Russian Companies

Four Dancer Nominees for the Prix Benois 2017

Prix Benois de la Danse
Bolshoi Ballet / Korean National Ballet / National Ballet of Uruguay
Moscow / Seoul / Montevideo
April 28, 2017

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2017 by Ilona Landgraf

1. Statuette of the Prix Benois de la Danse, design by I.Ustinov © Y.PokrovskyOn May 30th and 31st the Bolshoi again hosts the ceremonies of the annual Prix Benois de la Danse Galas. Prizes will be given on the first evening, while the gala on the following day will look back on highlights from the twenty-five-year history of the Prix Benois. It is already known that Marcia Haydée will be awarded the Benois Prize for Lifetime Achievement and Aurelie Dupont the Russian-Italian Prize Miroir de la Danse.

This year’s nominees include seven choreographers, six ballerinas and seven male dancers. I asked four dancers – two female, two male – about the roles which earned them the nomination: they are, alphabetically, Nina Kaptsova (Bolshoi Ballet), Jae-Woo Lee (Korean National Ballet), Maria Riccetto (National Ballet of Uruguay), and Denis Rodkin (Bolshoi Ballet).
All four were asked the same questions:
“Why was performing this role special compared to other roles you danced? What challenged you? In what perspective did the role make you grow as an artist?”

Here is what they answered: (more…)

Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin on “Swan Lake”

“Swan Lake”
Vienna State Ballet
Moscow / Vienna
April 28, 2017

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2017 by Ilona Landgraf

1. S.Chudin and O.Smirnova, “Swan Lake” by Y.Grigorovich after M.Petipa, L.Ivanov and A.Gorsky, Bolshoi Ballet © Bolshoi Theatre / D.YusupovIn mid-May Vienna State Ballet revives Rudolf Nureyev’s “Swan Lake,” the version he choreographed for the company in 1964. The new set and costumes are by Luisa Spinatelli. Four guest dancers will take the leading roles in the course of the run. The Bolshoi’s Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin dance twice, on May 14th and 17th; on June 4th Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov of The Royal Ballet guest in Vienna. The last performance on Monday, June 12th, will be streamed live on the internet.

While “Swan Lake” is Smirnova’s debut in Vienna, Chudin returns for the third time to the Austrian capital. Two weeks before opening night I asked both about their roles and about Nureyev’s production in particular. Smirnova, who at that time was in Moscow, answered in written form. Katerina Novikova, head of the Bolshoi’s press office, kindly translated Smirnova’s answers into English. Chudin, already rehearsing with the company in Vienna, talked with me via Skype. (more…)

Heightened Drama

“Mayerling”
Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Music Theatre
National Theater
Munich, Germany
April 06, 2017

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2017 by Ilona Landgraf

1. S.Polunin and A.Pershenkova, “Mayerling” by K.MacMillan, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Music Theatre 2017 © W.Hösl Igor Zelensky invited Moscow’s Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theatre, his own former troupe, to perform as a guest company for this month’s Ballet Festival Week in Munich. Last October, after a short period of double directorship in Moscow and Munich, Zelensky decided to concentrate solely on directing the Bavarian State Ballet. Laurent Hilaire, former Paris Opéra Ballet étoile, took over Zelensky’s post at the Stanislavsky in January this year.

The Stanislavsky brought along Kenneth MacMillan’s “Mayerling”, a piece rarely performed on German stages. As a special treat, Sergei Polunin danced the leading role at both performances. I saw the opening night. Although Polunin left the Stanislavsky in summer 2014, he continued to perform with the company on occasion. In Munich, he has been a permanent guest dancer since Zelensky took up the reins.

“Mayerling” isn’t the sort of piece one eagerly watches again and again – for at the root of the catastrophe of the piece is a tragedy that is too sad and a society that is too disgusting to witness repeatedly. The story is based on a dark chapter of the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. The Emperor’s third child with Elisabeth (“Sisi”), Duchess of the house of Wittelsbach, was Crown Prince Rudolf, who at the age of twenty-three, was forced into a marriage with Princess Stéphanie of Belgium. The ballet begins with the couple’s wedding ball and ends with the double suicide of Rudolf and his mistress, Mary Vetsera, at the royal hunting lodge at Mayerling. (more…)

Boris Akimov – Half a Century for the Bolshoi

Bolshoi Ballet
Moscow, Russia
March 10, 2017

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2017 by Ilona Landgraf

1. B.Akimov, Bolshoi Ballet © Bolshoi Theatre / D.YusupovDid you watch the Bolshoi Ballet’s live broadcast last October on World Ballet Day? If so, you must remember the lean, white-haired man who taught morning class: Boris Akimov. The motivation he spread was contagious, his vigor stupendous. Akimov demonstrated the exercises, had an eye on everyone and, simply with his charisma, kept everyone’s attention focused. Katerina Novikova, head of the press office, had just revealed in her introductory words that Akimov has been working at the Bolshoi for fifty years, and yet no one could have imagined that he was seventy years old at the time.

