Bolshoi Ballet at the Cinema – Sleeping Beauty – Telecast from Moscow

by Eric Taub on November 22, 2011

Svetlana Zakharova as Aurora in Sleeping Beauty.
© Bousova. Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window.

Bolshoi Ballet
The Sleeping Beauty
Telecast from the Bolshoi Theater

New York, The BIG Cinema
20 November 2011

Normally, I’m not a fan of stagings (usually Russian) of the classics that shoehorn bravura for the hero into places where he traditionally might mime, or, God forbid, walk. I’m willing, however, to make an exception for David Hallberg, especially if he handles the bravura in question as gloriously as when he shot across the huge Bolshoi stage in his debut as Prince Désiré last Sunday. He hurdled that vastness as if his shoes were seven-league boots, his fleet jetés bringing to life what had, until then, been a somnolent performance of The Sleeping Beauty, just as surely as his kiss would soon awaken Svetlana Zakharova’s Princess Aurora.

I’m also not fond of the “yearning arabesque” solos danced by various sulking princes looking for that certain special something lacking in their lives. Even when they’re different, they’re all the same (crossbow optional), and, really, since a man can’t bourree from sigh to sigh like a lovelorn ballerina, what else is there but arabesques? But if you must see a man pose in mournful arabesque, step through to a deep croisé lunge in fourth with wilting cambré arms, then spin through a sad little renversé (and you must, at least once, it’s an unwritten rule for these things), who better to see doing it than Hallberg, of the endlessly S-curved legs and to-die-for-line? So, for him, I’ll make another exception.

And speaking of arabesques, I hate unnecessary embellishments to bits of choreography that should be set in stone, as here Yuri Grigorovich has done to Petipa’s Vision Scene. Normally I’d consider it a tacky sacrilege to have the Prince answer with arabesques of his own the ones Aurora makes as she poses, beckoningly, on the Lilac Fairy’s arm (rather than simply watching in apt amazement). You may see where I’m going with this, and, indeed, I’ll make an exception, a huge one, if the posing Prince is Hallberg, dancing as he did at this performance. Again and again he’d rise on half-toe and hoist his back leg to a proper horizontal, pause a heartbeat, and then, with a stretch you could feel in your bones, rise ever-so-slightly higher on his toes while his working leg lifted up, up, up a few more precious degrees, as if with his very soul he was reaching out for the vision of Aurora. I’ve never seen dancing quite like this before, or to which the phrase “singing line” might be more appropriately applied.

Of all the stunning moments of what has to be the performance of Hallberg’s life, those last arabesques are what I’ll always remember, and if he can turn such choreographic lead into gold, is there nothing he can’t do?

David Hallberg outside his new home - the Bolshoi. © Dmitry Kostyukov.

I wasn’t watching Hallberg’s genius from inside the Bolshoi Theater, but the BIG Cinema on East 59th Street, as this was one of a series of high-definition broadcasts of Bolshoi performances. Given the force of his performance on a flat (if large) screen, I can only imagine its effect for those lucky enough to have seen it in person. As for me, I’m still adjusting to the idea of live ballet at the movies, but it is not without its charms, and I settled down for this morning’s performance (10:00 am, Eastern Standard Time) after a brief, if expensive, visit from the Popcorn Fairy.

You have to love a company with traditions that allow them to refer to Grigorovich’s 1973 production as the “new” version; such newness is, then, relative, and, however lavish, this revival exudes a certain fustiness. Ezio Figerio’s sets are indeed very grand, with towering columns flanking the stage, with its own beautiful floor, with the effect of marble tiling, and are well suited for displaying the choreographer’s love of symmetry. So, at the Prologue’s christening scene, we have the baby Aurora upstage center, flanked by two nurses, then fairies, then courtiers (and the women have fans!), then those columns. Given that the floor has a stripe going right up the center that could’ve been drawn by King Solomon (“Bifurcate Baby Here,”), it’s a good thing that the theater decided to place its camera for wide shots slightly to the left of center, or the parallax view might’ve made my head implode. Anyway, whenever Grigorovich has a choice, he goes for relentless symmetry (must make things easy on the kids in the corps).

Did I mention the first half dragged? I’m having a hard time finding the conductor in the various programs (“Musical Direction by Vassily Sinaisky”?), but whoever it was set leisurely tempi throughout (“Approximate running time: 3 hours 5 minutes, including one intermission”). The various fairies were lovely and strong, but, for me, only Anastasia Stashkevich’s light and fluttery Songbird stood out. The Maria Allash stopped time with a Lilac Fairy solo unremarkable except for its funereal pace, which threatened that this Aurora might see her sixteenth birthday before its conclusion. Denis Savin was a happily malevolent, hatchet-nosed Carabosse, but his onstage performance was, for me, overshadowed by his whacky, “wait-I’m-not-finished” one before the intermission’s increasingly flustered hostess, in which he seemed to be pleading for us to appreciate the get-no-respect character dancers, and then for, it seemed, his own job. (I’m sure it made more sense in Russian; at least I hope that it did.) Frigerio’s set showed us a backdrop sailing ships in a harbor through the painted arches of its columned pavilion, which looks to be at sea level. So, the Bolshoi’s Magic Kingdom is … St. Petersburg? Could the Lilac Fairy sail her magic boat right up to Aurora’s bedroom? And just how does a castle that’s on the water get surrounded by a magic forest, anyway?

