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3 AUG 15 Here’s a detailed and expressive review of Yuri Possokhov’s new full-length ballet for the Bolshoi based on Lermontov’s novel, A Hero of Our Time. Commissioned by Sergei Filin as one of his steady stream of new creations for the Moscow company, it was expected by some - considering its radical, headline-making director Kirill Serebrennkov - to upset some horses.
The 45-year-old director, lionized around the world for his unfettered talent for making festival-friendly films and staging theatre and opera productions that make waves, was invited by Filin to choose any material he wished to make the Bolshoi a ballet (his first ballet). He chose Lermontov’s classic novel, but it appears that anyone anticipating being offended will be disappointed.
According to Kommersant’s ballet critic, Tatiana Kuznetsova, it is essentially a well-made, traditional classical ballet, just as the majority of Russian audiences would like. This, presumably, makes it a feather in Filin’s cap, though it was not enough to prevent Bolshoi general director telling him 10 days after the premiere that he will lose his job next spring.
Western followers will now be wondering whether the Bolshoi will tour such an “accessible” ballet abroad - but that depends entirely on impresarios, and we live in highly conservative box-office times. First, the ballet needs to win solid backing from its home audiences.
Here’s a translation of Kuznetsova’s faintly disappointed review - she apparently regrets the homogenising of the main characters.
Effective in its way
On the New Stage of the Bolshoi Theatre world premiere of a ballet, Hero of Our Time, composed by Ilya Demutsky, and staged by choreographer Yuri Possokhov and director Kirill Serebrennikov. The premiere sparked an understandably enormous amount of publicity. Tatiana Kuznetsova reports.
The chief culprit for all the excitement was Kirill Serebrennikov, plus the fact that the Bolshoi had commissioned an array of well-known creatives who normally have no interest in ballet. The Bolshoi’s ballet director Sergei Filin made the invitation to the unofficial leader of contemporary Russian theatre, giving the ballet debutant carte-blanche. Director Serebrennikov himself chose his favourite Lermontov novel, which he thought could be simply staged for ballet. He thought up the concept (as a three-act ballet, Bella, Taman and Princess Mary, with three separate Pechorins), he personally wrote the libretto, cleverly hanging it on quotes from the book, and himself chose the composer, Ilya Demutsky (also new to ballet). He came up with the scenography and even (with the help of the artist Elana Zaitseva) designed the costumes.
Yuri Possokhov, an alumnus of the Bolshoi (in 1980 he was a company principal, and in 2000, when already a choreographer at San Francisco Ballet, staged three successful ballets for the Bolshoi Ballet), only had to accept the rules of the game, which the sympathetic choreographer accepted with alacrity.
The result was unexpected. Director Serebrennikov stands back for Possokhov’s choreography, so that the staging shows no sign either of his usual radical work, nor any distinct director’s concept. Broadly speaking, it’s not clear why “hero” nor “of our times”.
The one contemporary aspect is the wheelchair dancers in the roles of soldiers, victims of the Caucasian wars being treated in Pyatigorsk. These experts in sports dance fit naturally into the mise-en-scène, their energetic spins and turns are woven into a dance of balletic “invalids”, which both looks elegant and so thrilling that in their excitement the audience doesn’t notice (let alone, judge) the stage’s “fashionable society”, squeamishly turning away from the cripples. But this social episode has no more relevance to the essence of the “psychological” ballet constructed around Pechorin’s emotional ramblings than the archaic fitness equipment that fills the old Pyatigorsky sports hall in which the action for Princess Mary takes place. And in fact Pechorin is the most shadowy figure in the ballet.
