The Bolshoi Ballet are in London this summer with Spartacus, Swan Lake, The Bright Stream and Don Quixote. One of the world’s greatest companies, here are Jann Parry’s thoughts on an important visit…
After a year without a visiting Russian ballet company at the Royal Opera House (ROH), the Bolshoi will be back this summer, bringing Spartacus, Swan Lake, Don Quixote and two much anticipated performances of The Bright Stream. Legendary impresarios, the Hochhausers, had accustomed us to annual alternating seasons at the ROH by the Bolshoi and Mariinsky companies, enabling us to see their finest dancers in unique productions of the classics and other favourite ballets.
Last year, the House wasn’t available because of the Royal Opera’s Wagnerian preparations for The Ring cycle. So, there will be up-and-coming Bolshoi dancers we haven’t seen, as well as starry principals and maturing soloists. Whatever has happened backstage at the turbulent Bolshoi, the dancers have always been wonderful, giving of their best in London, where they consider that ballet-going audience members are knowledgeable.
The first two ballets in the 2019 London season, Spartacus and Swan Lake are familiar Yuri Grigorovich productions, dating from 1969: his choreography for Spartacus displays Bolshoi male dancing at its most heroic; his account of Swan Lake has a happy Soviet ending. The Bolshoi’s spirited Don Quixote production was recreated by Alexei Fadeyechev in 1999, while he was artistic director (1998-2000). The Bright Stream is Alexei Ratmansky’s mischievous remake of a 1935 Soviet ballet about a collective farm, with a score by Shostakovich. Stalin banned the ballet and ruined Shostakovich’s career; Ratmansky’s joyful recreation has retrieved the score and the ballet for the Bolshoi’s fast-expanding repertoire.
The company, under Makhar Vaziev’s leadership as artistic director, is bringing most of its principal dancers and first soloists – though as the ROH website warns, casting is subject to change.
It has already been announced that Vladislav Lantratov is injured, so neither he nor his wife, Maria Alexandrova (now a guest artist with the Bolshoi) won’t be performing. Nor will Ivan Vasiliev, who was due to dance as a guest in Spartacus and Don Quixote. (He is now principal dancer with the Mikhailovsky Ballet.) Instead, Igor Tsvirko gets the first night of Don Quixote as Basilio, with Margarita Shrainer as Kitri. Lantratov is replaced in Don Q by David Motta Soares, a 22- year-old Brazilian, who is much talked about.
Other rising stars given leading roles early in their careers are two recent graduates from the Vaganova Academy in St Petersburg: Eleonora Sevenard and Alyona Kovalyova. First soloist Kovalyova, who will be dancing Odette/Odile with Jacopo Tissi in Swan Lake, made her Bolshoi debut in the role at just 19 in 2017. 20-year-old Eleonora Sevenard, still a member of the corps, will be dancing as Kitri in the matinee of Don Quixote with Artemy Belyakov, a leading soloist. She is related at several removes to the great Imperial Ballet ballerina Maria Kchessinskaya, and appeared in a controversial Russian film about her, Matilda, in 2017.
A number of Bolshoi members from Galina Ulanova onwards trained at the Vaganova academy before joining the Bolshoi. Svetlanova Zakaharova, Olga Smirnova and Yulia Stepanova started their careers with the Mariinsky Ballet before changing companies (as did Ulanova). Now that Nikolai Tsiskaridze, former famous Bolshoi principal, is in charge of the Vaganova Academy, yet more of his pupils might be encouraged in the direction of the Bolshoi instead of the Mariinsky. Could he be the next artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet?
