The Sleeping Beauty, Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Opera House | Dance reviews, news & interviews
The Sleeping Beauty, Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Opera House
Eyewatering luxury on stage rather overwhelms the dancing impression
The Bolshoi Theatre reopened in late autumn 2011 after a problematic six-year refurbishment said to have cost a tidy billion dollars, many times its original estimate thanks to corruption - it needed a corker of a ballet premiere to pop the eyes of a cynical Russian public, and it set upon a new staging of The Sleeping Beauty. This was also problematic, as three years earlier it had been promised to the then ballet director Alexei Ratmansky, who had soon afterwards resigned his job, wretched and miserable with the corrosive relationships within the theatre. And it was reassigned to the veteran former Bolshoi director Yuri Grigorovich, by now in his mid-80s, whose followers had been, in part, Ratmansky’s downfall.
What do we see? Gold, gleaming gold, eye-blistering baroque gold, twirling round ivory barley-sugar twist columns that each, I’m told, required its own shipping container from Russia, all designed by the master of lavish majesty, Ezio Frigerio, who brought more restrained fabulousness to Rudolf Nureyev’s productions for Paris Opera Ballet and English National Ballet, and who designed Nureyev’s grave in Paris. Evidently tens of millions of rubles have been spent on this production, and it doesn't intend to hide it.
This production may be as significant for what it symbolises as the original 1890 one, both being displays of power and wealth. The first Sleeping Beauty was a piece of political art, flattering the Tsar Alexander III by implicitly comparing him to the legendary Sun King, Louis XIV of France, whose court was evoked in the first (St Petersburg) production. I wonder if there has been a more political production since than this Bolshoi one, created to offer a disillusioned nation escapist theatrical luxury even in the straitened Putinist Russia of the 21st century, perhaps to translate homage to historic royal symbolism into a tribute to the great Bolshoi Theatre and Russian supremacy, and to once again show art’s gratitude to the super-wealthy patrons who like visible evidence of their influence. Why wouldn't it? Covent Garden's patrons like recognition too.
Yuri Grigorovich's latest version of The Sleeping Beauty (his fifth) follows the Soviet traditions that discreetly downgraded monarchical and religious nuances in the dance formations in order to raise up the sheer prettiness and femininity of classical dancing, and is kind to the audience by being sliced into two long acts, which makes it feel shorter and tauter than the usual three-act deployment.
Frigerio’s sets dominate my vision, the soaring white barley-sugar marble pillars wrapped in gilded ribbons, the glittering gold balustrades and finials, the eye-wateringly ostentatious gold fountain in front of an Italian rotunda, the huge wrought black and gold gateway. There's no place here for brambles and briars, cobwebs and dust. The floor is marbled, and there are masted ships in the background unloading, no doubt, yet more gold and diamonds from Russia’s vast deposits. Frigerio has transposed the flattery from 1890 to 2011, the target implicitly changed from Tsar to President. (Pictured above right, the set.)
Conductor and orchestra whistled like an express train across the ecology of fairytales that patterns this mysterious, wonderful ballet
Franca Squarciapino’s costumes, in her trademark grand plumed hats and rich taffetas, add fashionable rustle to the swaying willow-bodies of the Russian dancers, but Vinicio Cheli's ungenerous lighting regrettably flattens the dancers into moving distractions in front of the dominant scenery, and the choreography (as with Maria Bjørnson’s famously assertive and costly set for the Royal Ballet in 1994) is rather lost amid the luxury landmarks.
But what of the contents of this unimaginably rich envelope? Last night’s opening performance of the Bolshoi’s short presentation of their biggest ballet to London suffered from another dismal musical experience provided by Pavel Sorokin and the Bolshoi orchestra. They played Tchaikovsky's great score as if so familiar with it that they need pay no attention, whistling like an express train across the ecology of fairytales that patterns this mysterious, wonderful ballet.
Sorokin’s prominence in world ballet companies astonishes me, given how little sensitivity he shows to orchestral timbre and tempi. His leading violinist played Aurora’s solos with the finesse of a pub fiddler, and brass grunted without delicacy. With more love from the musicians every fairy could offer her own separate story and symbolism, and the choreographic changes need not spell a total loss of mystical otherworldliness.
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