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Bolshoi Ballet - 'The Pharaoh's Daughter'

by David Mead

July 31, 2006 -- Royal Opera House, London

Egypt, pyramids, desert storms, chases, lions, snakes…it sounds like it could be Indiana Jones, but no -- it’s summer in London, which means the Bolshoi Ballet are in town performing "The Pharaoh’s Daughter".

It seems incredible to think that it’s been fifty years since the company first came to London. In the programme, Clement Crisp recalls that first visit and especially how the queue for tickets began forming three days before they were due to go on sale. Demand is still as high as ever; nowadays we just queue in different ways. Incidentally, the prices were a little different too. For that 1956 visit, the seats were one penny!

This “Pharaoh’s Daughter” is of course not the long lost Petipa version, abandoned in 1928 as being of little value, but Pierre Lacotte’s 2000 production. Lacotte describes it as a ‘reconstruction’, and elsewhere in the programme it’s called ‘restored’, but in reality it’s pretty much totally new work.

Petipa has long been the base on which choreographers, dancers and producers have done their own thing. What Lacotte has tried to do is return to the spirit and style of Petipa’s original, as he puts it, “to retain the scent of the age”. It does seem like he might have achieved that, although of course just how well he has tuned into Petipa’s original thoughts no one can never really be truly sure.

“The Pharaoh’s Daughter” is of course essentially a dream that Lord Wilson, a traveling Englishman resplendently dressed in safari jacket, tie and enormous pith helmet, has one evening while traveling in Egypt. Fuelled by the effects of smoking opium, Wilson dreams of mummies that come to life and a beautiful princess, Aspicia.

Wilson himself becomes an ancient Egyptian, Taor, and follows her. Having saved her from a lion, they fall in love, the problem being that her father has other ideas and plans to marry her off to the King of Nubia. The lovers run off but are chased. Taor is caught, but Aspicia throws herself into the Nile, finishing up in some underwater kingdom. Of course, since it’s all a dream, she can reappear and save Taor -- who has meanwhile been condemned to death -- and ensure a happy ending.

On the whole, the dancing was superb, especially from Svetlana Zakharova as Aspicia. It is rare indeed to see someone so technically precise in both lyrical and explosive modes. The way many dancers overextend their legs is often criticised today, including by me, but there was something wonderfully aesthetically pleasing about her 180 degree splits on grand jetes.

Zakharova was partnered by Sergei Filin as Lord Wilson/Taor, who was incredibly light on his feet with excellent fast, precise batterie and neat turns. It sounds a bit like nitpicking and perhaps it reflects the standard we expect from the Bolshoi, but the fault came when he stopped. Whenever anything finished on one knee, and sadly for him most things seemed to, there was a loud thump as he put it down, followed by a noticeable wobble.

There were, however, problems with the evening. While the corps were their usual precise selves, Lacotte finishing every set piece for them in an inch perfect sculptural pose, much of the choreography is uninteresting. He can certainly make patterns and it’s pleasant enough to look at, but it’s no more than that. And what of John Bull, Lord Wilson’s servant, played by Denis Medvedev?  His sole job seemed to be to run after his master, Sancho Panza-like. What a waste of a fine dancer’s abilities.

As a story ballet, “Pharaoh’s Daughter” needs to work as a narrative. I couldn’t help thinking that the whole thing would have been so much more effective had it been acted rather more “over the top”. It all seemed to be taken rather too seriously. It would be interesting to see someone like ABT tackle the same ballet. I suspect we would get a totally different impression.

There were some very funny moments. Aspicia fainting into Taor’s arms could have come straight out of an Indiana Jones or silent movie, and the cobra, which appears from some flowers and is used to put prisoners to death, was quite hilarious -- I swear it was grinning at the audience.

Let downs included the monkey and supposedly ferocious lion, which both appear in Act I. The monkey seemed to do little more than scratch itself, turn a couple of forward rolls that any six-year-old could have done, grab a couple of oranges and disappear again. You might have thought a cheeky monkey stealing fruit would have been chased. Not here -- and anyone expecting a “jester-like” showing was sorely disappointed.

The lion hunt, meanwhile, was over in a flash. Where was the panic that should have ensued? Mind you, quite why anyone would be scared of what seemed more like an overgrown version of my neighbor’s cat, I don’t know. Here were two great opportunities for excitement and/or humour, both spurned.

Things being over too fast was a recurring problem. Blink and you missed it. I don’t think anyone expects the four hours of the original, but truncating things brings problems. Maybe it would have been better to leave some things out all together and develop the remainder rather than make so many episodes so short.

The acting rather lacked something too -- actually it rather lacked quite a lot. Russian dancers rarely seem to bare their emotions when acting, and of course Petipa’s original dancers certainly wouldn’t have, but here it was almost as if it didn’t matter. When Taor was captured, there was no struggle, no emotion, in fact barely a shrug of the shoulders. It just happened. In a story ballet the characters have to engage with the audience -- on this occasion something that rarely happened.

Lacotte’s “Pharaoh’s Daughter” is a moulding of today’s dancers and today’s techniques with the style of a bygone age. The result sort of works and it is quite an enjoyable evening, but it could have been so much more.

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