After a five-city U.S. tour---to Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles and Costa Mesa---the Bolshoi returned to New York's State Theater, as part of Lincoln Center Festival. The company's last New York appearances took place in that theater, ten years ago. This time the Bolshoi brought it's new production of Giselle and a mixed bill which recalled the past successes of the company, with excerpts from Spartacus, Don Quixote, La Bayadère and a sample of its growing Balanchine repertory, the complete Symphony in C.

Nina danced two Giselles and took part in the other programs---Don Q Grand Pas and the second movement of Symphony in C.


Choreography: Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, Marius Petipa, Alexander Gorsky, Leonid Lavrovsky, Vladimir Vasiliev
Production: Vladimir Vasiliev
Music: Adolphe Adam
Libretto: Theophile Gautier, Vernoy de Saint-Georges
Set designer: Sergei Barkhin
Costume designer: Hubert de Givenchy with participation of Philippe Venet
Production advisor: Galina Ulanova
New York City Opera Orchestra
Conductor: Alexander Sotnikov

A glance at the list of choreographers who have had a hand in this version is enough to give the viewer an inkling of the venerable tradition this ballet has had with the company. This production, which has its share of controversial touches, had its premiere at the Bolshoi in Moscow in 1997, with the company's rising star, Svetlana Lunkina, in the title role.

The Friends of Nina naturally attended both her Giselles, and two of the repertory program. (Curiosity also brought us to the Lunkina performance on Saturday afternoon, July 22.) Nina, being the company's prima ballerina, had opening night honors. Her first act on July 18 seemed a bit subdued---she and the company were still taking the measure of the State Theater stage--which is smaller than the Bolshoi's and presented size as well as lighting problems. Technically, though, she showed her usual mastery and ease, and her interaction with Sergei Filin as Albrecht was warmly convincing. Nina's personality, of course, does not fall into the fragile, passive mold. Her Giselle is innocent but full of life---with a touch of naughtiness and daring. There is a simple pride in her showing off of her hops on pointe to Bathilde and the other aristocrats. In contrast, her mad scene emphasizes Giselle's sudden loss of contact with life; she uses her powerful presence to infuse stillness with heartbreaking emotion. Vasiliev's most obvious interventions include a solo for Albrecht early in the act, as well as many additions to the part of Hilarion (the excellent Alexander Petukhov)--making him almost an equal to Albrecht in virtuosity. One could argue that giving so much importance to the gameskeeper unbalances the ballet, which is after all, about Giselle. However, Vasiliev's reworking of the peasant pas de deux into a pas d'action for four couples is an improvement. It highlights the current strong rank of soloists--especially the men, whose uniform leg beats, body and arm positions were exciting to watch.

These various choreographic emendations, plus the unfamiliar color schemes for the costumes in Act I, proved distracting to many. At intermission, one overheard heated (!) reactions to Hilarion's muted turquoise outfit, and the admittedly rather out-of-sync red and yellow uniform for Wilfrid, Albrecht's "sword-bearer," as the program calls him. There were also all manner of hats for the men. Giselle's maroon bodice over a yellow dirndl did not seem to evoke as much protest. One wonders if these were the "hot" colors in Paris when the eminent haute couture figure Hubert de Givenchy designed these costumes. Lighting problems undermined the effectiveness of the sepia-toned sets. A bank of back footlights remained visible throughout the act for those seating above the second ring of the theater---adding another layer of distraction.

Act II returned to more or less familar grounds, with Barkhin's sets, all deep blues and greens, evoking the dead of night in a forest, with a pond shimmering in the background. (This although the program notes indicate that the scene takes place "amidst the graves of a village churchyard." And yes, those were tassels among the tree branches, the designer having chosen to keep the reference to a theater setting throughout the ballet.) The costumes too were traditional---though Albrecht enters with a velvet beret which he doffs, with his cape, by Giselle's grave.

Maria Alexandrova proved a formidable Myrtha; her deliberately slow bourées on her first entrance made her seem more menacing. And, of course, her by now famous floating jumps were particularly effective in this role. (My mind inevitably traveled back to another young Myrtha---Nina herself, who memorably danced both Myrtha and Giselle during the 1987 Bolshoi season at the Metropolitan Opera.) Svetlana Uvarova and Natalia Malandina were the capable adjutants to the Queen of the Wilis.

Nina's second act came up to her usual level of intensity---her technical strength allowing us to see only the artistry. The sculptural grace of her deep arabesques were sheer poetry, and she ended her long, arching dance phrases with the lightness of a leaf touching gently on the ground for just an instant, before being borne off again by the wind. And what more can one say about those arms, whose expressiveness seem to become more nuanced with every performance? They are supreme instruments of communication, as are all the parts of the miraculous dancer which is Nina. Filin for his part was an attentive partner, whose emotive powers are of the deep, introspective kind. His execution of steps was always stylish and neat, his carriage always that of an aristocrat. The excelllent corps de ballet elicited much applause--alas, not always at the right time. Hilarion gets an understandably dramatic send-off in this version, but Vasiliev should rethink the "mad scene" for Albrecht which he tacked on to the end of the ballet. After Giselle returns to the grave, having forgiven her lover, it's most jarring to have him have the last leaps around the stage.

