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Tough on foreigners, but new deal calms Bolshoi performers

Theatre chiefs make minister back down

Arts fight threat of state censorship

"The  2013/14  season was notable for a whole range of successful premieres, all, with one exception, the work of Western creators"

13 AUG 14     No acid attacks, plenty of success - can it be the Bolshoi? So, ironically, quips Moskovsky Komsomolets’ ballet critic Pavel Yashenkov surveying the past season.

He notes that various stars have been giving theatres headaches by sudden departures. For one thing, that at the Bolshoi that Svetlana Zakharova got her own back on the disobliging owners of last year’s Onegin staging, in which she walked out after not being given the first night cast, by scoring an unexpected triumph with her emotional performance in John Neumeier’s The Lady of the Camellias.

He also comments on the resilience shown by the Stanislavsky and Mikhailovsky companies - the second companies of Moscow and St Petersburg - after Sergei Polunin and Natalia Osipova made other arrangements without warning.

Nuggets of news within it are that Altynai Asylmuratova has indeed left the Mikhailovsky, and her pupil Kristina Shapran’s transfer to the Mariinsky (she has been winning praise from British audiences on the current Mariinsky London tour) was to some degree affected by that. Andris Liepa's new job at the helm of the Kremlin Ballet is also noted.

Here is a translation.

Aftershocks of the war

Moskovsky Komsomolets, 12 August 2014, by Pavel Yashenkov

Unlike the previous crime-hit season with its unprecedented acid attack on the Bolshoi Ballet’s artistic director, which set off a chain of murky scandals, the current one was all peace and art. It was not without concerns, of course: the appointment of the eternal stirrer Nikolai Tsiskaridze to the position of Acting Rector of the Vaganova Academy,  the Joy Womack revelations accusing the ballet leadership at the country’s chief theatre of extortion and bribery in exchange for roles.

And when was this? Right in the middle of the trial for the acid attack! But this is all just the aftershocks of the theatre war that had broken out in the past season, and whose secret sources had been unknown to us until now.

The ballet season itself of 2013/14 was notable for a whole range of successful premieres, and - which ought to be remarked with regret - was all, with one exception, the work of Western choreographers. However, next season promises at least partly to correct the situation in which the Bolshoi has been built with our resources but exists on foreign lands. And so, in March a Hamlet is anticipated, whose choreography is by Radu Poklitaru from rebellious Kiev. While in June Yuri Possokhov from San Francisco, along with the Bolshoi director Kirill Serebrennikov, will stage a ballet on Lermontov’s Hero of our time.

The last and most anticipated of the season’s premieres at the Bolshoi was on one of William Shakespeare’s early plays, The Taming of the Shrew. The choreographer was the super-trendy director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, Jean-Christophe Maillot. However, the production’s general dramatic construction did not work. Add to that the many cuts from different Shostakovich compositions - to general astonishment - which bore little relationto what was going on on stage. And yet, what marvellous duets he gave his soloists, and what wit he invested in other choreographic episodes.

Svetlana’s fitting revenge

Then there was Lady of the Camellias, a production on a quite different plane. This is the Bolshoi’s second experience with the highly regarded contemporary choreographer John Neumeier. And for the theatre’s leading ballerina, Svetlana Zakharova, Lady of the Camellias was a fitting revenge. A year ago, she was not made first cast for the John Cranko ballet, Onegin, and as a result there was a scandal, with an ensuing change of leadership: Anatoly Iksanov was replaced as general director by Vladimir Urin.

So it was well understand what was at stake with the current production. On this occasion, the Hamburg specialists picked out for the Bolshoi’s first lady a superb partner - the blue-eyed, fair-haired, handsome principal of the Hamburg Ballet, Edwin Revasov. Without him, the spectacular success that was anticipated at the Bolshoi for the Neumeier Lady would have been impossible. For Zakharova seemed to thaw from her usual deep-frozen state and actually surpassed herself: right through the ballet the image of the consumptive courtesan was distinguished in her interpretation by remarkable stylistic fidelity and psychological believability.

Pharaoh’s Daughter in danger

The famous French choreographer Pierre Lacotte staged his second ballet at the country’s flagshipi theatre, Marco Spada. However, unlike his Pharaoh’s Daughter, which was specially set for the Bolshoi more than 10 years ago, Spada is not an exclusive staging. More than that, the last revival of Pharaoh’s Daughter itself has been losing quite a bit, and now there is a serious danger that now that it appears in the repertoire list alongside Marco Spada, Pharaoh’s Daughter could fall victim to the failure of the theatre management, examples of which one can point to, unfortunately, fairly frequently.

Thus there has been no staging of Esmeralda for more than three seasons - an outstanding exclusive production put on by the former Bolshoi artistic director Yuri Burlaka and the Petersburg choreographer Vasily Medvedev. And where, might we ask, are the works of Leonide Massine, announced on Bolshoi schedules under Alexei Ratmansky?

New casts are not a new problem at the Bolshoi Ballet. But on the posters we keep seeing the same names, Smirnova, Obraztsova, Kretova, Chudin, Ovcharenko, Lantratov. Any other dancers than these, however outstanding they are as soloists, might as well not exist at the Bolshoi.

