Simultaneity in Motion-Both Swan and Egg Arrive on Time in the Bolshoi Ballet





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I must admit I am not particularly a ballet fan. I've always found the posing, bowing, "ooing" and "ahing" tiring and a little irksome. And I'm not very fond of the older plots full of kings and queens and very demure women who get easily swept off their feet and usually die because the men are disloyal.

With this said, I fully admit I loved the Bolshoi Ballet's rendition of Swan Lake which appeared this past week at Cal Performances to a sold-out house. The plot had not changed, but the performance of it seemed to have a power over me that lured me into a state of enchantment until long after the performance had ended.

The Bolshoi Ballet is one of the major ballet companies of Russia. Its history extends back to the late 1700s (before even point shoes) and has been impressing the world with its beautiful dancers ever since the beginning of the last century. It is also the group that originally commissioned Tchaikovsky's musical score for Swan Lake in 1877 as well as other well known ballet scores.

If you don't already know the story of Swan Lake, here it is in brief. A prince falls for a woman (a princess turned into a swan) and pledges absolute love and loyalty. The sorcerer who turned the princess into the swan tricks the prince (it wasn't very hard) into falling for his own daughter and pledging that same loyalty to her. Betrayed by the prince, the swan princess is killed by the "Evil Genius" (as the Bolshoi's program names the sorcerer) and the prince mourns the loss of his "ideal love."

Although the plot leaves something to be desired, the dancing went far beyond my expectations. The dancers all had amazing leaps, leg lifts, turns, etc. (all the stuff you would expect to be amazed at). But more noteworthy to me was that all the dancers had impeccable timing. It is this timing that helps to place the Bolshoi one step above most other ballet companies. When there is a corps du ballet on stage "performing in unison", it's nice to see the dancers actually in unison. The Bolshoi dancers did just this and in so doing added a unique surreal quality I don't recall experiencing before. Imagine 24 "swans" flying into the air and returning to the ground with a sound as if only one dancer was landing or, for that matter, only one dancer was there at all.

Not only was the timing impressive, the group work in general was superb. At one point, a group of four dancers form a line interlocking their arms. They raise to point and strike out, traveling back and forth across the stage jabbing at the ground with their toe shoes and weaving their legs into intricate geometric patterns-patterns that seem to remain in the air even when their legs have long since moved on.

The prima ballerina, Galina Stepanenko, was not only a beautiful dancer, she was a skilled actress able to subtlety create two very different characters: the swan and the daughter of the "Evil Genius." This character difference was not just due to the choreography. Stepanenko was able to take the simplest arm "fluttering" and nuance it according to the character. The swan gave off a sense of fragile innocence while the daughter a sense of force and obstinance. The ability of one person to convey such different characteristics only with body movements clearly demonstrates Stepanenko's superb artistry.

Not only was the dancing outstanding, the sets were gorgeous. The drops on the stage were not painted, as occurs often with ballet sets; they were multilayered three-dimensional works of art. All the texture was created by hand stitching pieces of fabric on top of one another. As I understand it, the cost of the drapes are out of the price range of any performance company in the US and are fairly rare in Russia too. The drapes created a richly textured and sensuous frame for the ballet. And the impressionistic rather than pictorial quality went well with the fantasy story line.

The dancers of the Bolshoi deserved every "oo" and "ah" they received. They were a truly spectacular ballet company. And in seeing their impressive production of Swan Lake one gains a new appreciation for the classical ballet repertoire. They are well worth seeing.

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