The background in (what I thought would be) short form...
Bolshoi means 'big' in Russian - they are big in terms of dancers (or at least they were, once having some 300) and also 'big' and loud in a popularist and vaguely common way. If the Kirov might be represented by Princess Diana (reserved, cool etc) then the Bolshoi is like Fergy... not subtle but probably great fun for an evening!
The Bolshoi has had major problems with keeping going as Russia has changed and state support has crumbled. They have also been through the mill with changes in Artistic Director and much politicking seems to have gone on. Little new work got created and even the old productions seemed to get little attention. Star dancers drifted away either completely (like Irek Mukhamedov) or as long term guest artists elsewhere - like Nina Ananiashvili and ABT.
They last visited in 1993 and performed in the Royal Albert Hall (RAH). Critically it was not acclaimed, since most performances were a kind of "greatest hits" mixture from many classics. The critics also thought the dancers less good than perhaps was the case in earlier times. Even so, the RAH programme seemed to sell well, although a planned tour of the UK, of stately homes I recall, fell through the following year. Since then not a peep.
Under Vladimir Vasiliev (Bolshoi Theatre Artistic Director) and Alexei Fadeyechev (Bolshoi Ballet Artistic Director) the company is rebuilding in all senses of the word - rebuilding the Bolshoi Theatre, which was literally falling to pieces around them, rebuilding finances and rebuilding the Bolshoi's reputation as a company of world repute and one with a vibrant and mixed repertoire. At least that's the aspiration. The trip to London is important for them and us - for us a rare chance to see a great company that has been in hibernation far too long and for them an opportunity to test their new prowess in a western capital that has held them in some affection since their first trip here in the 1950's.
Tickets to see them are very expensive - £70 in the stalls. Bringing them over is rumoured to have cost £4m: they obviously don't travel light and they have brought their own orchestra as well. It's easy to criticise promoters - in this case the Hochhauser's - but they don't have the state funding that for example makes Royal Ballet tickets half the price they would be otherwise. Anyway I'm sure if there were pots of money in it then some other entrepreneurs would be wading in rather quickly for their 'wodge'. Alas the Entertainment Corporation went belly up in promoting such arts events and while I'm sure the Hochhauser's aren't exactly starving, they take big risk - which others don't - to bring us goodies that nobody is forced to see.
Gulp - 500 words and still not got to Giselle!
We went to the opening night on Thursday. The big pull for me was that it was another Giselle - it's my favourite nineteenth century ballet so I had to go if only for that. But the other draw was that Svetlana Lunkina was dancing. Lunkina is one of the current crop of Bolshoi babies: just 18. What's more she premiered the Bolshoi's new Giselle back in 1997, so this would be no chucking in at the deep end (interesting though that may be). Can you imagine any English company doing a new production of a classic and giving a 16 or 17 year old the lead? Amazing.
While the tickets might be expensive at least the Bolshoi added another piece into the programme, a practice long since forgotten in the UK it seems. The piece was Paganini and, rather sadly, replaced the original programme which was to feature Spectra de la rose and Pas de Quatre and which many regulars were actually rather looking forward to.
Paganini is to Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of ... and hence is all good accessible stuff, musically at any rate. Originally created nearly 40 years ago it has recently been revived and features splendid designs and costumes - a bit of a surprise coming from any Russian company. Paganini is I suppose very Bolshoi in character - it revolves around a big man (the composer himself) and is all very dramatic. Nikolai Tsiskaridze danced Paganini and was delightfully OTT (over the top). I'd quite forgotten the amount of eye shadow and eye colour that they use - like those who wear much perfume it's quite overpowering until one gets accustomed to it.
The choreography is by Leonid Lavrovsky, perhaps best known for doing the first Romeo and Juliet. He seems to have dominated Russian ballet for much of this century, first running the Kirov in 1938 and finishing at the Bolshoi in 1964 (just 3 years before he died). Alas Paganini did not do so much for me on a first showing - the choreography did not really stand out, if the designs and music did. There were also signs that some of the soloists were rather good, but more on that later.
The audience seemed to like it well enough. Audience demographics always interest me and this audience seemed rather older then normal and one had the feeling that many were turning out to see a company they had perhaps enjoyed years back; there were also more than a few corporate folks about the place - can't go wrong with offering a customer Bolshoi tickets can you?! And then more than a few balletomanes - braving their bank balances for a rare view of what has been one of the greatest of companies. The Coliseum was not full to capacity, but it looks as if respectable numbers had turned up.
Giselle was an interesting experience. It's a dramatic story and they are a dramatic company. But the story is also cool and retrained and that's more tricky of course. But at its core Lunkina was a glorious Giselle - she played it very sweet and girlish, there was nothing knowing in her interpretation. And no overacting either. Technically she was a glory too - I don't think I have seen anybody, including Guillem, promenade on one pointe better. And such expressive arms. I don't think I was quite as knocked out as I was by the Kirov's Lopatkina last year, but there is only a little in it and could just been the repertoire I happen to have seen them in. Anyway it would be nice to see Lunkina again. Very nice.
The corps also impressed me - not because they were particularly stunning in dance terms, or even because there were lots of them (no more than usual in fact), but because they were all the same height and were drilled with a precision. In fact they looked a bit bored, which took the edge off of it, but the overall visual effect was right. They also had some of their character dancers - they have dancers (or used to have) who just dance non-pointe work and the stage got quite full at times.
Where we have a pas de six they have a pas de huit. The 4 boys were very good - again there was a precision in timing that we just never see here (mainly because of lack of rehearsal time I suspect). In general this is why I, for one, turn out to see the premier Russian companies - the dancers and the strength in depth that is on display. But there are downsides...
The Bolshoi is very dramatic, but in a 19th Century way. Mime is constantly overdone and very unnatural. If you wince at the Kirov's dramatic abilities then the Bolshoi can make your toe nails curl! Even the corps grossly overacts/mimes to one another and one is desperate for a bit of normal acting. The story is also told in what seems an unnaturalistic way at times. We particularly hated Hilarian coming to the footlights in Act 2 and doing lots of rather 'flash' tours a la seconde before being escorted off by the Wilis to fall to his death. Also odd to see Albrecht barrelling round for all he was worth after Giselle has returned to the grave. Such an odd way to express grief and the slow, sorrowful, walking one normally sees is much more in keeping.
On the other hand this is their tradition and should we all seek to be companies that are composites of each others' best bits? Perhaps that's what will happen anyway?
Another downside was the designs. Although only 2 years old they still seemed pretty strange and dated in feel and if Paganini had impressed in this respect, Giselle fell into the stereotype of Russian design and set/costume execution. Hilarian particularly suffered an appalling wig and in the hunting scene one of the hawks had a dislocated head - yet managed to remain perched bolt upright on his owners hand throughout. Wilfred wore a comic red and yellow costume - totally at odds with everything else on stage and topped off with a Tommy Cooper Fez. Perhaps Wilfred was a semi-thowback to the jester that seems to inhabit so many Russian productions of the classics. Who can say.
I came away having had a good night - not a stunningly exceptional one, but an interesting night and starting to get a feel for where they are at the moment. Having seen them in something which is not fully them (and their opening with La Bayadere was also perhaps not them) I'm looking forward to seeing them in something which is pure Bolshoi. Next week Spartacus gets going and that will be the benchmark. But Raymonda and Don Quixote especially are also scheduled and will give them scope to impress. What's more it looks like some tickets are getting discounted on the day so there might yet be Bolshoi bargains for those who wait and see. But I hope this tour is a success - we need the worlds great ballet companies to prosper, move forward and circulate.