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Bolshoi Ballet

‘Don Quixote’

July 2005
New York City, Metropolitan Opera House

by Eric Taub

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One of my most treasured recordings is Evgeny Svetlanov's 1960's rendition of 'Raymonda' with the Bolshoi Orchestra, featuring, so it seems, Charles Atlas on the cymbals, and his many brethren on the rest of the percussion. Their descendants were alive and well in the Metropolitan Opera House's pit last night at the opening of the Bolshoi Ballet's two-week engagement. So happily imperative were the zesty clangs, booms and smashes which emerged under the rapier-like flourishes of Pavel Klinichev's baton, I found myself far more often awe-struck by the orchestra's sheer, raw energy than put off by the moments which may have lacked a certain subtle clarity.

And so it was with the dancing. To my Western eyes, used to American Ballet Theatre's more measured and delicate production, Russian 'Don Quixote's,' both this Bolshoi one (credited to so many diverse choreographers they're well on their way to a minyan, although mostly Alexei Fadeechev after Gorsky and Petipa) and the Kirov's, performed here in 2002, have the quality of a manic ride on a rollercoaster upon which is being performed a variety act reminiscent of the old 'Ed Sullivan Show.' There are far more dance numbers than we're used to seeing: clattering castanets, twanging guitars, whirling capes and flying toreadors, demure Dryads, and acres of spit-curls, all presented in a dizzying rush that belies the common canard that Russians are addicted to crushingly slow tempi. If the dancers often seemed to place dazzling speed and stage-thumping power ahead of niceties like, well, turnout, pointed feet, and toes more than passingly acquainted with the location of the knee during rétirés, so be it. Welcome to the Bolshoi, which has long been known better for its crowd-pleasing bravura and scorching energy than classical purity.

Jocularity aside, this is a good thing. In these days of rampant internationalism and homogenization of balletic styles and repertories, I'm glad the Bolshoi still looks like the Bolshoi, and not, say, an imitation Kirov, or New York City Ballet, or Paris Opera Ballet. If the Bolshoi dancers are sometimes cavalier about pointing their feet or straightening their knees, they are never less than passionate about their music, dancing on top of the beat in a manner more reminiscent of City Ballet than the more-somnolent Kirov, where sometimes it seems that keeping on the beat is considered vulgar.

In a production with costumes designed to recreate the look of Vasily Dyachkov's 1906 originals, last night's Kitri was Svetlana Zakharova, she of the india-rubber hips, and formerly of the Kirov. A spirited if occasionally cold Kitri, Zakharova displayed with great generosity her trademark sky high extensions, ultra-high rétiré (her toes touching her working leg somewhere in mid-thigh) and awe-inspiring leap. There are times, however, when too much really is too much, and I found her ankle-to-ear extensions, and their associated distortions, losing their impact with constant repetition; perhaps if she employed them more judiciously, they'd be more affecting.

And affecting they can be, as when in the first act her Basilio, Andrey Uvarov, hoisted her high in an overhead lift as she was swinging her leg in one of those big developpés to the side. She reached the height of her lift at the exact moment her foot reached her ear, and when one of those percussive explosions emerged from the orchestra, so her foot looked like a rocket launched to the moon. Yes, it was a showy effect, but perfectly executed, and visually not far from a sock in the eye. It got your attention. In the Don's dream scene, Zakharova took my breath away with a series of four really big jetés, each followed by a landing in plié, then a quick, strong réléve into a singing arabesque. It was one of the few bits of that scene I recognized, as neither Anna Antonicheva's Dryad Queen, nor Zakharova, danced familiar solos to their familiar music.

Her strength and control are amazing, although in the coda of the wedding pas deux I wasn't sure whether to admire her pluck for refusing to deviate from her showy single-single-double progression of fouettés (with hands on her hips for the doubles) despite an increasingly dangerous and alarming list to port, or abhor her stubborness for that refusal.

For his part, Uvarov's a tall, strong and sturdy fellow, well-suited to hoisting and hurling Zakharova as if she were made of eiderdown (I am hoping she's not afraid of heights). His impressive, gut-busting tours de force might've been more so had he actually finished them cleanly, or started them that way, but in media res he's quite spectacular.

Although Zakharova and Uvarov seem well-suited for each other (he fires her into orbit with such gusto!), their grandest moment together, the famous wedding pas de deux from the third act, seemed often a skeleton of the traditional versions I'm used to seeing, with much nuance (and inconveniently un-flashy steps) stripped out to make way for Big Moments. For instance, in her solo Zakharova seemed so enamored of her big, bouncy relevé-passé combinations, she repeated them, almost ad infinitum, omitting the hopping turns, or pirouettes, in attitude with which Kitri usually leavens this section. I suppose someone decided that the endlessly repeated relevés were more interesting, although it turns that solo into an extended applause-generator.

Some of the dancing in supporting roles was quite spectacular, particularly Irina Zibrova's firecracker of a Mercedes, and Timofey Lavrenyuk's Espada, who strutted and kicked like a macho rooster, and twirled and tossed his cape with the gusto and skill of a master pizza-maker with his dough. Indeed, Lavrenyuk and his hard-charging bullfighters were among the highlights of the performance, from their fiery first-act mano-a-mano bullfighting dance to their stately and proud entrance in the wedding scene, along with their girlfriends draped in white dresses and mantillas. Yes, in this ballet of bravura and commotion, one of the most striking moments was this few seconds of simple walking.

The second-act tavern scene featured a wealth of character dancing, one number after another (like an Olde Barcelona variety show), which did little to advance the admittedly slight plot, but was a feast for the eyes and ears, especially Kristina Karasova's slow, steamy bolero. In a long, multi-layered yellow dress, Karasova clattered her castanets in a sensual counterpoint to the orchestra, swooned in impossibly deep backbends, and arced each kick of her legs to puff up the skirts and flounces of her magnificent costume, making of it her partner. Although little of the choreography of the classical dryad scene looked familiar, it was well-danced, although I didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed that Nina Kaptsova's Cupid wasn't a bit perkier. Anna Antonicheva had regal moments as the Queen of the Dryads, but I feel sorry for anyone who has to follow Zakharova in the piece's climactic grand jetés on a diagonal, as Antonicheva leaped mightily where Zakharova slipped the surly bonds of gravity altogether. In one of the two intrusive solos which break up the wedding pas de deux in full-length 'Don Quixotes,' Natalia Osipova won the audience in choreography which consisted of little more than one booming jeté after another, making up with brio for what she lacked in punctilio, which is, come to think of it, a good summary of this broad and boisterous production.

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