Bolshoi Ballet - 'The Bright Stream'
August 10 and 11, 2006 -- Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
I’ll start with the bad stuff: there were only two performances of “The Bright Stream”, and you’ve missed both them. And there is no DVD available for those miserable wretches among you unfortunate enough not to have seen this balletic treat.
The curtain rises on a front cloth decorated with Soviet propaganda slogans such as: ‘Every home shall have a cow’ and ‘Smash the Trotskyite bastards’, all very tongue in cheek. An air of gentle satire permeates the entire work together with a nod to the memory of social realism with dancers striking the odd heroic pose from Stalinist posters. There is little plot line to speak of, but what there is concerns a group of entertainers arriving at The Bright Stream Collective Farm to join in with the harvest festival. Zina (Svetlana Lunkina), who runs an amateur group on the farm is initially thrilled to discover that the visiting ballerina is her old friend from their days at ballet school. However, she is then less thrilled when her husband, Pyotr (Yuri Klevtsov), starts to take a keen interest in the beautiful newcomer. The rest of the ballet is about disguises, cross dressing and mistaken identity but everything sorts itself out in the end, of course.
This ballet is funny, very funny, and by the end of the work, when the farm workers cross the stage bent double under oversize cucumbers and gigantic potatoes, I had tears of laughter running down my face.
The ‘Old Dacha-dweller’ (Old d-d)and the ‘Old Dacha-dweller’s anxious-to-be-younger-than-she-is Wife’ must be the most cumbersomely named characters on a cast list that I’ve ever come across. Old Dacha-dweller is reed-thin Alexei Loparevich looking like one of those eccentrics from a Chekhov play, a cross between a country bumpkin and an intellectual with his nose permanently stuck in his newspaper. His wife is almost a pantomime dame with her protruding backside and elaborate hair style and they jointly provide much of the humour by becoming attracted to the ballerina and her partner. The two dancers (Alexandrova and Filin) decide to play a trick on the older couple, arranging to meet the pair. Later, they swap clothes with one another, though the male dancer is noticeably less keen to put on a frock than his partner is to don male attire.
Sergei Filin as a sylph is something all balletomanes simply have to see before they die. Swigging vodka from a flask between his inept displays of femininity he lures the old dacha dweller into romantic confusion. He teeters en pointe like a butch Taglioni with a circlet of roses askew on his head and delicately lifts his tutu to reveal his clumsily tied ballet slippers. His ancient admirer is enchanted; the audience is convulsed with laughter. Meanwhile the ballerina struts round the stage like a pantomime principle boy, not actually slapping her thigh, but exuding an aura of fake testosterone that leaves Mrs. Dacha-dweller all a-twitter.
Is Sergei Filin a comedian? Yes. This is a side to this dancer that I never thought existed. He was screamingly funny and should the Trocks ever go on a recruiting drive Filin could well be their man. As the ballerina posing as her partner, Alexandrova amazes in other ways as she launches into a solo of male virtuosity that was step perfect. I always had this girl down as a strong technician, but just how strong I hadn’t realized until now.
Meanwhile two other scenarios are being acted out. In the first Zina has changed into a long dress and mask and is enjoying an illicit tryst with her own husband. He courts her elegantly and presents her with a bouquet of flowers believing her to be the ballerina. Understandably Zina is somewhat upset. The second sub-plot has the dancers’ accompanist, named only as ‘The Accordionist’, having a rendezvous with the precocious Galya, rather worryingly described in the programme as ‘a schoolgirl’. Galya’s pals Gavrilych, an old farmer, and ‘The Tractor Driver’ decide to have some fun with the newcomer. Tractor Driver dresses up as a dog and scares the living daylights out of the Accordionist; Galya meanwhile demonstrates how harmless he is by getting him to roll over to get his tummy tickled. By the time the ‘dog’ exited on Old dacha-dweller’s bicycle I was doubled up with laughter.
A mock duel is played out between the ballerina en travestie and the Old dacha-dweller over the dubious charms of the Sylphide in drag. Old D-d is fooled into thinking he has shot the Sylph and makes a hasty exit with his wife. Pyotr is reconciled with Zina and everyone joins in a dance led by Gavrilych dressed as the Grim Reaper. All the loose ends are tied up and the entire cast gathers to celebrate the harvest led by a procession of dancers weighed down by giant fruit and vegetables.
I’ve never seen a ballet like the ‘Bright Stream’ before: it completely defies categorization being the only full-length comic ballet in existence. It looks wonderful with a set designed by Boris Messerer of endless fields of ripe corn intercut with a meadow of flowers and I appreciated the cluster of golden statues that grace the big fountain at the Exhibition of Economic Achievements Park in Moscow being included in the harvest festival scene at the end.
All the dancers were superb and displayed the kind of acting skills that are rarely seen on a ballet stage. Although they weren’t given names, The Tractor Driver and The Accordionist, played by Gennady Yanin and Alexander Petukhov respectively, turned in comic performances of sheer hilarity and in Yanin’s case, dancing of the very highest quality (he actually won a ‘Golden Mask’ award for his performance in this role). From her picture in the programme, Irina Zibrova is a very attractive lady but she was unrecognizable as the Old Dacha-Dwellers Wife (clearly a first cousin to Widow Simone), clinging to the memory of her youth and relentlessly pursuing her attractive young man oblivious to the fact that he had actually become a she. Finally there was friendly old git Gavrilych, with his shuffling walk and grey walrus moustache who managed a mean hoe-down with his scythe when got up as the Grim Reaper. Only, Egor Simachev who played Gavrilych isn’t old at all, just another terrific actor.
The four principals were amazing with Alexandrova and Filin fantastic both in drag and out. Lunkina and Klevtsov as the couple whose relationship came under a bit of strain were the serious element of the ballet, but everything comes right for them at the end. At the second performance Anastasia Yatsenko took on the role of Zina with Ekaterina Shipulina and Ruslan Skvortsov as the two dancers. All three did extremely well with Svortsov in particular milking the humour for all it was worth. On reflection, Yatsenko’s Zina worked rather better in one way than Lunkina’s. There was a closer physical resemblance between the second cast girls, making it a little more credible that philandering Pyotr would have mistaken one for the other.
I loved this ballet and so did everyone with whom I spoke. It’s very rare in the opinionated world of the ballet to find a consensus of opinion about a work, but that seems to be the case with “The Bright Stream”. Alexei Ratmansky has managed to produce a work nothing short of a masterpiece, and just as “Spartacus” has been the company’s signature work in the past, I would not be surprised if “The Bright Stream” took on that role in the future.
Read related stories in the press and see what others are saying. Click here.