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Bolshoi Ballet -

'Swan Lake'

by David Mead

March 30, 2006 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, England

For many, “Swan Lake" is classical ballet, and in Birmingham the Bolshoi Ballet showed us just why. Wherever you look these days there are new versions of the story, each with its own take on the take on the tale, whether that be Mats Ek’s radical version, Matthew Bourne’s all-male swans or a transfer to a new location, such as Christopher Wheeldon’s vision of nineteenth-century Paris. The Bolshoi’s is a more traditional telling of the story of a prince’s love for an enchanted swan maiden.

That is not to say there are not a few things that might surprise people. Yuri Grigorovich explained that he wanted to move the ballet away from the genre of the fairy tale and closer to that of the romantic novella. He manages successfully to make the action move seamlessly between real life and a fantasy world which mirrors the consciousness of the ballet’s hero, Prince Siegfried. He has also turned it into a two-act ballet—something that works really well.

Grigorovich has added a depth and a psychological dimension to events that “Swan Lake” often lacks. Most notably, the character commonly known as Rothbart has been transformed from a dark sorcerer into The Evil Genius, a personification of fate or destiny, danced here by Dmitri Belogolovtsev. When we first encounter him he is an unseen force, pulling the Prince in all directions. Interestingly the two characters never look at each other in the scene, suggesting that he is in fact the dark side of the Prince’s character. The device also means that the Genius gets much more of a dancing role than is usual for Rothbart.

And so to the dancing: Maria Alexandrova was exquisite as Odette/Odile. While her Odette was full of withdrawn melancholic grace, her Odile was one fiery Swan with attitude. You could almost feel the intensity as she made eye contact with the audience at every opportunity. Her quality of movement was wonderful. Her 32 fouettés, some taken with the working leg in attitude devant, were right on the button and brought the tumultuous applause they deserved. Quite why Siegfried never manages to work out that these are two different swans is beyond me, especially when they are so different, but after all, if he did it would spoil the tale.

Sergei Filin was a young but noble Prince Siegfried. He really was smitten by his Odette. We were left in no doubt that the two characters really did feel something for each other. There were one or two unsteady finishes to pirouettes, but he made for a great partner, always sure in his supporting and lifting.

The corps was quite simply stunning. Rarely can a group of swans move with such precision and grace, beauty in motion indeed. A nice touch was the mixing of six black swans with all those white ones in the final scenes of Act II. Special mention too for the five princesses who unsuccessfully sought the Prince’s hand, especially Natalia Osipova, the Spanish Princess, whose leaps and extensions were quite breathtaking.

And then of course there is the Jester, known here as The Fool. This is a character I always find really annoying and could do without. But he is a crowd pleaser, and he is always danced so darned well. Denis Medvedev was no different with his superb multiple pirouettes and bounding and leaping around the stage with astonishing speed and elevation. The only surprise was that he didn’t join the curtain call at the end of either Act.

The end in this version comes quite suddenly, perhaps even a little disconcertingly. There is no death leap into the lake. Instead, gauze drops as the Evil Genius takes Odette away and Siegfried is left alone with his thoughts, and who knows, perhaps new-found wisdom too.

All this was accompanied by Simon Virsaladze’s stunning sets and costumes. The ballroom, gold in Act I and a radiant turquoise-blue in Act II, was quite sumptuous. Best of all though was his lake. Gone was the chocolate-box looking woodland pool replaced by a simple but stunningly effective drop that while giving the impression of a dark, grey stretch of water, also left plenty of room for one’s imagination.

The Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, conducted by Pavel Klinichev, cracked along at a fair rate. But it was just right and did full justice to Tchaikovsky’s wonderful score.

I' m not sure that there is such a thing as a perfect “Swan Lake”. Like Shakespeare, the ballet doesn’t have to be done in the traditional or period manner or setting, but if it is going to be, this is certainly the way to do it.

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