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Bolshoi Ballet

'Go for Broke', 'Pique Dame', 'Symphony in C'

by Cassandra

August 14 and 15, 2006 -- Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

“Go for Broke” takes a group of the Bolshoi’s brightest young dancers and presents them in a work that is spirited, modern in feel, but strictly classical. The music is Stravinsky’s ‘Jeu de cartes’, one of the most dance-worthy scores that the composer wrote. For this work, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky uses as much of the classical vocabulary as he can cram into twenty-five minutes and the piece is so fast moving it leaves you slightly breathless at the end. Danced by seven girls and eight boys who are the cream of the company, the ballet is made up of as many different types of groupings and varied exits and entrances that the music’s 25 minutes can provide. There is wit and humour throughout, such as the moment when the central girl in a group of dancers raises her leg in a six o’clock supported penchée arabesque, and another girl comes running up from behind to seize her leg and push it down (the times I’ve wanted to do that!). The boys line up for a series of brisé volés, a step I can’t remember having seen in a new work for years, and a grande pirouette à la seconde is thrown in for good measure. Ratmansky blends all the elements of classroom steps, modern ideas and comedy, like a master chef, and we sit back and enjoy the feast.

Out of a cast of stars, Maria Alexandrova was outstanding, with Natalia Ossipova reminding me of a frisky springtime lamb that can’t keep its feet on the ground as she jumped and skittered across the stage. Among the boys, Yan Godovsky danced with his usual cool elegance, but it was those two cheeky chaps, Denis Medvedev and Morihiro Ivato, both darting in and out of the action with showoff steps and inexhaustible energy, that kept catching my eye. Great fun and everyone seemed to like it.

“Pique Dame” is one of the most popular ballets in the Bolshoi’s repertoire back home in Moscow and it is easy to see why. Russians adore Pushkin and choreographer Roland Petit has created a work much closer to the literary source than Tchaikovsky did with his opera of the same name, but Petit has chosen Tchaikovsky’s music: the Sixth Symphony (Pathetique), but with the movements played out of sequence. I’m told purists are affronted by this, but in fact the rearrangement works extremely well.

The story is about obsession, with the anti-hero Hermann, danced brilliantly by Nikolai Tsiskaridze, fixated on winning a fortune at cards. An elderly countess is rumoured to hold the secret of three cards played in succession that always wins. Hermann’s aim is to wrench the secret from her by any means. He opportunistically pretends a romantic interest in the countess’s shy young companion and is rewarded by being given the key to her mistress’ bedroom. Hermann uses first charm and then force to persuade her to tell him the secret, but she adamantly refuses. When all else fails he points a gun at her and the poor woman dies of shock. Back home Hermann broods on his failure and raises the gun to his head , but is too cowardly to pull the trigger. After collapsing on the floor, he has a vision of the countess showing him the three winning cards and confidently heads for the gaming tables. He starts to win big time, but comes to grief when he plays his last card.  Instead of the card he intended to play, he throws down the Queen of Spades – Pique Dame, and loses everything. He sees the countess again triumphant from beyond the grave and collapses, apparently dead.

A claustrophobic atmosphere permeates the entire work with all the characters caught up in a swirl of avarice. Hermann himself is a fanatic, whose one aim in life is winning at the gaming tables. As a brooding isolate, Nikolai Tsiskaridze pulls out all the stops as Hermann; his eyes gleam with greed, as he shrugs off any sense of morality to reach his goal. His treatment of ‘the young girl’ (Svetlana Lunkina), the countess’ companion, is vile, pretending an interest in the lonely girl he cynically uses for his own purposes and curtly dismissing her with a nod after achieving his aim of obtaining the key.  Lunkina is wonderful at this moment, as she realizes her folly, holding back her tears, and runs off towards what will be a lifetime of regret. If his behaviour towards the young girl is despicable, Hermann’s behaviour towards the elderly countess is downright criminal. At their first meeting in the ballroom, as he seeks to seduce a feeble old woman, it’s hard to tell if their encounter is real or a figment of Hermann’s fevered imagination.

But Ilze Liepa’s imperious Countess is made of stern stuff: She wipes her hand on her skirts after Hermann has kissed it and stares him down with a look of withering contempt. Only in her bedroom does she become vulnerable, her entire body visibly shaking with fear as she is confronted by the intruder, yet still refusing to surrender up the secret of the three cards.  Only the sight of a pistol levelled at her head breaks her iron will. The final scene in the gambling hall where Hermann begins to see his luck change is one of initial triumph, with Tsiskaridze strutting across the stage anticipating a new life of wealth and power. That triumph quickly evaporates into desolation as he throws down the wrong card, condemning himself to damnation.

The three principals turned in searing performances, with Tsiskaridze in particular mesmerizing the audience with his relentless energy, and finely honed acting skills.  He rendered Hermann highly attractive and utterly repugnant at the same time. I’ll let a member of the audience whom I overheard have the last word: “that gave me goose pimples!”

“Symphony in C” has been danced by a great many companies in its history, but I would say that few could have performed it better than the Bolshoi whose dancers so obviously looked as if they were enjoying themselves. The first movement was danced by that stylish classicist Anastasia Yatsenko, whose faultless line and musicality is always so satisfying to watch. Her partner was Dmitri Goudanov, whose light, effortless jumps, soundless landings and courtly partnering, complemented her perfectly.

On the first night, the second movement failed to impress me, as the music was played way too slowly. It is marked ‘Andante’, which should indicate a moderate tempo, but the music I heard almost ground to a halt, presumably to accommodate the listless dancing of Svetlana Zakharova. I was left wondering what audiences would have made of it in New York: a case for intervention by the Balanchine Trust? On Tuesday, Svetlana Lunkina took the lead in the second movement and elevated it to a different plane. Her gentle frailty gave the movement an air of mystery and romanticism: she was spellbinding and gave the entire work a sense of completion that was absent the night before.

With the third movement, the ballet leapt back to life, led by Maria Alexandrova, who takes to the stage like the prima she is and dances with such joy and warmth that you don’t want her to stop. Denis Matvienko, her exuberant partner, is new to London and a guest with the company.  He was a little rough around the edges for this ballet, with perhaps too vibrant an onstage personality to fit Balanchine’s ideal self-effacing male, but I was very taken by Matvienko and am looking forward to seeing him in other roles. The crescendo of applause that greeted these two at the end left no doubt as to who were the audience favourites.

The final movement was also memorable, with hardworking Ekaterina Shipulina (she has appeared in every programme) partnered by Dmitri Belogolovtsev. Shipulina is a cool, blonde beauty with a face that is both Slavic and classic at the same time. She is developing well as an artist and I was heartened that she no longer throws her leg in the air as much as she did a couple of seasons ago. She danced with an inner radiance matched with an impressive technique and seemed to have a special affinity for  Balanchine’s choreography. I would love to see her dance Terpsichore in his “Apollo”.

The finale, with almost the entire company assembled onstage, was thrilling and exhilarating with that magnificent corps de ballet dancing full-out and inspiring a sense of elation in the audience. Well done, one and all.

This was a very well-balanced triple bill, with the brightness of the opening and closing works contrasting well with the darkly dramatic “Pique Dame”. In the past, there have rarely been triples on the U.K. Bolshoi tours and I hope that the huge success of this one heralds more of this kind of programming in the future.

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