A "BOLT" out of Which a Big Production Was Made
Shostakovich’s ballet of the 1930-s: a review of the "legendary-global" premiere at the Bolshoi Theatre.

Å. Nikolaev

So difficult it was to escape the temptation to watch the new version of "Bolt" at the Bolshoi, after its premiere had been advertised so widely or… wildly by various radio and TV channels.

The competent preliminary PR-action (including the first in the Bolshoi’s history open press conference with the public on the New Stage premises) bore fruits – the ballet, that had been advertised so actively and intensively and well in advance, really seemed to be very interesting to watch. Besides, on the "Culture" Channel in the theatre news programs ‘The Bolt’ was announced to be more than just a premiere but a ‘world’ premiere and ‘a legendary production’ though one obviously contradicts the other: if the premiere has been announced as a "world" one that means the ballet is staged for the first time. While a "legendary" performance is the one that has already been shown far more than once and has been covered in legends. For the sake of advertising any logic and common sense have obviously been neglected. Once the Bolshoi Company spoke so highly of the upcoming production, we could rightfully expect it to be a talented, clever, interesting and out of the ordinary piece... It drew spectators’ interest as a "legendary" world-level premiere. Moreover, "Bolt" is Alexey Ratmansky’s first production mounted specially for the Bolshoi’s troupe in the position of the company’s Art Director, with " the Bright Stream " having been created by him as an invited balletmaster, while "Leah" was an old version revived with the new cast.

But the very first scenes of the performance made all their anticipated delights and hopes vanish into thin air: the production was a weak show with neither scale nor grandeur. It was grand only in terms of efforts invested in it. Gigantic robot steel-founders, a gigantic electric bulb (at the time when the action takes place dubbed ‘a bulb of Iliich (Lenin)’) as scenery, contributed to the general sensation that gigantic efforts of the cast, artists, designers, the back-of-house team and the orchestra – everything was aimed at squeezing at least something worth out of the meagre artististic concept as well as the dull and repetitive choreography. On the whole the performance produced an impression of being a patchwork blanket where even Shostakovich’s music, to say nothing of the choreography, directing, scenography, the costumes and the lighting had been created separately and at odd times. Then all of a sudden they were brought together to form a unit. Every separate facet was meant to tell us something. Alas apparently there wasn’t much to say...

When watching the "Bolt" the spectator immediately recollects the principle of sounding old silent films with the only difference that it is applied reversely: there the pianist used music to put accents and to help understand what was going on screen, and here Ratmansky’s hasty choreography does nothing else but illustrates the Shostakovich score, sometimes vainly trying to be synchronic. To be more exact, it doesn’t illustrate, but obediently crawls all its climaxes, pauses, crescendos and passages: if there happens to be a piccicato, the pas are danced on tiptoe, no doubt, with the legs slightly bent, keeping the elbows pointed up with the little fingers aside. Tambourines’ chords are always followed with sharp turns of the body, head, waves of the arms, or marked with “impressive” poses... Where is the flair with the ballet vocabulary so praised by the critics, I wonder? The story conveyed by the choreography (if there is any at all) is absolutely different from the one that is done by the music. In other words the choreography “retells” the music, at times showing puzzling oblivion of the plot, directing and other important components a ballet production as a rule consists of. It looks detached, which makes it unjustifiably repetitive in vocabulary and dull. What is to be done? This is Ratmansky’s recipe: repeat the phrase once again in the same movements and, which is still better, in the same combinations, by the way, it is also better for the spectator.

The directing, which is meant to co-ordinate everything in the production, all the time stumbles over its choreography. For instance, the pub scene with its endlessly repeated by the diligent dancers variations reminds of a forgetful elderly lady who is trying again and again to finish the same boring story...

Besides, Ratmansky has evidently lifted material from other productions both his own (first of all from his " Bright Stream ") and by other choreographers. For example, the variation of the Clerk Kozelkov (Gennady Yanin in the first cast and Alexandr Petukhov in the second one) reminds too much of Modest Alexeevich’s variation from "Anyuta" choreographed by Vladimir Vasiliev. Naturally, being good Modests both of the dancers might have contributed to the process of enriching Kozelkov’s personality. Denis Savin’s role has the same choreographic shapes as the Hooligan from Konstantin Boyarsky’s ballet "A Girl of Noble Origin and a Hooligan". What’s more, "The Golden Century" by Grigorovich comes to memory too often, though Grigorovich is completely different from Ratmansky in terms of aesthetics...

Now a few words to say about the trouble with the names of the main characters and the programme leaflet. The current Director yielded to the temptation and followed the path of the first and talented director of the "Bolt" famous Fyodor Lopukhov, who staged the ballet in 1931: the main heroes were given the names of the dancers. But it’s pertinent to quote here the Latin ‘Quod non decet bovem, decet Jovem’ (what is allowed to Jove, is not allowed to the bull) as we see a hasty and unforeseen reshuffle in the cast at the very last minute. We’ll never know what might have happened to induce this change in the main roles’ dancers shortly before the general rehearsal but something did happen and the leaflets effectively published beforehand needed an ad hoc page to let the audience know about the changes. From the improved leaflet the audience were to learn that the names of the couple were not Maria (the name of the ballerina Allash) and Dimka (the name of the dancer Belogolovtsev) any more but Nastya (Yatsenko’s name) and Deniska (Denis Savin).

