The Bolshoi looks on the bright side of life

When Alexei Ratmansky first heard a recording of Shostakovich’s ballet score for The Bright Stream in 1995, he must have envisaged a cornucopia of images.

The score is so descriptive and so bountiful with waltzes, polkas, gallops, and marches, that it paints a perfect picture of the story with all its joyousness, good humour, mix ups and match ups, and celebration of life and love at a harvest festival.

The ballet was first staged in 1935 and all those decades later, the libretto existed as well as the score, but not the choreographic notation, so Ratmansky went on to remake the ballet in 2003, one that landed him the job of artistic director at the Bolshoi Ballet and marked a high point in the creative life of the company.

Playful, inventive, and satiric, The Bright Stream, is a showcase for the Bolshoi dancers who play out their roles within a setting resembling a giant pop-up book tinted in the harvest colours of gold and copper.

The masterful sets for the ballet acknowledge Soviet art, but the designer, Boris Messerer also plays with with art deco sun ray shapes, the use of sheaves of wheat as borders, columns and arches, and harvest festival produce in the form of gigantic cucumbers, pumpkins, pears, grapes, and a monster-sized melon.

The ballet is a laugh-out-loud audience pleaser but Ratmansky acknowledges – in the front cloth to the ballet and the brief appearance of a Grim Reaper – that The Bright Stream has a sinister side.

The original ballet premiered in Leningrad in 1935 with choreography by Fyodor Lopukhov and a libretto by Adrian Piotrovsky and Lopukhov.

By early 1936 it moved to Moscow where Joseph Stalin was not amused by the story in which happy peasants in pointe shoes danced classical steps (rather than authentic folk dances) as they shared their harvest celebration with ballet dancers visiting from the city.

(In the early 1930s the dictator had ordered the forced collectivisation of farms, a disastrous project that eventually resulted in famines and the deaths of millions.)

Stalin instructed the newspaper, Pravda, to denounce The Bright Stream as a ballet fraud and the work was banned.

Ratmansky refers to this history with the front cloth depicting a hammer and sickle encircled with Stalin’s slogans, among them “tractors and kindergartens are the gearbox of the new village” and the headline of Pravda’s Bright Stream attack, “Ballet Falsehood”.

Soon after the front cloth rises we see the comic character of Gavrilych, a jolly collective farm activist, all hail-fellow-well-met, dancing with bouncy, bendy-legs but metamorphosing at the end of the ballet into the Grim Reaper, complete with scythe.

Gavrilych (Egor Simachev) is one of 11 main characters who celebrate the festival at The Bright Stream, a farm in the north Caucasus steppes of Russia.

The plot revolves two couples, Zina, a former ballet dancer who is married to Pytor, an agricultural student, and Zina’s friend from her dancing days, who, together with her male dance partner, arrives by train with their accompanist, an accordion player. The trio have come from the city to provide entertainment for the festival.

On opening night of the Bolshoi’s Brisbane season, (June 7 and again the following night), Nina Kaptsova was a sweet Zina, whose demeanour veered from modesty and melancholy to sudden bursts of exhilaration when, incongruously, she recalled her ballet past with an explosion of fouettes.

Mikhail Lobukhin, playing the role of Pytor, exemplifies Ratmansky’s charming choreographic style for The Bright Stream, in which he blends classical ballet steps with throwaway shrugs, skips, prances and jaunty poses.

Lobukhin partnered both Kaptsova and Maria Alexandrova (as the Ballerina from the city), and these three principals gave their utmost, demonstrating the famous Bolshoi firepower and projection that brought these three characters to life.

Alexandrova’s powerful leaps, so evident in Le Corsaire earlier in the week, were astonishing in the way her legs scissored into giant jetes as she bounded around the stage and jumped (apparently fearlessly) into the arms of Lobukhin (think Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux leap.)

Ruslan Skvortsov, the fourth principal dancing on both nights, was equally at ease as the Ballet Dancer partner of the Ballerina and later cross dressing as the Ballerina in a long white tutu – the décolletage revealed a very hairy chest – a circlet of flowers, and pointe shoes.

Skvortsov didn’t clunk around in the shoes, pantomime style, but showed a strong technical ability, turning neatly en pointe and daintily emphasising the arch of his feet as he tricked the Old Dacha Dweller (Alexei Loparevich) into believing he was the Ballerina.

The old man’s partner, Anxious-To-Be-Younger-Than-She-Is Dacha Dweller (Anastasia Vinokur) was, in turn, fooled by the Ballerina dressed as the male Ballet Dancer and accompanied him in a pas de deux, wearing a scarlet Spanish style costume and red shoes that resembled a kind of clog pointe shoe.

