By all accounts, the Bolshoi Ballet’s original 1877 version of Swan Lake was a disappointment. Even Tchaikovsky thought so. The Bolshoi Ballet continued presenting that production into the late 1880s and then retired it because the sets had worn out. The virtuosic version by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov know to us today came nearly twenty years later in 1895. Although it is Petipa who is most often referenced as its creator, it was Ivanov whose genius and imagination as a choreographer brought to life the beguiling world of the swans in Acts II and IV. Those two acts remain the best part of the ballet. Even in the confused and shortened version by Yuri Grigorovich (2001), which the Bolshoi Ballet danced on Friday, those two acts and the luminous performance by the Bolshoi corps de ballet shone through with unmistakable clarity and brilliance.
Grigorovich has based his version on the original libretto (Begichev and Geltser) but it also condenses four acts into just two. The first two acts, danced without a pause, clock in at just an hour. Nearly a third of the original music is missing and because of the lack of continuity in the story telling, Prince Siegfried has no reason to find himself at the lake of the swans to begin Act II. That scene opens with the sorcerer (he is identified in the program not by name, but as The Evil Genius), and Siegfried chasing each other back and forth across the stage. It is unclear if The Evil Genius (Von Rothbart in other productions) is an apparition or if Siegfried even knows he’s there. It is only when Odette and the swans enter that the ballet finds itself, once again, on familiar ground.
Dancing the dual role of Odette and Odile on Friday was Leading Soloist, Anna Nikulina. She proved more effective and believable as Odile, but her characterization put forward only superficial evil. You didn’t always believe that it penetrated to her core. She was truly brilliant in her turning variation that concludes the final scene at the court. Missing was a sense of a true bond between her and her sorcerer. As Odette, Nikulina offered a wan version. There was little of the emotional quality that as driven the best of those who have danced the role. In her final turning variation which reveals the depth of her love for Siegfried, the high-flying delirium that should carry the moment is only partially discernible.
Principal Dancer, Semyon Chudin, as Prince Siegfried, turned in a workmanlike performance but he was often flat and self-absorbed in the acting department. Too often, his love and inner turmoil were communicated only with desperate looks and perfunctory gestures. He seemed to be dancing as much for himself as those around him. Technically, he did everything asked of him and proved secure in his partnering but never really grabbed hold of the role’s transcendental qualities. He seemed most comfortable simply dancing his variations without requirement to fit in, or contribute to the emotional complexities of the story.
Vyacheslav Lopatin as The Fool made a brilliant star turn out of a role that is more of a distraction than an addition. He covers ground, jumps and turns with virtuosic abandon. That the role requires him to upstage so much of the Act I pas d’action is regrettable. It is an unwelcome holdover from the original production. Adding stylish dancing were Anna Tikhomirnova and Anzhelina Vorontsova as Siegfried’s friends in the Act I pas de trois and variations. One of the two was forced to leave the stage before concluding her variation and looked as if she collapsed in the wings while making her exit. She returned to finish the set of variations. Pavel Dmitrichenko, as The Evil Genius, made the most out of a mostly one-dimensional role.
I have already mentioned the problems with continuity and the edited music. The look of the production as a whole is cumbersome and, in the costuming, overstuffed with decorative elements. The jarring aqua blue costumes of the final court scene hardly look in keeping with the darkened, medieval sensibility of Simon Virsaladze’s stage designs. In both acts, large, hanging scrims are repeatedly flown in and out. Every time it is a distraction. The conclusion is also unsatisfying. Odette’s death, as she is swept away from Siegfried by the evil one is crushing and bleak, but also something of an anticlimax. The worst part of it is that it compromises Tchaikovsky’s music, especially where the main theme turns resoundingly to the major key. That music is unfortunately missing in this production. While the Petipa story tragically ends the lives of both protagonists, it also offers hope as it sweeps away, forever, the sorcerer’s dystopic kingdom. None of that romance survives in this decidedly unromantic production.
The dancing was plentiful in the court scene which opens the second half of the program. All the women were on point for the folk dance variations, which unfortunately drained away much of their authenticity and appeal. For a company with such a rich history of character dance, it seemed something of a missed opportunity. Pavel Klinichev, the current Bolshoi Ballet Music Director, conducted the generously sized contract orchestra. They played with a full, authoritative sound. Also excellent were the solo violin obbligatos played by Concertmistress, Searmi Park.
Consistently brilliant all evening were the Bolshoi corps de ballet. Their unerring sense of gestural unity was easily the evening’s highlight. They were spectacularly lit by Mikhail Sokolov’s luminous designs. Especially distinguished were Svetlana Pavlova, Yulia Lunkina, Maria Prorvich, and Daria Khokhlova as the four cygnets. The four are cast in all of the Los Angeles performances. This was the kind of flawless dancing that makes you feel the full weight of the Bolshoi tradition and its role as a standard bearer for Tchaikovsky’s master works.
(The Bolshoi Ballet, under Artistic Director, Sergei Filin, continues its performances of SWAN LAKE at the Music Center in Los Angeles through Sunday. Dmitrichenko, who played the role of “The Evil Genius” in this Swan Lake was arrested in Moscow on February 6th, 2013 for his connection to the acid attack on Bolshoi Artistic Director, Segei Filin. Two other men have been detained as part of the investigation. Dmitrichenko is a principal character dancer with the company and has been linked romantically with Anzhelina Vorontsova, a female dancer from the company, who was formerly mentored by Filin. Both Vorontsova and Dmitrichenko have been critical of Filin over issues involving advancement, pay, and casting. Filin continues to recover from the incident and is under medical care in Germany.)