Lots of empty seats were available for the Bolshoi Ballet at La Scala in The Taming of the Shrew. La Bayadère – great; Swan Lake – ooh yes; Giselle – lovely; Taming of the Shrew? – err.
Word of mouth did its bit after the opening night, but with just three consecutive performances there wasn’t enough time to have a sold-out notice on the poster, but ‘sold out’ is what it deserved.
Jean-Christophe Maillot’s taut telling of Shakespeare’s story is subtly underplayed by the company dancers who reveal themselves to be very fine actors indeed. This version is very much ‘inspired by’ and avoids any #MeToo moments by having both Katherina and Petruchio as both as untamed as each other — hair a little wild, an easy temper, quick to punch and slap. They are less cartoonish than in John Cranko’s 1969 version and the two dancers who created the roles for Maillot in 2014 — Ekaterina Krysanova and Vladislav Lantratov — were magnificent at La Scala. They are honest in their acting and impressive in their dancing, talking full advantage of Maillot’s rich vocabulary. It is rare to feel such satisfaction at witnessing a complete performance where dance technique is only one ingredient of the recipe to create the winning dish.
Krysanova and Lantratov dominated the evening but Maillot’s is an ensemble work which gave five – yes five! – Bolshoi principal dancers the opportunity to shine.
Olga Smirnova was the younger sister Bianca and her Lucentio was played by Semyon Chudin. Their choreography is often languid and starry-eyed, but there is also bite to their movements and, needless to say, they danced exquisitely together.
Gremio was impeccably judged by Vyacheslav Lopatin. Although rejected by fair Bianca, the Housekeeper — knowing that she’ll be out of a job when the two sisters marry — finds him a catch. Here, and in other places, Maillot’s storytelling can be confusing. In his effort to involve as many dancers as possible it can be puzzling to work out who is who. The Housekeeper starts the show off, slinking on to the stage apron in her high heels five minutes before curtain up, and sexily changing into her pointe shoes while flirting with members of the audience. Who is this? Bianca? Katherina? Flick through the programme… ah, the Housekeeper. Who else. She’s played by the gorgeous Anna Tikhomirova who until the day before had been balancing a water jug on her head in La Bayadère.
Another of Bianca’s rejected suitors, Hortensio (Alexander Smoliyaninov) finds solace with ‘the widow’ (Kristina Karaseva) who marry during the closing moments, so there are four marrying couples, instead of Shakespeare’s three.
As the sisters’ father Baptista — played with refined authority by Karim Abdullin — prepares for Bianca and Lucentio’s wedding, Katharina and Petruchio arrive, dressed elegantly with their hair neatly styled. There is a ‘tea ceremony’, seemingly to test the will or ability of the four brides to behave with poise, but more probably an excuse to use Dmitri Shostakovich’s celebrated arrangement of Tea for Two. The collage of Shostakovich’s music is a joy throughout.
This is a very slick show. Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s simply effective set thrusts the dancers into the spotlight, and indeed the lighting is detailed yet unfussy. The show thrives, though, on the impeccable skill of the Bolshoi dancers, so well measured, so perfectly controlled and yet so free.