BWW Reviews: THE BOLSHOI BALLET Finishes a Sold-Out Lincoln Center Festival Engagement With a Lumbering SPARTACUS
Returning to NYC after a nine-year hiatus, the storied Bolshoi Ballet danced to nearly sold-out houses night after night at the Koch Theater during the 2014 Lincoln Center Festival in July. The evening of July 25th, when I saw the company's largely turgid production of "Spartacus", was no exception. Other reviewers had already panned the company's first two ballets of the warhorse repertoire for the run, "Swan Lake" and "Don Quixote". None other than Alistair Macaulay of The New York Times wrote on July 16th that the Bolshoi "seems keen to prove that it has reverted to the ghastly artistic torpor it enjoyed in the last two decades of the Soviet era."
Yet I was not at all surprised at the resounding box office success of the run. With all due respect to Mr. Macaulay, the Bolshoi had nothing to do with the choice of which ballets to bring to our shores. The presenters wanted the tried and true Russian staples that would almost certainly guarantee ticket sales. I learned this when Wendy Perron, Editor-at-Large of Dance Magazine, interviewed Artistic Director Sergei Filin prior to a performance of Youth America Grand Prix last April. She referred to her earlier interview with Filin that was published in the magazine's January 2013 issue. She had asked, "The next time the company comes to the U. S., would you consider bringing some of the more current ballets like the Mats Ek or Wayne McGregor?" Filin answered, "Usually the presenters want Swan Lake or Don Quixote. They don't want contemporary choreography because there are many American companies who do it. It's not up to us . . . The presenters want to have the full-length, beautiful, grandiose ballets. That's what the public likes."
The presenters were clearly correct. Unfortunately, the adjective "grandiose" turned out to be more apt than the adjective "beautiful" this time around, based on what I've read and what I saw. "Spartacus", choreographed by Yury Grigorovich and loosely based on a novel about the slave uprising against the Romans known as the Third Servile War, is a spectacle in the worst sense of the word. I'm very glad I read the synopsis before the curtain rose because following the story line during scene after scene involving thundering troops of warriors and slaves interspersed with an odd conceit called "monologues" was a serious challenge. For the monologues, a scrim would lower in order to hide the ensemble so that a lead dancer could emote during a solo variation. After the third or fourth monologue, I decided to stop trying to understand the supposed content and simply focus on the mostly excellent dancing and the magnificent score by Aram Khachaturian. Sometimes, if even the dancing failed to engage me, I turned my attention instead to the orchestra pit where the very fine Bolshoi Orchestra under the direction of Pavel Klinichev was making its magic.
That said, my gaze never wandered from the stage when Svetlana Zhakarova was doing her mesmerizing best in the role of Aegina. She is a marvel, with unparalleled technique and an enviably innate acting ability. In particular, her saucy seductress dance during Act III made sitting through the rest of the ballet seem worthwhile after all.
To be fair, though, there was another notable highlight. Mikhail Lobukhin as Spartacus and Anna Nikulina as Phyrgia danced a poignant love pas de deux with both passion and precision. Even so, Lobukin as well as Alexander Volchkov in the role of Crassus failed to deliver the kind of pyrotechnics we've come to expect from male dancers these days.
I do hope that we won't have to wait nearly a decade before we see the Bolshoi here again. However, I also hope that the presenters might take a chance on letting us see the contemporary direction in which the company is going. My bet is that New York area dancegoers, a famously sophisticated and knowledgeable lot, would snatch up tickets just as fast for innovative works as they did this year for the usual suspects. During the pre-YAGP interview, Wendy Perron advised us all to "go to Moscow" to see the full range of the Bolshoi's current bill of fare. We shouldn't have to do that. Give us the benefit of the doubt!
Photo by Elena Fetisova