Apparently forgiven for his mismanagement of Aurora’s christening, Alexei Loparevich’s Catalabutte was still the master of ceremonies at Aurora’s sixteenth birthday, mincing and twirling to downstage center as he introduced the Garland dancers, and not budging at the waltz’s first strains. For an instant, I had my own vision of him sticking around to lead the Garland Waltz, which would, I’m convinced, have been awesome. Instead Grigorovich has him step and turn his way upstage between columns of waltzers, along, of course that handy line up the stage’s center, beaming happily, no doubt at not actually having screwed this function up (yet). Although the world may not yet be ready for a dancing Catalabutte, this Waltz could’ve used him, as otherwise it’s entirely forgettable, although I think there were balancés.

Svetlana Zakharova, dancing Aurora, was much as I remembered her from viewing years ago: rock-solid technique, awesome physique, origami-fold flexibility, and Just Not Interesting. She’s not musical, has no concept of playing with the music, let alone flirting with it, and however beautiful or prodigious her positions—especially her foot-to-the-sky extensions, her unchanging manner of coming and going from those positions left me, as it usually does, cold. I liked the authenticity of her smile, and she clearly understands the character, but, aside from a few glimpses of the warm dancer who might one day emerge from her shell (or not), her performance had moments of greatness, without actually for me, being good. Perhaps wisely, considering the globe-spanning audience, she didn’t press her balances in the Rose Adagio.

Speaking of which, Grigorovich brings back some of the Garland Waltz dancers as a frieze like, ultimately distracting, backdrop for the Adagio, because, I suppose, you can never have enough flowers. I did like the way Grigorovich solved two problems that have always nagged at me in the first act, or at least that he acknowledges they are problems that need fixing. First, he has four burly pages just happen to be next to Aurora when she finally succumbs to her her poisoned finger prick. They catch her when she falls, thus sparing us the sight of a prima ballerina crushing her tutu against the filthy stage floor. Also, he has the king send Aurora’s four suitors off on a quest for the Holy Grail, or, I imagine, a cure, thus tidily explaining just why the four princes aren’t around when Aurora wakes up. Grigorovich is kinder than the only other choreographer I’ve seen address this question, Nureyev, who has them run each other through while attacking Carabosse. I suppose with all the gold slathered on the walls of the restored Bolshoi Theater there was nothing left to buy a wand for the poor Lilac Fairy.

Svetlana Zakharova as Aurora in Sleeping Beauty.
© Bousova. Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window.

Frigerio’s designs proved oddly problematic in the next, oddly huntless, hunting-party scene, which takes place in the same location as Aurora’s birthday, but with vines and trees overgrowing everything. I can just barely accept that these upperclass twits might not realize the significance of the colonnade into which they’ve wandered, except they never acknowledge that they are, in fact, within an edifice, but how do they not notice the enormous honking vine-bestrewn castle that’s RIGHT BEHIND THEIR BACKS? Of course, the very solid columns and the floor can’t be moved offstage, but why paint a backdrop that requires the characters to be blind or stupid? Why not, I don’t know, a forest? (It will be left as an exercise for the reader to determine why, from the outside, this castle appears to be surrounded by land, but from within, by water.)

Perhaps these aristocrats aren’t a hunting party at all, but a peasantspotting one, as the Bolshoi character dancers entertain them with a rollicking peasant dance that’s as entertaining as it is utterly unnecessary. But since this is the scene that brings us Hallberg, these concerns hardly matter. From his first flying-carpet jetes, it was as if he’d turned up the performance’s thermostat, or run an alarm. You could feel everyone in the theater take notice, then hear them cheer. After Hallberg loped around the stage in an space-devouring manege, the camera zoomed in for closeup on his face, smiling with what looked to be equal parts relief and triumph. With Hallberg, the man and the stage met, and suddenly this was an entirely different ballet. After sending everyone else offstage, Hallberg got to do his yearning-arabesque solo, and then, for the Vision Scene, greet the vision of Aurora with those afore-mentioned heartbreaking arabesques. The corps danced with all the verve and excitement they’d lacked in the Garland Waltz, and Allash seemed also more energized.