At the performance on the evening of July 22, it was obvious that the company had "settled down" to the stage conditions. Nina gave a particularly impassioned reading of Act I, her mad scene perhaps the most searing I have witnessed her perform. It was almost frightening in its intensity. Her partner this time was Andrei Uvarov, who consistently gets praise for his elegance. Certainly this tall, long-limbed dancer dances with a clear line; his emotional projection leaves a lot to be desired, however. For me, he remains an unsatisfying partner for Nina; it's almost as if she knows this and compensates for it by stronger acting. But a truly good partner must be an equal. Maria Allash was the adequate Myrtha.

So what about Lunkina? This is not a website for her, but to give credit where it's due, she danced a very fine Giselle (July 22, matinee), which, nevertheless, is still a work in progress. Someday she may find her own interpretation of the role, not the one she obviously has been very well coached in by her mentor, Ekaterina Maximova---one of the finest Giselles of the recent past. To be honest, I found her partner, the exuberant Nikolai Tsiskaridze, more compelling. But maybe I just have a thing for Georgians...

(JULY 19, 20)

Spartacus "Appian Way"
Choreography: Yuri Grigorovich
Music: Aram Kachaturian

Don Quixote "Grand Pas"
Choreography: Marius Petipa
Music: Ludwig Minkus

La Bayadère "Kingdom of the Shades"
Choreography: Marius Petipa
Music: Ludwig Minkus

Symphony in C
Choreography: George Balanchine
Music: Georges Bizet
Staged by John Taras
Assistant to Mr. Taras: Tatiana Terekhova
Lighting designer: Vladislav Kuteev
Costume designer: Mikhail Makharadze
Balletmaster-coaches: Nikolai Fadeyechev, Tatiana Krasina, Tatiana Terekhova, Vasily Lagunov

Spartacus is possibly the most successful of Grigorovich's creations, and of course, Vasiliev was the original and most outstanding interpreter of the title role. On these occasions, Dmitri Belogolovtsev took on the heroic role. Though he does not match the physical and emotional power of its originator, he nevertheless made an honorable stab at the bombastic choreography, impressing us with his large jumps and long clear lines. Most of the audience seemed to enjoy the calisthenics.

The Grand Pas from Don Quixote is always a crowd pleaser, and with Nina in place as Kitri, it did not fail to raise the temperature in the house. Uvarov (July 19) and Filin (July 20) took turns as Basil (and again I preferred Filin's finesse), with Alexandrova adding excitement in a short variation. I stopped counting fouéttes some time ago, knowing Nina can throw them off with ease. She probably can dance this number in her sleep; it's more fascinating to see how she tries to keep it fresh---changing her arm and leg positions, etc. The first night she did not use a fan in her variation, the second night she did. She is human and sometimes her energy level drops off. But she can only be compared to herself in technique, artistic integrity and sparkle.

The excellent Bolshoi corps de ballet got another turn to shine in the Shades scene from La Bayadère, and their entrance in those seemingly endless arabesques produced an hypnotic effect. Galina Stepanenko, as Nikiya, was a strong technician but strangely affectless; her Solor on July 19 was Tsiskaridze, and on July 20 Uvarov. Tsiskaridze danced Solor with passion, expressed through his dramatically extended body. He is a tall dancer, who, like most of the current Bolshoi men, can leap impressively. Unlike Uvarov, who could use more juice, he needs to curb his wilder instincts to become a really fine danseur noble. Natalia Malandina, Nina Speranskaya and Maria Allash were capable, but not outstanding soloists. (My memory bank still holds the incomparably elegant performances of the Paris Opera Ballet soloists in these challenging variations.)

And so to Symphony in C. I am sure arguments are still swirling about the Lincoln Center Plaza and elsewhere in New York among ardent Balanchinites, but to my eyes, these were two of the finest performances of the ballet in all my thirty-five years as a balletomane. The Bolshoi danced it with verve, speed, and most refreshing of all, with épaulement! How lovely to see this masterpiece danced with the whole body, not just the feet. What a joy to see the corps with collective arms, heads, shoulders, bodies and legs delineating the architecture of the ballet so clearly and precisely. Kudos to John Taras for the staging, and to Tatiana Terekhova, who assisted him.

On July 19 (also 21), corps dancer Anastasia Goriacheva took over the first movement from Lunkina, who was injured on the first day of rehearsals. Goriacheva reportedly learned the role in 24 hours. In the event, she danced competently enough, and with a freshness and confidence of demeanor that belied any nervousness she may have felt. She was partnered by Filin, who on the first night missed his entrance for his solo and omitted it entirely. He danced it the second night with a smooth but tentative-looking Lunkina---with no apparent problem. (See season summary for anecdotes, details.) For me, the adagio second movement is the heart of this ballet, and Nina has been a shining exemplar in the lead role since she first learned and danced it with NYCB---at the company's invitation---in 1988. There are Balanchine "purists" who take exception to Nina's interpretation of this part. And yes, it is an interpretation. She imbues the "abstract" choreography with ambiguous but perceptible emotions. Her duet with Uvarov seems to speak of longing, love, uncertainty and trust, but all in the context of majestically delineated steps and poses, ending in that heartstoppingly deep spiral turn into her partner's arms. If art does not move and uplift you, what is it for?

Alexandrova, of course, ate up the jumps in the third movement (with Tsiskaridze keeping up the pace) and Stepanenko lead the fourth part, with Belogolovtsev, with éclat. The exciting, high-speed ending made the heart leap.