“Ivan the Terrible”
Bolshoi Ballet
Bolshoi Theatre (Historic Stage)
Moscow, Russia
June 06, 2023

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2023 by Ilona Landgraf

1. E.Obraztsova (Anastasia) and I.Vasiliev (Ivan the Terrible), “Ivan the Terrible” by Y.Grigorovich, Bolshoi Ballet 2023 © Bolshoi Ballet / D.Yusupov For Yuri Grigorovich’s “Ivan the Terrible” at the Bolshoi Ballet I needed some preparation. The biography by the late Ruslan Skrynnikov (1931 – 2009), a research professor at St. Petersburg State University and a leading historian of early modern Russia, seemed useful. Although it was instructive, the reading was tedious. Skrynnikov is a painstaking sociopolitical analyst, an expert in imparting the cruelty of medieval life, but I learned little about the person Ivan the Terrible (1530 – 1584). Interestingly, his nickname terrible results from a misleading translation of the actual epithet Грозный (grozny) which – according the Russian lexicographer Vladimir Dal (1801 – 1872) – can be translated as “courageous, magnificent, magisterial and keeping enemies in fear, but people in obedience”. A “tsar who managed to keep everything under control” – that’s how ballet legend Ivan Vasiliev (who’s regularly performed the role) describes Ivan the Terrible in an interview (subtitled in English and very much worth seeing), adding that “when you bear responsibility for such a huge country, you cannot lose control.”

2. D.Zakharov (Prince Kurbsky) and ensemble, “Ivan the Terrible” by Y.Grigorovich, Bolshoi Ballet 2023 © Bolshoi Ballet / D.Yusupov Simon Virsaladze’s set manifests this vast scope of power and control in monumental fashion. From the rear center, Ivan’s carved ivory throne reigns over the empty Bolshoi stage whose imposing breadth seems to anticipate the size into which the Tsardom of Rus’ would grow until the foundation of the Russian Empire by Peter the Great in 1721. Steep, red-carpeted stairs lead onto the high throne pedestal. It later turns into Ivan’s nuptial bed, and the funeral bier for the corpse of his first wife Anastasia Romanovna. A rotating cylinder hides the pedestal from time to time like a closing wall of a stone tower. Similar cylinders on either side of the pedestal are populated by seemingly subservient (but power-hungry) forces – boyars of different ranks, some accompanied by their wives. A row of six bells at the front of the stage remind us of the omnipresence of the church. They resound to herald danger and disaster or to announce victory on the battlefield. Gathered on either side of the stage, the bells’ floor-length ropes frame the throne like a canopy but are also used to fetter or string up delinquents.

3. E.Obraztsova (Anastasia), “Ivan the Terrible” by Y.Grigorovich, Bolshoi Ballet 2023 © Bolshoi Ballet / D.Yusupov The Bolshoi Ballet currently performs a revised version of Grigorovich’s 1975 premiere production. Next to Ivan, it focuses on Anastasia and Prince Kurbsky, an intimate friend of the tsar who later became one of his leading political opponents and defected to the Lithuanians. That he was a secret admirer of Anastasia and nevertheless complicit with the boyars in poisoning her intensifies the drama.
Grigorovich’s narrative arc spans the selection of Anastasia from a group of potential brides, the couple’s harmonious married life, and her death, which plunged Ivan into deep mental darkness. Her death finally triggers the recruitment of the oprichnina – Ivan’s personal guard that purged traitors and adversaries. While the boyars’ looming claims to power gradually break their way in subversive machinations, outside danger adds to the domestic ferment. Tartars assault the Tsardom, but are routed. Processional dances by mourning women and chalky white harbingers of death remind us, though, that rejoice and misery often lie closely together.

The role of Ivan requires a dancer of paramount physical and mental strength, whose presence rules the stage. Ivan Vasiliev is equipped with all of that and, as it happened, I had the luck to see him perform just this evening. As he crouched on his throne, devout and broody, he seemed lonely and dangerously unpredictable alike. Vasiliev’s jumps thundered across the stage like dynamite; his furious sword and whip knew no mercy. The calm and graceful nature of Anastasia (Evgenia Obraztsova) – a matchless beauty in pearl-decorated garb whom Ivan adored like an icon – softened his irritable character. Slow, restrained pas de deux showed the unity of their souls. Anastasia’s inner strength helped Ivan to 4. D.Zakharov (Prince Kurbsky), “Ivan the Terrible” by Y.Grigorovich, Bolshoi Ballet 2023 © Bolshoi Ballet / D.Yusupovrecover from serious illness. That she was his main support became hauntingly clear the moment her death pushed his mind at the edge of madness (a spine-tingling scene). Ivan’s heart didn’t heal but toughened. In the final scene (whose imagery is reminiscent of the finale of Grigorovich’s “Spartacus”), Ivan hung center stage in a network of ropes as if being quartered. His life wasn’t taken by force, though, but torn between economical, political, and social demands.
Denis Zakharov’s Prince Kurbsky, a potent leader of the tsar’s forces, seemed honest and reliable. To what extent must his ethics have rotten that he yielded to the noxious influence of the boyars, killing the woman he actually loved?

“Ivan the Terrible” is accompanied by a score assembled from various compositions by Prokofiev. Its patchwork of roaring momentum, merciless clonks, melancholic adagios, and discordant overtones seems to capture the atmosphere of Ivan the Terrible’s time trenchantly. Pavel Klinichev and the Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre made sure that the score took full effect.
5. I.Vasiliev (Ivan the Terrible) and E.Obraztsova (Anastasia), “Ivan the Terrible” by Y.Grigorovich, Bolshoi Ballet 2023 © Bolshoi Ballet / D.Yusupov

Links: Website of the Bolshoi Theatre
Katerina Novikova in conversation with Ivan Vasiliev (video)
Photos: 1. Evgenia Obraztsova (Anastasia) and Ivan Vasiliev (Ivan the Terrible), “Ivan the Terrible” by Yuri Grigorovich, Bolshoi Ballet 2023
2. Denis Zakharov (Prince Kurbsky) and ensemble, “Ivan the Terrible” by Yuri Grigorovich, Bolshoi Ballet 2023
3. Evgenia Obraztsova (Anastasia), “Ivan the Terrible” by Yuri Grigorovich, Bolshoi Ballet 2023
4. Denis Zakharov (Prince Kurbsky), “Ivan the Terrible” by Yuri Grigorovich, Bolshoi Ballet 2023
5. Ivan Vasiliev (Ivan the Terrible) and Evgenia Obraztsova (Anastasia), “Ivan the Terrible” by Yuri Grigorovich, Bolshoi Ballet 2023
all photos © Bolshoi Ballet / Damir Yusupov
Editing: Samuel Snodgrass