As for the main positive hero Ian (whose name remained unchanged), Ratmansky, to my mind, failed to choose the right personality: Ian Godovsky, a stylish and technically strong dancer, on stage is no good at charming the public. In the premiere he appeared sadly flat and unconvincing as a positive hero, who is supposed to stir compassion. And on the contrary Denis Savin, the lyrical, open-hearted, organically gentle and artistic, whose charm invariably wins the public, couldn’t cope with the negative colouring nuances of his role and turned into a mockery of a hooligan. The role of the komsomol leader Nastya is weak in terms of drama, it is flat and easy to foresee, poor in choreographic vocabulary, where there is not much to do for such an interesting and bright ballerina as Anastasia Yatsenko. Nevertheless, she did a great job with the material offered to her and set about it with admirable commitment. The role apparently took a lot of efforts out of her to make it coloured.

My next point is the costumes designed by the artist Galina Solovieva. You can’t even imagine how I longed for the ingenious Suliko Virsaladze’s costumes, which invariably made part of the ballet characters. His costumes and scenery used to contribute to the role, to make it clearer and more understandable. They fitted the dancers “like a glove” that is were comfortable to wear and effective to look at. The recent premiere’s costumes are nowhere near to compare.

The tasteless style of the outfits designed as figure-hugging Budenny horsemen uniform, red felt and leather (the combination we are sick and tired of), turned into a varietish style of the Finale.

What’s more, in the first scenes of the production the Artist-in-Chief’s concept had the beautiful bodies on stage dressed in ridiculous clothes – the loose skivvies – a reminder of the 1930-s. If it comes to that, the choreography should fit the style of the design and sets, but no, it doesn’t. For example, the so many times repeated circle port de bras with palms in a "deadlock" aren’t in the smallest portion associated with the dancing of the 30-s, still less they are a key movement to understand the then styles. Thus it becomes obvious that " the Bulb of Iliich " and the huge robots-welders are the only components corresponding to the project’s Big Idea and matching the characteristics given by the Mass media. How prophetic in relation to the premiere are the words the talented artist of the production Semyon Pastukh uttered after the general rehearsal in an interview for the " News of Culture " program on Channel 5 about the imaginary factory set! In the interview he said that “the Leviathan of engineering genius ‘hissed and pissed’, puffed and panted, leaning over backwards to electrify a single electric bulb”. Another question is coming – what for another ‘Leviathan’ – the Bolshoi ballet troupe – “hissed and pissed, puffed and panted, leaning over backwards”…? Were they driven by the desire to prove the choreographer‘s giftedness? Or by the desire to stage another experiment? Or, perhaps, to reveal the director’s choreographic credo at last? Or, perhaps, the Bolshoi management decided that they wouldn’t do without all the three great Shostakovich’s ballets on the menu by his anniversary date, with their vanity pleased that the menu is unique?

But all the same what for did Alexey Ratmansky mount "Bolt"? For whom? About what? Why?

Why is the plot so not carefully thought through, the drama – so weak and ailing? What is behind all those tiresome and too numerous set details such as flippers, scooters, gas masks, "divers-saboteurs" with a mine? Those are the questions the recent production does not give answers to. The only thing is as clear as day: the balletmaster, whom the critics appreciated as highly as ‘the hope of the national choreography’, has practically nothing to say either about this epoch or about the time he so light-mindedly and thoughtlessly sneers at, neglecting its dramatism and turning a deaf ear to the tragic prophecies clearly heard in Shostakovich’s music.

Nevertheless, during the curtain calls Ratmansky seemed rather pleased and looked satisfied with both himself and his “product”, or might it have been just a good face put on the matter?

Offering such a production for the company to mount Ratmansky turned out to be most vulnerable as a choreographer, director and as the chief of the Bolshoi Ballet. The director's notes to "Bolt" published in the premiere leaflet and written by Fyodor Lopukhov say: "…you should remember one more rule, which is the basis to the whole performance. This ballet is of a purely choreographic nature. Hence, the typical features of the characters should be expressed by means of choreography ... It is necessary to think over everything carefully and thoroughly before any decision on this or that choreographic sketch is taken, you shouldn’t forget that no less than creation of new choreographic aesthetics is in question…". As to Ratmansky he didn’t set the task, nor did he want to bring out the global scale of Fyodor Vasilievich Lopukhov’s endeavour either…

Sorry to say that while he has one of the best ballet troupes in the world at his disposal, its great potential hasn’t been used by him. What he has created is a performance worth neither the actors nor the theatre that bears the grand name of Bolshoi.

To be a modern choreographer and chief of a ballet company like the Bolshoi Ballet, it is not sufficient to have a good school and a bit of "experience abroad" behind: apart from professionalism it is necessary to have new ideas and messages in tune with our times, the ideas and messages that want to be shared with the spectator. And yet that’s not all. One should be a charismatic person to make those messages attractive both in essence and outwardly. It is also essential to bear in mind that contemporary theatregoers are no longer the dull public like the low-brow Fikus, Ivashka, Pachuli, Manka Fart, Opara, Kozelkov etc. They are well-educated, cultural, choosy, high-brow, intellectual and self-respecting people who can tell the difference between the Bolshoi theatre’s and a travelling circus’ performance. Today such a respectless way of treating the audience of the main Russian theatre doesn’t pay.

Unfortunately, the new ballet "Bolt" will certainly take its proper place among the latest Bolshoi’s "legendary" premieres...

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