The new Beauty at the Bolshoi

If artificial snowdrifts were heaped on the base of the ornate golden and ivory columns, the set for the Bolshoi Ballet’s new Sleeping Beauty would mirror the grandeur of the theatre’s refurbished façade.

In mid-January, snow was scattered around the base of the eight majestic columns on the exterior and snowflakes drifted down on Apollo standing with his four horses above the façade.

It’s not an accident that both the set and the exterior of the building reflect one another. The building, the set and Sleeping Beauty itself are monuments to classical perfection, to Apollo and his muses and to the art of ballet.

The choreographer, Yuri Grigorovich, explains in a program note that for this, his fifth production of the ballet, “the stage, as it were, will act as a continuation of…the refurbished space of the historic Bolshoi Theatre building”.

The fairy tale is danced within a defined space representing classical architecture in the Italian style – 10 main columns, gold scrolls on the floor, a distant Palladian temple, perhaps to Apollo, and ornate metal gates, which reminded me a little of how difficult it is to enter the theatre.

Every ticket must be checked and double-checked and it’s no fun standing outside in minus 7.

As an aside, Moscow itself is a little like a Russian doll, a maze of spaces within spaces, rooms within rooms, passageways within passageways, and doors that are often puzzling to find.

The Kremlin is an obvious example, and a visit to the Pushkin museum is an exercise in patient queuing and security checking through several doors.

The new Bolshoi, refurbished over a six year period, is remarkable in scale, both in the auditorium and vast stage.

There are six tiers of seating, each with its own ring of chandeliers.

The central ceiling shows Apollo surrounded by his muses.

The stage curtain is red, gold and silver silk and the prevailing colour throughout is scarlet, with wooden chairs rather than rowed seating in the stalls.

The stalls floor is not carpeted, which helps the acoustics.

Under the baton of Vassily Sinaisky, the overture to Sleeping Beauty has never sounded more riveting and more clearly indicative of the contrasting themes of the tale of good and evil to come.

For this production, Grigorovich commissioned the Italian team of Ezio Frigerio (décor) and Franca Squarciapino (costumes) who also designed La Bayadere for Nureyev at the Paris Opera Ballet.

Frigerio’s set is fixed and comprises five main columns on each side of the stage, framing the backdrop, which includes a hazy painted temple.

Frigerio writes in his program notes that the set represents the 17th and 18th century, the age of the various Louis’ – “expressed in a spirit of fantasy rather than in concrete reality. My idea is that all elements of the production, all its reality, occur in point of fact in a beautiful dream.

“In terms of style, our production may be classified as Italian, classical Italian theatre, in other words our scenography consists of a whole series of wings, a backdrop and a large space given over to dance, but whereas in Italian classical theatre the wings were painted, here they are architectural constructions which remain in a fixed position throughout the performance. They are its frame…”

I found this disconcerting as there was no sense of time passing, of the long sleep of the court, and the arrival of the Prince.

The hunting scene in which he first appears was cut short and the production itself was contained within two acts, with one interval.

The colour palate of the costumes is subtle, with turquoise, aqua, violet, gold, bronze and apricot scattered with many embroideries, beading and diamantes and with the occasional flash of red to relieve the pastels, for example in the tutu of the Violante fairy.

The Lilac Fairy’s tutu was a very delicate shade of lilac that verged on jacaranda and the headdresses of the women were often feathered.

The depth of talent within the company of around 200 dancers is clear and so too is the uniformity of body shape among the women. Most striking was the uniformity of the dancers legs – so very slender, that I thought about future health and injury issues.

The role of Aurora was danced by a youthful looking Yekaterina Krysanova who captured the contrast between the playful 16 year old of the Rose Adagio and the mature bride.

But this most demanding role requires a charismatic grandeur that wasn’t so clear in her performance.

The audience responded in a restrained way until Dimitri Gudanov appeared as Prince Desire, bounding around that huge stage with control and precision but I felt no sense of connection or passion between these two technically perfect dancers.

The most outstanding performance of the evening was given by Daria Khokhlova as Princess Florine, dancing with Vladislav Landtratov as the Bluebird.

I don’t believe I will ever see a pas de deux of such perfection, and was especially impressed by Khokhlova, who commanded the stage and showed the most extraordinary capacity to dance with every part of her body – eyes, hands, head, shoulders, all working in unison of course but all seeming to have a special vivacity of their own.

Similarly impressive were Olga Kishneva as the fairy Candide and Anastasia Stashkevich (a first soloist) as the fastest, most precise, most space eating and joyous Canari fairy I have seen.

Maria Allash, a principal was an elegant and regal if somewhat cool Lilac Fairy although one whose Panorama scene (in which she takes the prince to Aurora) was severely cut in this production.

The Garland Dance was enhanced by 24 students dancing with a corps of 16 women and 18 men – a huge ensemble, and the wedding scene was given a moment of fun with Little Red Riding Hood dancing among six sparkling (dancing) green trees as she tried to escape from the big bad wolf.

The audience became warmer in its responses as the evening wore on, but I was saddened to see many make a run for the exits before the curtain calls.

The principals continued to take their calls when only about one eighth of the audience remained in their seats.

Finally, bravos for Aleksei Loparevich who made a splendid, malevolent Carabosse, all whirling dervish-like in his swirling cape, with a touch of Joan Crawford evil in his eyes.