The Dacha Dwellers’ own dance together is a gentle spoof of classical ballet’s grand pas de deux. The audience laughs at them, but also loves them.

Here, in Shostavovich’s score, one can almost hear burps and coughs and farts as the couple stagger, embrace and creep around one another’s body, her derriere pushed out. She demands to be lifted at the end and while he kneels to bear her weight she drapes herself around his shoulders, beaming with joy at the final pose.

Ratmansky’s Bright Stream has Broadway moments when it seems the cast might break out into songs from Oklahoma! – Oh What a Beautiful Morning or Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City.

Zina’s six girlfriends end their Act I dance draped on stage in the retro manner of Betty Grable posing in a bathing suit, and throughout the ballet, Ratmansky inserts social dancing, including the Charleston and the tango, and tricks, such as cartwheels and the men flipping the girlfriends full circle like dolls.

Dressed in jodhpur-like trousers, The Accordionist (Denis Savin on opening night and Denis Medvedev the following night) snakes around the stage like a gigolo then bursts into explosive leaps as he approaches his diminutive prey, a schoolgirl called Galya (Ksenia Pchelkina).

In The Bright Stream, Ratmansky sends little love letters to the classical repertoire but also mocks its pretensions, so we see in the performance of the cross-dressed Ballerina, the way his arms are held in a ludicrously twee interpretation of a soft romantic position, and the coy twitch of a tulle skirt as she/he sits on a bench, a la Giselle.

In the final moments of Bright Stream, the farm workers wave farewell to the visitors as they leave for the city, but they also appear to be waving at us, the audience, as the curtain slowly closes.

The fourth wall has disappeared and for a moment, the performers and audience were as one.

I hope the Bolshoi returns to Australia in a few years at a time when the company may have recuperated from the tragedy of 2013 with the acid attack last January of its artistic director, Sergei Filin.

On June 8, the Bolshoi Ballet announced that one of its very well known principal dancers, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, will not have his contract renewed and will leave the company after June 30.

Tsiskaridze has continually complained about the way the company has been managed, has sought the job of artistic director, and maintained that Filin was not really attacked. Tsiskaridze claimed that there was a witch-hunt against him and those who supported him.

Anatoly Iksanov, the Bolshoi’s general director, said that the acid attack was the “natural result of the mayhem whipped up first and foremost by Nikolai Tsiskaridze” due to “mudslinging” and “constant intrigue”.

Meanwhile, Filin has had 18 operations on his eyes and last week asked his wife, Maria Prorvich, to post on her Facebook page on his behalf.

The posting was reported by Ismene Brown, the English writer who has been at the forefront of reporting the Filin attack from the beginning.

The message has been roughly translated as:

“Dear friends! At the request of Sergei has recorded this appeal to you!

Today I was 18-operation on both eyes, which lasted almost 5:0!
During this time, while under anesthesia, I saw many friends, colleagues and relatives and friends …and at times seemed like it is just a dream … I’ll open your eyes, and all these people will be there. I can see them! …

The nurse woke me up. “As your case?” she asked.” everything is OK”, I replied.” Soon you will put in your House, “she said and left.

I tried to open … I wanted to scream in pain!!!

But, hard to squeeze your fists and remembering about his dream, I decided to send this cry all those who continue to believe in me, continues to hope and. Wait!

SCREAM!!! – “Dear and loved! Thank you so much for your warmth, attention, patience, support! For true friendship and love!

Today it is the most important thing for me and a great drug!

Scream so loud to hear everything and I didn’t forget about anyone.

A HUGE THANK YOU!!!

Here, got up from his hospital bed and remembering its former low flexibility you bow to the floor!

The Lord Bless you!

And I continue to hope and to believe!!!”

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The Bright-Stream, harvest produce, photo © Damir Yusupov

The Bright-Stream, harvest produce, photo © Damir Yusupov

The Bright Stream, final scene, Bolshoi Ballet, photo © Damir Yusupov

The Bright Stream, final scene, Bolshoi Ballet, photo © Damir Yusupov

The Bright Stream, Maria Alexandrova as Zina, Bolshoi Ballet, photo © Damir Yusupov

The Bright Stream, Maria Alexandrova as Zina, Bolshoi Ballet, photo © Damir Yusupov

The Bright Stream, Sergei Filin as the Ballerina, Bolshoi Ballet, photo © Damir Yusupov

The Bright Stream, Sergei Filin as the Ballerina, Bolshoi Ballet, photo © Damir Yusupov