoi tradition, but also elegant and noble in bearing, and a good partner. He alone understood that the ballet is about love.

The other plus of the day was that I ran into several balletomane friends Eli and Susan and finally met Tonya, whose wonderful dancing blog I follow religiously. After such a disappointing Swan Lake, I knew I needed something to redeem my ballet-going day, so the four of us headed to Lincoln Center to see the Danes again. I scored some cheap orchestra seats for students, and then ran into another balletomane friend at the State Theater. Sitting in the same row as me were Daniil Simkin, Peter Martins, Darci Kistler, Nikolaj Hubbe, and some old Royal Danish Ballet stars. What a palette cleanser to see the Danes!


The program opened with Fleming Flindt's uber-creepy The Lesson, which is about a sadistic ballet master who becomes increasingly deranged as his pupil injures herself doing pointe work. There's not much "dancing" to speak of in this ballet, but it does show off the Danes' famous acting and miming skills. Thomas Lund gave you the creepy crawlies the moment he stepped onstage, and Ida Praetorius (apparently only an apprentice) was unnervingly believable as the child-like student, who has her dancing spirit and life spirit broken by Lund. The Pianist was Gudrun Bojensen, who was the Sylph in Friday night's performance, but transformed herself into a believably plain and dumpy middle-aged martinet. It's not a ballet I would rush to see again, but it is effective in its own way as a theater piece.

As a sidenote, I once saw a documentary about the Perm Ballet School. There was this scary-looking teacher who screamed non-stop at her terrified, crying pupils, and even hit them in the legs or pushed them away from the barre when they angered her. And then there's the famous story of how Marie Taglioni's father made her practice six hours a day for six months, mercilessly pushing her until she developed her pointe technique without modern blocked toe shoes. So the dynamics portrayed in The Lesson are exaggerated, but definitely do exist in the fanatically disciplined ballet world.


The real reason I went was of course to see La Sylphide again. It was the same cast as yesterday's matinee, but I mentioned to a friend that I could see the Danes dance this ballet for eternity and never get tired of its ageless beauty. The music is so lovely, the choreography so perfect. The mime is so eloquent, without a single false note -- there's Madge (Mette Botcher), miming to Effy (a charming, tiny Louise Ostergard) to marry Gurn, there's the Sylph, miming how James killed her with the scarf. One understands it all, and what's more, it doesn't seem old-fashioned. One marvels at how beautiful all the feet of the company are -- not really in their shape so much as the way they use the feet to extend the line, or articulate a step. I also paid more attention to the different directions Bournonville has his dancers jump -- not just forwards in a diagonal or circling around the stage, but sideways, backwards, basically every position in a compass. When other companies dance this ballet, I feel like they can put together great principals, but they can't dance this ballet as completely and organically as the Danes. Everything about this production and their style is just so right. It's like finding fault with Nozze di Figaro -- you just can't.

Performance-wise the company kind of looked like they were at the end of a long tour. Susanne Grinder was sharper in yesterday's performance, and I noticed the sylph corps in Act Two make a few mistakes. The way Bournonville has dancers in those rapid beats, with every landing followed by a connecting step or another jump, makes any small mistake so exposed. Grinder also had a wardrobe malfunction with the wings -- one fell off too quickly, the other wouldn't quite come off, and so she had to turn around and a sylph quickly grabbed the wing and let it fall to the ground. But Grinder quickly made me forget her malfunction in her dying farewell to James. She's really a lovely dancer. Marcin Kupinksi however was stronger today than yesterday, and again, I love how this production has James looking so glum while dancing folk dance, and then soaring in the air in ecstasy, arms crowned above his head in fifth, while thinking of the Sylph. Alexander Staegar again impressed as Gurn.

The biggest malfunction occurred during the curtain calls -- hard to believe, but the curtains wouldn't part to allow the dancers to take any curtain calls! There was a pause, and then I believe two stagehands must have manually pulled apart the curtains to create a narrow gap, enough for the company to scrunch together and take their calls. It was both a cute and absurd sight. Nikolaj Hubbe even took a curtain call with the company while squeezing through the small gap. The audience gave this wonderful company a well-deserved ovation.

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