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Bolshoi Ballet

'Class Concert', 'Elsinore', 'In the Upper Room'

by David Mead

August 13, 2007 -- London Coliseum, London, UK

Asaf Messerer's “Class Concert” starts so simply.  Four small girls, then four boys, doing simple barre exercises that are the very root of ballet.  Half an hour later, everyone has grown up and the audience is having their breath taken away by a dazzling series of virtuosic solos.  It really gives the dancers a chance to show the technical skills they are so good at.  It almost becomes like a competition, especially between the men, as easy attempts to outdo whoever had gone before, jump higher, leap further, turn more, and faster.  And best of all, you can see in their faces that they are really enjoying what they are doing.

Messerer called “Class Concert” “a ballet class on stage,” but actually it is much more than that.  It is a demonstration of the company’s heritage, the connection between school and the stage, and between basic exercises and amazing virtuosity.  It is what the Bolshoi is all about.  In some ways, ballet at its simplest, and sometimes simplest is best.

If "Class Concert" was all about dazzling virtuosity, then Christopher Wheeldon’s “Elsinore” was definitely about moody intensity.  Essentially, the work is a reflection on Hamlet.  It’s dominated by a single pale costumed brooding presence.  There are no defined characters, but it seems as if this is the Prince himself, here beautifully portrayed by Dmitri Gudanov.  ‘Presence’ because although we see him as real, it is as if he is not really there but is still something or someone whose influence cannot be ignored.  The mediaeval atmosphere is added to by Arvo  Part’s music, Paul Tazewell’s costumes and Adrianne Lobel’s great but simple set, dark and angular, that again suggests the castle while never actually saying that is what it is.

The trials and tribulations of Wheeldon’s making of the piece are well documented.  It looked as if the men had the message, but there seemed a distinct tendency on the part of the women to soften things, almost to try and prettify the movement, dare I say, make it more classical?

What should have been another dazzling work to end the evening was hugely disappointing.  Comments following Moscow performances suggested the company really had “In the Upper Room” nailed, but almost without exception the dancers looked decidedly uneasy with Twyla Tharp’s loose-limbed style.  Although it improved as it went along, it was as if they couldn’t let go.  What was especially surprising was that they were also out of time on occasions, with each other and with the music.  And what had they done to the sneakers?  They looked rather like jazz shoes.  Fine, it allowed them to show their beautifully pointed feet, but isn’t the intended idea  that they are different?  Maybe it was just an off evening, but there were other problems too.  The smoke didn’t really work as well as it should have, and some of the entrances and exits looked untidy.  The dancers are supposed to disappear into a shadowy nothingness.  I really don’t want so see people holding curtains open for them.

There may have only been one truly classical looking work among the three, but in a way this really served to show just what the company is truly all about - classicism and technique.  And while this might make performances in other styles look difficult or a little different, is this a huge problem?  What is ingrained in bodies continues to show.  If you have been trained only in a particular style or way of moving, you can’t simply throw it off.  And should you anyway?  Yes, the Tharp looked very different, but does that mean it’s wrong?  Some will say 'yes'.  Just think of the ire that's directed at anyone who doesn't do Ashton 'properly'.  Company styles are important and if they are lost or diluted, it’s very difficult to get them back.  Just think of the criticisms levelled at The Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet as they become ever more removed from what many perceive as ‘true’ Ashton and Balanchine.

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