Well, ok, the situation changed this season for Denis Rodkin - he has danced more than ever before, while with every showing he rises up the ladder of the ballet hierarchy, and he is already now a first soloist. Such an unusually fast ascent for a former pupil of Tsiskaridze is a declaration that is partly political, made to pique his teacher (as if to say, see how this boy develops without you). But not all the teachers of these ballet artists are such politicized figures, or otherwise they’d be waiting years for coveted roles.

For example, even in his second year the talented artist, multiple prize-winning Mikhail Kryuchkov (whose teacher is Viktor Barykin) has not been able to show the role of Evil Genius in Swan Lake (not even show the directors, let alone perform on stage!). And this is far from a unique case.

It’s accepted that Sergei Filin has big health problems. The reality is that he has assistance: the monitoring of ballet dancers and their selection to appear on stage in the productions is down primarily to Filin’s colleague, Galina Stepanenko, who while he was under treatment took over as artistic director, and is now the company’s manager.

Polunin and Stasik

The rotation of personnel went full-tilt at another Moscow theatre, the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre [IB: known for short as 'Stasik']. Just in the past two seasons new names have appeared among the soloists: Tatyana Melnik, Anastasia Limenko Anna Ol, Semyon Velichko, Dmitri Sobolevsky, Denis Dmitriev, Alexander Omelchenko, are names that come to mind. However, the repertoire policy was  mainly created to serve Sergei Polunin. Of course, he is a wholly extraordinary ballet performer, but to build a policy based exclusively on one artist, even if such an outstanding one as Polunin, is hardly reasonable.

Everyone remembers how two years ago, without a pang of conscience he simply walked out on the prestigious English Royal Ballet. This season a similar situation was repeated with the Stasik. Well acquainted, as no one else is, with the subtleties of the English style, Polunin fell out with the British stagers who were putting Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon on for the company, and then flatly refused to take part in the premiere at all.

Moreover, the capricious dancer wrote an announcement of his departure telling of his intention to appear with the Stasik next season only in the capacity of guest artist. Word is that there’s another version now - now Polunin wants to break all his commitments and quit ballet altogether. Yet this was exactly what we were hearing when the artist left the Royal Ballet.

Still, even having lost their soloist who had danced Manon several times when he was a principal at Covent Garden, the theatre emerged with honour from this deadlock. In practice, the whole company danced this highly populated, complex production so well that even by comparison with the English original (which only two weeks before the premiere was being given on tour by the Royal Ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre) it did not feel like a stitch-up.

The other success of the season was La Bayadère, Marius Petipa’s classic, staged at the Stasik in the famous production by Natalia Makarova. Controversial as it is, it the most popular production of this ballet in the world, being in the repertoire of 15 major companies, including the Royal Ballet and La Scala.

Kremlin - a dangerous place

The Kremlin Ballet this season had to do without any premieres - it couldn’t manage. At the very end of the season it suddenly changed artistic directors - instead of Andrei Petrov (in the job from the company’s founding more than 20 years ago),  the new chief was named as Andris Liepa, son of the great dancer Maris Liepa. What caused the 68-year-old Petrov to lose favour was not explained, but rumours say that he clashed at the beginning of the season with the general director of the Kremlin Palace over the staging of the ballet The Magic Flute. The Kremlin, as we all know, is a dangerous place.

All the same, Petrov will not be leaving his office entirely, and he will continue to be involved in the theatre, though now in the nominal position of honorary president. And the premiere of The Magic Flute has been moved to the autumn.

Mikhailovsky lost Osipova

The Mikhailovsky Theatre was also not to escape personnel problems. At the start of the season the theatre effectively lost its chief public attraction, Natalia Osipova, who was invited to work at England’s Royal Ballet, even while continuing to be on the Mikhailovsky staff roll. Then at the end of the season it became known that another two of its principals were off to the Mariinsky, the gold medallist of the last Moscow Competition Oksana Bondareva and Kristina Shapran. The latter resigned to follow her mentor and the Mikhailovsky’s assistant general director Altynai Asylmuratova, who had been directing the Vaganova Academy until Tsiskaridze came to reign over it.

And at the Mikhailovsky now Tsiskaridze’s pupil Angelina Vorontsova was also reigning, transformed in the blink of an eye from a simple soloist at the Bolshoi into prima ballerina at a Petersburg company which has for the past few years been dynamically developing.

The Mikhailovsky’s artistic director Nacho Duato left in the previous season, the first foreigner since Marius Petipa to lead a Russian theatre company. At the beginning of February the contract between the Spanish choreographer and the theatre where for three years he had been the artistic leader ran out, and he went off to Berlin. There he will lead the Berlin State Ballet from next season. While a ballet on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker became a remarkable farewell gift from Nacho Duato to the Petersburgers, and the best acquisition of the Mikhailovsky’s repertoire all season.

Putin saw Eifman’s Requiem

Meanwhile, Boris Eifman, almost singlehandedly creating in Russia a contemporary ballet repertoire that is sought after around the world, has already launched his 38th company season. The last season for this great choreographer has been absolutely packed.

In September, of course, he opened his Dance Academy in St Petersburg, while for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Leningrad from the fascist blockade, he premiered his ballet Requiem, which is the first transcription into ballet of the poetry of Anna Akhmatova. President Putin himself attended the premiere that Eifman gave to the veterans of World War II and the survivors of the Leningrad siege.

Summing up a crime-free ballet season

Svetlana Zakharova & Edwin Revasov in The Lady of the Camellias

(photo Mikhail Loginov/ Bolshoi Theatre)