Akimov danced with the company, directed it artistically and for decades since has been teaching, rehearsing and coaching not only dancers of the Bolshoi and other companies abroad, but also students of the Russian University of Theatre Arts. He has been honored and recognized for his artwork extensively, including receiving the “People’s Artist of the USSR” in 1989, the highest title Russia can bestow on an artist.

I met Akimov on March 10th at the Bolshoi Theatre to find out more about his career and artistic vision. Novikova kindly interpreted from Russian to English and vice versa.
Akimov’s answers are in italics. (more…)

Room for Improvement

“Onegin”
Bolshoi Ballet
Bolshoi Theatre
Moscow, Russia
March 11, 2017

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2017 by Ilona Landgraf

1. E.Obraztsova and N.Semizorova, “Onegin” by J.Cranko, Bolshoi Ballet © Bolshoi Theatre / D.YusupovConditions were the same overall on the second of the three evening performances of “Onegin” at the Bolshoi. The sky above the garden of the Larina family’s country house was bright blue, domestic bliss was as yet unclouded, the village folk were in an expansively jolly mood. The Bolshoi Orchestra under Pavel Sorokin, reliable as always, ensured a fine rendition of Tchaikovsky’s music. Yet unlike the evening before the story didn’t gain momentum.

“Onegin” needs four dancers of equal or complementary strength in the leading roles. The role of Olga is smaller than the other three, but her part is pivotal for the dramatic turn the story takes. Saturday’s cast had only one consistently strong dancer, Evgenia Obraztsova as Tatiana. (more…)

Bringing “Onegin” Home

“Onegin”
Bolshoi Ballet
Bolshoi Theatre
Moscow, Russia
March 10, 2017

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2017 by Ilona Landgraf

1. A.Tikhomirova, S.Chudin and ensemble, “Onegin” by J.Cranko, Bolshoi Ballet © Bolshoi Theatre / D.Yusupov“John is here” is a well-known saying within the walls of Stuttgart Ballet. People know what they are talking about. Ever since his untimely death more than forty years ago John Cranko’s spirit has energized his Stuttgart company.
Yet last weekend his presence was strongly palpable elsewhere. The Bolshoi performed his “Onegin” on three consecutive evenings at home in Moscow. On first night not only Cranko seemed close but also Reid Anderson, who had supervised the production at the Bolshoi in 2013, and Jürgen Rose, whose costumes and set design are unvaryingly matchless. The Bolshoi Theatre and Stuttgart State Opera merged into one house on this Friday evening uniting their powers in a performance of overwhelming intensity. (more…)

Still Elusive: The Eternal Feminine

“Ondine”
Bolshoi Ballet
Bolshoi Theatre
Moscow, Russia
March 04, 2017

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2017 by Ilona Landgraf

1. I.Tsvirko and E.Krysanova, “Ondine” by V.Samodurov, Bolshoi Ballet 2017 © Bolshoi Theatre / D.YusupovIn 1958 Frederick Ashton choreographed the story of “Ondine” for The Royal Ballet in London. This three-act work is about the water nymph Ondine – a role Ashton made specially for Margot Fonteyn – who becomes the object of a worldly prince’s desire. Upon finding the prince unfaithful, Ondine kills him with a kiss. German composer Hans Werner Henze was commissioned with the “Undine” music. Other choreographers subsequently used Henze’s score for their own productions, the most recent dating from the summer of 2016 by Vyacheslav Samodurov for the Bolshoi Ballet. (more…)

A Dutch Program at the Bolshoi

“Frank Bridge Variations / Short Time Together / Symphony of Psalms”
Bolshoi Ballet
Bolshoi Theatre
Moscow, Russia
March 02, 2017

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2017 by Ilona Landgraf

1. D.Rodkin and E.Shipulina, “Frank Bridge Variations” by H.van Manen, Bolshoi Ballet 2017 © M.Logvinov / Bolshoi TheatreReading the names of choreographers Hans van Manen, Paul Lightfoot and Jiří Kylián as part of the same program one immediately thinks of a performance in Amsterdam or Den Haag, or maybe also in Germany. Yet this triple bill was the Bolshoi’s. It’s a menu that’s not quite so familiar for the Moscow audience. Applause was respectable, though not overwhelming. The dancers, however, were in great shape! (more…)

