How secretly gratifying it is when wine experts trip up, rating High Street plonk higher than the Premier cru. Ballet music could benefit from unlabelled listening. Minkus is routinely pooh-poohed, yet how many superb, theatrical moments he creates for La Bayadère — sublime, exhilarating, haunting, joyous.
If interval chatter isn't focussed on complaining about the music, it's about laughing at the parrots and the wobbly water jug, and there's usually some eye-rolling on mentioning the drum dance too. Of course, everyone has their bête noire, and for my taste the goggle-eyed fury of Alexander Fadeyechev as the High Brahmin and the uncomfortable sight of the insanely grinning piccaninnies is just too much.
But how wonderful is the Bolshoi! The assurance of everyone onstage is such that when Vyacheslav Lopatin as the Golden Idol put a hand on the stage to steady himself — curiously, at the same moment during both of his performances — there was a collective gasp from the audience; and as perfectly as the corps dance as one, what compelling personalities they have as soloists.
La Scala's ballet company has taken its Giselle and Don Quixote on a month-long tour of China, leaving space for a welcome return by the Bolshoi Ballet after more than a decade.
The Bolshoi's 32 shades zig-zag down the rocky hillside, first three, then adding on each change of direction until they reach seven (with the eighth turning the corner) as they arrive at stage level, creating a fan of Bayadère shades who finally rush to their finishing positions — four glorious rows of eight. It is from this moment that the magic really starts for the dynamics of each of their slow-motion changes of position are identical. The height of the legs, the epaulement, the port de bras are certainly perfect copies, but it is the transition from one pose to the next which is truly awe inspiring. Conductor Pavel Sorokin wisely cuts through applause to keep the action moving, but after the 32 Bolshoi ballerinas had finished their sequence it was impossible to hear the harp introduction as the three soloists entered. Seven-and-a-half minutes of bliss.
Three casts for La Bayadère saw contrasting Nikiyas and, coincidentally, all products of the Vaganova Academy. The reigning queen Svetlana Zakharova gave a touchingly warm performance, and warmth was something she seldom expressed ten years ago. Her pirouettes under the scarf went slightly awry, as they usually do, but her ‘snake' dance was pitch perfect with every gesture used to maximum effect. Olga Smirnova was sensually supple with arms that appeared to contain no bones. She is lovely to watch and is subtler in her portrayal than a few years ago. Even younger than Smirnova was when she danced her first Nikiya is Alena Kovaleva who is just about to leave her teens, and was extraordinarily accomplished throughout. She is also extraordinarily tall, at 1.78 metres (5ft 10in), yet incredibly manages to have complete control of those long limbs and yes, her pirouettes, both to the left and right, were flawlessly executed.
Their three Solors were Denis Rodkin, Semyon Chudin and the young Italian dancer Jacopo Tissi. Rodkin has a strong, potent presence, and although his jetés are not at 180° like both Chudin and Tissi, they are more suitably virile for the warrior Solor. His double cabriole is crisp and deliberate, perfectly at one with the music, as was his entire variation, indeed his whole performance, letting the musical accents work for him as much as his technique. Chudin is a softer dancer, elegant though with an impressive double saut de basque and makes the most of those expansive long Russian lines from the shoulders. Tissi was under pressure as the local boy returning home and had to prove what he can now do after two seasons with the Bolshoi. The theatre was packed with neighbours from his home town, near Pavia, and his former ballet school pals. He didn't let them down. He was noble, poised, and has a communicative, chiselled face. A couple of uncertainties during a ménage was no doubt because of him pushing himself in front of the Milanese crowd.
Olga Marchenkova, the opening cast Gamzatti, made an imposing first appearance in the palace scene but came apart during the betrothal celebrations pas de deux. Her diagonal with the double pirouettes was a disaster and panic set in thereafter. Next up was the lovely Margarita Shrainer who was sure and attractive, but the company left the best until last with a magnificent Kristina Kretova who added in extra technical wizardry here and there and was extremely alluring as well as being slightly formidable.
The fakir Magedaveya was thrillingly danced by both Anton Savichev and Georgy Gusev; Kristina Karasyova and Anna Balukova were fiery and energetic for the drum dance with ultra high-wattage personalities; and the ‘shadows' Elizaveta Kruteleva, Daria Bochkova, Shrainer and Daria Khokhlova were exceptionally assured. Anna Tikhomirova's sunny Manu, with her jug teetering on her head, was a joy to watch at all three performances and it was obvious why no alternative cast for her role was offered.
Yuri Grigorovich's 1991 production creaks and is the weak point of an otherwise thoroughly satisfying evening. Apart from the aforementioned hammy acting and the disconcerting presence of the children in blackface — excellently danced by La Scala's ballet school students — the sets (based on the 1877 designs) need an overhaul, lighting could be more atmospheric, the squeezing of the second act procession between the front cloth and the footlights is an odd choice when it could impressively fill the centre stage, and some tacky details — such as the multicoloured flower basket straight out of the sitting room of an am-dram whodunnit — should be redesigned. But La Bayadère has everything as with the pomp comes intimate moments, there is character dancing together with the purest classical ballet, both reality and dreams, and (contrary to interval talk… I must change who I spend my intervals with) the story is not so silly after all, and here it is told clearly with unabashed, clear mime.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.