The Moscow company has undergone upheavals in its directorship since Yuri Grigorovich, its artistic director for 31 years from 1964, was ousted in 1995. Because his ballets played such an important part in the Bolshoi’s repertoire and reputation, he was reinstated in 2008 as ballet master and choreographer. He still holds those honorary roles at the age of 92. He was replaced as artistic director in 1995 by former principal dancer Vladimir Vasiliev. He lasted until being dismissed in 2000, to be succeeded by Boris Akimov, Alexei Ratmansky, Alexei Fadeyechev, Gennady Yanin, Yuri Burlaka, Sergei Filin, and from 2016, Makhar Vaziev. There have been a number of scandals, not least the acid attack on Filin in 2013, damaging his eyesight. A British documentary film, Bolshoi Babylon, made during the company’s 2013-2014 season, revealed the tensions within the theatre’s management, the ballet staff and the dancers.
Yet throughout the changes in policy and personnel, the Bolshoi Ballet’s standards of performance have remained at the highest level. With over 200 dancers, the company is big enough to serve two theatres in Moscow, the newest built in 2002. The dancers tour increasingly widely, taking the Bolshoi ‘brand’ around the world. They come on to London after a season in Australia.
The company first appeared at Covent Garden in 1956, its first visit to the West since the Russian Revolution. After Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, a Soviet cultural delegation arrived in London with a group of musicians, including the pianist Emil Gilels and violinist Igor Oistrakh. When Victor Hochhauser arranged a successful concert for young Igor (whose father David came later), the Soviet authorities appreciated that they could export Russian culture and earn foreign currency: 90 per cent of the artists’ earnings went to the state. The new Communist Party leader, Nikita Krushchev, visited London in April 1956, followed in October by the Bolshoi Ballet, touring to the West for the first time since the Russian Revolution.
The Bolshoi Ballet performed 24 times in October in the Royal Opera House and three nights in Croydon. Eager audience members queued for days and nights for tickets and gave the dancers standing ovations. The repertoire included Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Giselle and The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, with 46-year-old Ulanova lauded as the finest possible classical and dramatic ballerina. The Royal Ballet’s reciprocal visit to Russia was called off because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary, just as the Bolshoi had left for Moscow. Performing at home, Ninette de Valois’s company was compared unfavourably with the Russian dancers by many ballet fans, who longed impatiently for the Bolshoi’s next visit.
Brought by the Hochhausers, Victor and Lilian, the Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky) didn’t arrive in London until 1961, in the wake of Rudolf Nureyev’s defection at the end of the company’s Paris season. By then, the Bolshoi’s name was synonymous with Russian ballet, and has continued to be so in the broad public consciousness. The Kirov, affected by yet more defectors – Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov – toured less frequently and so had a lower profile, admired though they were by the cognoscenti.
The Hochhausers managed to maintain their relationship with the Soviet Union through twenty years of the Cold War, organising tours and festivals for British musicians and dancers in the USSR, as well as bringing Soviet artists to the UK. Then they fell out with the Soviet cultural ministry over their support for the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, an old friend and client since 1956, who had joined other defectors in 1974. Personae non grata for 16 years, the Hochhausers were unable to represent Soviet dancers and musicians.
Other impresarios in the UK attempted to take up the challenge to fill the gap, without the Hochhausers’ connections and expertise. The Entertainment Corporation brought the Bolshoi Ballet company and school, and the Kirov Ballet in the 1980s, before going broke. Derek Block, then a rock concert promoter, presented the Bolshoi in ‘suites’ from the repertoire at the Royal Albert Hall in 1993, before going broke.
But then, Mikhail Gorbachev, reformist President of the Soviet Union, introduced his policy of glasnost (openness) and the Hochhausers were back in favour. Exchange visits recommenced from the 1990s onwards. Officially, the husband and wife team have operated under Victor Hochhauser’s name – and the business still does in spite of his recent death at the age of 95. When he retired, Lilian resumed responsibility for the Russian ballet companies’ tours to the UK. She will be a familiar presence at this year’s performances in the Royal Opera House, as busy as ever.
She and Victor had a unique understanding with the Russians’ cultural ministry for over 60 years. They celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of their connection with the Bolshoi and the Royal Opera House in 2013. Will there be another jubilee in four years time? We hope so.