Grigorovich’s “Giselle”

“Giselle”
Bolshoi Ballet
Bolshoi Theatre
Moscow, Russia
February 18 / 19, 2017

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2017 by Ilona Landgraf

1. O.Smirnova and S.Chudin, “Giselle” by Y.Grigorovich after J.Coralli, J.Perrot and M.Petipa, Bolshoi Ballet 2017 © Bolshoi Theatre / E.Fetisova“Giselle” is in the core repertory of almost every ballet company, whether in a modern interpretation or a traditional one. The Bolshoi even holds two traditional versions, one by Yuri Grigorovich, the other by Vladimir Vasiliev. Vasiliev’s 1997 “Giselle” follows the earlier versions of Leonid Lavrovsky and Alexander Gorsky. Earlier in 1987 Grigorovich had instead traced the choreographic lineage directly via Marius Petipa to Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli’s 1841 original. In honor of the 90th anniversary of Grigorovich’s birth, the Bolshoi presented three performances of his “Giselle” as part of the Grigorovich ballet festival, of which I saw two matinées with different casts. (more…)

Olga Smirnova on “The Sleeping Beauty”

“The Sleeping Beauty”
Bolshoi Ballet
Bolshoi Theatre
Moscow, Russia
January 17, 2017

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2017 by Ilona Landgraf

1. I.Alexeyev, O.Smirnova, A.Belyakov and ensemble, “The Sleeping Beauty” by Y.Grigorovich after M.Petipa, Bolshoi Ballet © D.Yusupov 2017This Sunday, on January 22nd, the Bolshoi Ballet will stream “The Sleeping Beauty” live to cinemas all over the world. It is the Petipa-based version that Yuri Grigorovich created in 2011 for the re-opening of the Bolshoi’s historic stage which has lavish set designs by Ezio Frigerio and equally sumptuous costumes by Franca Squarciapino. Sunday’s cast includes Olga Smirnova as Princess Aurora alongside Semyon Chudin as her Prince. As the Lilac Fairy, Yulia Stepanova will counter Alexei Loparevich’s Carabosse.
I skyped with Olga Smirnova a few days prior to the cinema broadcast to talk about the piece and her role. Katerina Novikova, head of the Bolshoi’s press office, kindly interpreted from the Russian. Smirnova’s responses are in italics. (more…)

Tracing the History of the Bolshoi

Simon Morrison:
“Bolshoi Confidential”
512 pages, b/w illustrations
W.W. Norton & Company, October 2016
ISBN 978-0-87140-296-7
November 2016

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2016 by Ilona Landgraf

1. “Bolshoi Confidential”, book cover © W.W. Norton & Company 2016Prompted by the abominable acid attack on Sergei Filin in early 2013, Nick Read and Mark Franchetti put the spotlight on what was going on behind the scenes of the Bolshoi Ballet. Their film “Bolshoi Babylon” was followed by a substantial book this October: “Bolshoi Confidential”, penned by Simon Morrison, professor of music at Princeton University focusing mainly on Russian and Soviet music. Morrison is an assiduous writer and the author of a number of books, two of them about Sergey Prokofiev. As it was for Read and Franchetti, the assault on Filin is also Morrison’s springboard. Yet he considerably widens the perspective on his subject.

The history of the Bolshoi, initially called Petrovsky Theatre, began in 1776, when Catherine the Great granted the Russian Prince Urusov exclusive rights for theatrical presentations. Urusov teamed up with the Englishman Michael Maddox, “either a mathematician or tightrope walker during his youth”, but financial straits forced him to surrender the reins to Maddox. Morrison takes us from there through almost 250 years of meandering, tumultuous evolution.

A stupendous amount of details and anecdotes illustrates how the Bolshoi overcame Napoleon’s invasion, then artistically prospered under imperial reign before being massively restricted in its artistic vitality by the Russian Bolsheviks. Three times destroyed by fire, the theater building has always been reconstructed on nearly the same place. It became bigger, more imposing and, though slowly, was equipped with the technical innovations of the time. Since 1825 it was commonly called the Bolshoi – meaning “Grand” – Theatre. (more…)

“I feel like Lensky”

Semyon Chudin, Bolshoi Ballet
Royal Opera House
London, Great Britain
August, 2016

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2016 by Ilona Landgraf

1. S.Chudin © Bolshoi TheatreI first saw Semyon Chudin dance in Stuttgart Ballet’s end-of-the season gala this July. He had danced the Wedding Pas de Deux from “Sleeping Beauty” next to Anna Osadcenko and immediately caught my attention. Chudin has an aura, which only a great personality is able to radiate.

