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Paris Opera Ballet

Taking On the Most Russian Ballet in Existence

'Ivan the Terrible'

By Cassandra

January 2004 -- Opera Bastille, Paris

The first thing I must say about the Paris Opera Ballet dancing “Ivan the Terrible” is that probably no other company outside of Russia has either the resources or the ability to perform this work adequately. It isn’t the first time this company has tackled "Ivan" as they first danced it back in 1976, and there is a fabulous picture in the programme of the wonderful Noëlla Pontois in the role of Anastasia that makes me wish I’d been there then to see it. I’m told that in Paris this revival has been considered an odd repertory choice, particularly as Grigorovitch’s choreography tends not to be much admired outside of his native Russia, but it seemed to be received with some enthusiasm by the audiences at the Opera Bastille at the three performances I attended.

The history of Ivan’s reign is told in a series of episodes from his life. The ballet begins with the young Tsar choosing a bride before going on to fight and defeat the Tartar hordes. After a victory celebration Ivan becomes mysteriously ill but recovers in time to deal with his troublesome boyars. The second act opens with a scene depicting the marital happiness of Ivan and his wife Anastasia before she is wickedly poisoned by those plotting boyars. Ivan’s grief turns to lunacy as he rampages about the land with his close followers the Oprichniky.

As history, it just about holds up as Ivan ascended the throne very young, fought some of the (less fierce) Tartar tribes successfully and enjoyed a happy marriage with Anastasia, the first of his many wives (perhaps as many as nine). He did suffer a mystery illness at one point and always believed that his wife had been poisoned by his enemies. His cruelty was appalling and noted from a very early age as he had a childhood propensity for torturing and killing animals. Today he would be considered a psychopath.

The role of Prince Kurbsky is pure fiction or poetic licence if you prefer. There was a Prince Andrei Kurbsky, in real life Ivan’s most trusted general and a great letter writer from whom we learn a lot about Ivan’s reign, but he was never Ivan’s love rival nor was he implicated in the death of Anastasia. The real Kurbsky fell out with the tsar over the decision to invade Lithuania-Poland, defecting to the other side in his anger. Ivan never recovered from the loss of his closest ally and it was this act of “treachery” that unhinged Ivan, not the loss of his wife.

Putting all this into dance terms poses a challenge to put it mildly, and most likely Grigorovitch was influenced by Eisenstein’s famous film together with the existing Prokofiev score rather than the basic facts of Ivan’s reign. I’ve seen the Bolshoi dance this ballet on a number of occasions; both in the full-length version and the abridged version presented on tour and consider it to be the most “Russian” ballet in existence.

So how did the French dancers do? I would say rather well actually: Of course they looked very different from their Bolshoi counterparts, dancing with the precision and finesse that comes so naturally to them, but I’m not sure if these qualities are quite what this ballet needs. In Moscow the dancers fling themselves into the action regardless of such niceties as line and technical accuracy whereas in Paris each step, (many fiendishly difficult), is performed with academic exactitude. The major difference is the music: it is played at a slightly faster tempo in Moscow and when on my third viewing in Paris the conductor decided to pick up the pace a little, the ballet gained a degree of panache that had been missing in the earlier performances.

In the title role of Ivan I found little to choose between Nicholas Le Riche and José Martínez as both seemed to relish the challenge of dancing a role so far removed from what they have done up to now. Some of the steps seemed to suit Le Riche rather better than the elegant Martinez, but both portrayed a complex personality and tortured soul superbly. In the first cast Eleonora Abbagnato as Ivan’s wife, Anastasia, lacked the inherent innocence of the character but Delphine Moussin (opposite Martinez) was perfection, portraying faultlessly the pure and fragile feminine ideal that characterizes Grigorovitch’s heroines.

The other major role, that of Prince Kurbsky, has choreography every bit as tricky as that performed by Ivan and I was pleasantly surprised by the first cast Karl Paquette, a dancer I haven’t much admired in the past, but on this occasion giving a first rate account of himself as Ivan’s ally and rival. It helps that he has a deep Russian plié to call upon and although he hasn’t quite mastered those crotch-splitting jetés that Grigorovitch clearly loves so much, he came pretty close. In the second cast Hervé Moreau made an aristocratic Kurbsky but put less feeling into the role than Paquette. When Ivan chooses Kurbsky’s beloved Anastasia as his future bride, Moreau merely looked a bit miffed where in the past I’ve seen a Russian Kurbsky leave the stage as a broken man.

As in all Grigorovitch’s ballets the corps de ballet was worked to the hilt as Russian peasants, aristocracy and warriors, Tartars, harbingers of death and victory and sinister Oprichniks. All danced with gusto; and a special word of praise for the bell-ringers that punctuate the action and contribute to the final striking tableau of Ivan entwined in the bell ropes like a wild-eyed Quasimodo: they were magnificent.

In the last few years the Bolshoi has invited both Pierre Lacotte and Roland Petit to mount works in Moscow and there has been an exchange of principal dancers also; so who knows what we may see in Paris next, "Spartacus"?


Edited by Jeff.

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