As a choreographic text there is abundant dancing: every section begins with the hero’s monologue, in each novella he makes a distinct contrast with the male corps de ballet, there are countless love duets, and his involvement in the greater part of the mise-en-scène is minimal. All the Pechorins look superb, they act the mime sincerely, they dance with passion, bold and clean (some technical roughness can be seen only in the lifts), but none of them relates to another. Arrogant Igor Tsvirko (thus unable to love Bela), the confused Artem Ovcharenko (unwitting victim of Ondine’s smugglers), the ravaged Ruslan Skvortsov (whose affair with Vera appears ephemeral, courting Mary with forced passion and an animosity towards Grushnitsky that’s painted in primary colours) - all these men have different characters and psychological reactions, united only by their uniform and a formal final trio. In the overall scheme, this multifaceted Pechorin comes across as surprisingly monochrome and internally static.
As a result, it’s the secondary characters and women who emerge as the actual heroes of the ballet. Here we have a whole gold-mine of dramatic accomplishments. The unusually virtuous, hopelessly loving Bela of Olga Smirnova works flawlessly in terms of dance and mastery of acting (despite the fact that Bela is dressed in salwar kameez, putting her back in a world of the ayah in La Bayadère, the psychological refinement of the role is truly Lermontovian).
The long-legged, long-haired, indomitable Ekaterina Shipulina finds in Ondine one of her finest roles: the wildness of her huge jumps and heedless lifts creates an unnerving effect in Taman something like the flickering light of the ocean. The excellent Yanko of Vyacheslav Lopatin, climbing out of the deformed, swollen body of the comic Old Woman (here, probably, we should credit director Serebrennikov for coming up with this transformation): short, muscular, supple, capable of anything in dance, he is the embodiment of the power of ungoverned wilfulness. The blind boy is outstandingly well conceived and performed by Georgi Gusev: his lack of sight is felt in every movement by this touchingly gifted young performer, including his complex jumping solo.
Princess Mary is above all notable for Denis Savin’s Grushnitsky, a lanky neurasthenic battered by life and slighted by Pechorin, who really does show the “heart under the soldier’s greatcoat”. Savin’s sensitive plasticity as a dancer, able with one movement of his shoulder to expess the spiritual collapse of a hero, is a treasure for a choreographer, but Yuri Possokhov has given him a rich dance text of despairing jumps and a whirl of all kinds of spins, and as a result Savin’s Grushnitsky seems more interesting than Pechorin himself.
Svetlana Zakharova was a predictably beautiful Mary, trying very hard to seem naive and in love, taking great care with the fioritura of her choreography, and most sincerely invoking the form of an abandoned and betrayed woman, even if the dramatic temper of her final long variation had evident shades of her mad Giselle. But even Mary, beautiful in white lace gowns, was eclipsed by the mourning Vera of Kristina Kretova: the passionate hunger of her duets with Pechorin, her slow passes across the stage, the agonised breakdown at the ballet barre, all made Pechorin’s beloved the chief hero of the final act.
Yuri Possokhov’s ballet is 100 percent classical, and gives the artists some outstanding roles. Even more, it fits as an whole into the Russian tradition, with our liking in theatre for pathos, spirited gesticulations, severance between soloists and corps de ballet, and full-frontal metaphors in the scenario. If you look hard, the choreographer has scattered through his abundant dance a number of inventions: some original lifts, new types of movement, some quick-witted links. But they are all well concealed in a dense weaving of familiar classicism.
Traditional ballet does not mean bad or backward. It’s easy on the eye and simple to understand. Even Demutsky, the composer, from whom some were anxiously expected radicallism, has written music that though it has some challenges (particularly rhythmic), emotionally is arousing and quite accessible, generous with organic ballet components such as mazurkas, galops and marches. And even the singers and solo musicians, coming onto the stage at the culmination of the dance, seem like organic ingredients of the traditional structure of Hero. It’s hardly of our time, but it is enjoyable in almost all respects.
"Traditional ballet does not mean bad or backward. It’s easy on the eye and simple to understand"
Kretova, Skvortsov, Zakharova in ‘A Hero of our Time’ (© Bolshoi/ Damir Yusupov)