As it happens the Bolshoi toured London for three weeks during this summer. One and a half weeks after the Stuttgart gala I sat in the Royal Opera House, watching the company in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “The Taming of the Shrew”. The following day I met Chudin in the Opera House’s cafeteria to talk about his career and his life offstage. We spoke twice, first in the afternoon, and, after rehearsals and with translation support by Sonia Serduk, a longstanding friend of Chudin from St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre, again in the evening. Chudin’s English is good but he feels more at ease when speaking Russian. I guess our group of three attracted attention as we had much fun.

Chudin is natural, kind and easy-going. He does not make the slightest attempt to cultivate a glossy image of himself or to feign a conformist mindset. Telling people what they want to hear isn’t his. The timbre of his voice simply reveals his true opinions. Centered in himself Chudin radiates calmness but at the same time is very self-critical. After the Stuttgart gala he asked Filip Baranciwicz and Mikhail Kaniskin to give him corrections. How many principals act in the same way? “One could always improve something. When you’re satisfied with yourself you should stop,” he later stated. (more…)

Maillot’s Idea of How to Tame

Taming of the Shrew”
Bolshoi Ballet
Royal Opera House
London, Great Britain
August 03, 2016

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2016 by Ilona Landgraf

1. E.Krysanova and V.Lantratov, “The Taming of the Shrew” by J.-C.Maillot, Bolshoi Ballet © M.Logvinov/Bolshoi TheatreThe Bolshoi Ballet’s three-week tour to London draws crowds of ballet aficionados to the Royal Opera House. Every evening each of the five productions is sold out. Those include the much-loved classics, “Swan Lake”, “Don Quixote” and “Le Corsaire”, as well as “The Flames of Paris” by Alexei Ratmansky and Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “The Taming of the Shrew” which premiered two years ago at the Bolshoi. “Shrew” was scheduled only twice. I saw the first performance.

Similar to Kurt-Heinz Stolze’s Scarlatti-pastiche for John Cranko’s “Shrew”, Maillot also cobbled together the score. He assembled less well known film music and excerpts of symphonies by Dmitri Shostakovich which go along with the events on stage like lubricating oil. Whether swooshing or romantic, the Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre under Igor Dronov’s baton played with verve.

The story sets off at the estate of Baptista, a wealthy lord in Padua. But the two broad, curved outdoor stairs arching over the house’s entrance, designed by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, don’t relate to any specific town. Baptista is beset with two daughters, the prickly Katharina and her younger sister, the much-adored Bianca. But the latter will not be allowed to marry until Katharina first wears her wedding ring. (more…)

A Trivialized Classic

“Swan Lake”
Maryinsky Ballet
Festspielhaus Baden-Baden
Baden-Baden, Germany
December 23, 2015

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2015 by Ilona Landgraf

1. A.Somova, V.Shklyarov and ensemble, “Swan Lake” by K.Sergeyev after M.Petipa and L.Ivanov, Maryinsky Ballet © V.Baranovsky“Swan Lake” is an ever-present work in the Maryinsky Ballet’s luggage when visiting Baden-Baden. This time the white swans graced the large stage of the Festspielhaus on two evenings. The first performance was led by Viktoria Tereshkina and Timur Askerov in the roles of Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried. I saw the second cast on the following day, a pairing of Alina Somova and Vladimir Shklyarov.

For all its classic status, “Swan Lake” has changed over the years. It varies from staging to staging. Yet the story, the tragic love between Prince Siegfried and Odette, the beautiful woman damned to turn into a swan, remains. (more…)

The Maryinsky Fabulously Horses Around

“The Little Humpbacked Horse”
Maryinsky Ballet
Festspielhaus Baden-Baden
Baden-Baden, Germany
December 20, 2015

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2015 by Ilona Landgraf

1. V.Shklyarov, A.Popov and ensemble, “The Little Humpbacked Horse” by A.Ratmansky, Maryinsky Ballet © N.Razina Traditionally the Maryinsky Ballet tours Baden-Baden at the end of December, offering ballet aficionados the opportunity to enjoy the troupe on the Festspielhaus’s stage during the holiday season. This time two performances of “Swan Lake”, three of “Le Corsaire” and a gala were included. The opener, “The Little Humpbacked Horse”, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky in 2009, was extra candy in the box of treats.

“The Little Humpbacked Horse” (Konyok-Gorbunok) is a cute, fanciful and heart-warming Russian fairytale, written by Ppyotr Pavlovich Yershov in 1834. (more…)