Rather than recite a list of the wedding scene’s many worthy dancers, I’ll mention standouts, like Anastasia Stashkevich’s (where have we seen her before?) perky Red Riding Hood, and the Bluebird couple of the tightly wound Nina Kaptsova and elegant, soft-landing Artem Ovcharenko. In the Grand Pas de Deux, Zakharova showed those afore-mentioned hints of the greater dancer she might be (the Hallberg Effect?), although mostly her dancing was as technically marvelous as it was affectless. I didn’t sense much chemistry between her and Hallberg, the opening formality of their adagio as they first address each other never quite thawing. Again, Hallberg was brilliant, and at the ballet’s ending, it seemed he was well on his way to joining the ranks of Bolshoi royalty.


Jann Parry November 22, 2011 at 17:20

Bolshoi Sleeping Beauty in London cinemas

The main problem with Grigorovich’s production of The Sleeping Beauty (his third) is that he has lost interest in the story. There’s a sumptuous setting by Ezio Frigerio, with costumes by Franca Squarciapino – the pair who designed several of Nureyev’s productions for the Paris Opera Ballet and ENB – but no context for Aurora’s coming-of-age.

In the Prologue, the cradle is placed upstage centre. The fairy godmothers ignore it during their variations: they haven’t bothered to present the infant with any gifts, material or metaphorical; they’re just showing off. Carabosse gets plenty of evil gloating mime but the Lilac Fairy offers no specific response: she waves her arms around but doesn’t spell out that Aurora will not die but sleep, after which all will be well.

I did like the naughty peasants’ knitting dance at the start of Act I and Catalabutte’s hypersensitive reaction. He interacts with the hordes of garland corps and kids: as Eric Taub comments, you can never have too many flowers in a Petipa spectacular. But either the camera missed Aurora’s entrance or she just walked in discreetly from the wings, behind the assembled guests. (The camera work wasn’t great). Svetlana Zakharova gave us the grand ballerina, not the 16 year old debutante. She has a formidable technique, her hyperextended legs better controlled than when she was with the Kirov Ballet. But as Aurora, she related to no-one on stage, apart from a token acknowledgement of her parents.

Carabosse duly cursed her but had to slink offstage instead of vanishing through a trap-door. The elaborately patterned floorcloth, which remained in place throughout, evidently cannot allow the devices the new Bolshoi stage must be able to accommodate. No magical forest growing over the palace at the end of Act I. No forest at all in Act II, even though the fairytale’s original French title is La Belle au bois dormant – the beauty of the sleeping wood. And no panorama either.

So Act II takes place in no particular place or period. The prince – David Hallberg, costumed like no-one else on stage – arrives in a heroic whirl as though he’s mistaken this production for another Grigorovich ballet: Spartacus or The Golden Age. A massive manège of grand jetés was followed by speedy spins and an unforgiving close-up. Physically beautiful though he is, Hallberg’s vapid ballet-prince expression shouldn’t be seen in high definition. Grigorovich’s choreography for the prince is similarly vapid, consisting of repeated classroom enchainements signifying nothing, however elegantly executed.

No mime from Lilac, no vision of Aurora, no accounting for who the busily prancing corps might represent. As Eric Taub describes so graphically, Hallberg yearned magnificently for cool Zhakarova. Suddenly a boat arrives in a gush of dry ice and exits smartly with Lilac and the prince on board. Before they reappear at the castle, Carabosse is carried about triumphantly by her vermin – then, ignored by the camera, they’re gone. The palace gates part and the prince needs no prompting to deliver the kiss, after which we’re swiftly into the last act. (Just the one interval, after Act I.)

The wedding scene is formally magnificent, the many diverts. splendidly danced, with the honours going to Princess Florine and the Bluebird. Nina Kaptsova, newly promoted to principal, must be a lovely soubrette Aurora in an alternative cast; Artem Ovcharenko has deep, soft plié and clean, clear batterie. Zakharova came over quite coquettish in her Grand Pas variation, just when Aurora is supposed to have matured, and had little rapport with Hallberg. He was enthusiastically applauded for his variation, which devoured so much space that he nearly ran out of stage, bolshoi though it is. The final tableau has the Lilac Fairy held high above the massed dancers, as she was at the end of the Prologue and Act I: a reassurance that all has indeed been well danced, though hardly well told.

Marc December 6, 2011 at 03:05

I’ve seen this in youtube. And all I can say is, it’s just not that good. I really think the Royal Ballet’s Peter Wright and Monica Mason’s production is the best model out there, just like RB’s The Nutcracker.

Svetlana’s extensions are not working for me, they made it look funny especially in the Wedding Pas de deux. I really wanted her to tone it down a bit because every time I see her kick that leg high, I really thought she would be touching her ears! It just ruins the moment which is supposed to be magical.

Eric Taub December 7, 2011 at 02:12

Jann, you’re right, Grigorovich’s production has a lot of bland choreography. I also was a little frustrated by camerawork that zoomed in on the Prince’s kiss, so we never know what happens to Carabosse at that moment.

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