Never mind the politics and the scandals surrounding the Bolshoi Ballet at the moment, sinister as they are, with all the malice and murkiness of an underworld crime novel. Let’s just look at the product which, like all great works of art, transcends its sordid background.
The Bolshoi’s second offering in Brisbane proved to the satisfaction of every balletomane that they are indeed the splashiest, most colourful and most gorgeous ballet company to have hit our shores in a long time.
Out of the dreary hardship of Stalin’s Soviet Russia with its “second serfdom” of down-trodden peasants and joyless toil comes a miracle, the harvest festival of a number of collective farms in steppes of the northern Caucuses, which rejoices in colour and spectacle as a troupe of dancers from the city come to join them in their celebration. What a sad as well as an evil man Stalin must have been, to condemn this lovely ballet as pre-revolutionary fraud. The librettist Adrian Pietrovsky was sent to the gulag, composer Shostakovich was disgraced, and the director of the Bolshoi was stripped of his job when it was first performed in Moscow in 1936. It’s almost as grim a scenario as that which the Bolshoi is embroiled in today.
But for an audience it’s pure delight, for this is not a ballet with a meaningful plot, sinister characters, nor any underlying message. It’s simply about the joy of life and, if it glamorises a situation which couldn’t have been as carefree as it seems, isn’t that what entertainment is for? A bit of escapism never hurt anyone.
The Bright Stream is another Bolshoi show piece, almost a show-off piece. It’s never been staged in Australia before, so nobody knew quite what to expect — certainly not such mischief and parody. Crazy people, outrageous caricatures, and lots of cross-dressing in the second act where the male leads dress up as sylphs in tutus and show that they too can dance in pointe shoes, their low-cut dresses exposing their hairy chests. In the end, the city dancer and her country counterpart end up with the men they should, and all’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
But the ballet is about characters rather than story, and the lavish setting is merely the background against which the workers come alive. The cast is huge, and we see farmers, a dog riding a bicycle, dacha dwellers, a milk maid, petty officials, a troupe of Cossacks, a tractor driver and everybody who’s nobody in the big wide world, all strutting their not inconsiderable stuff.
There’s some brilliant dancing here, including the dog character, who does leaps into the air and straight down again from a four-legged position (how it must have hurt), and the country ballerina (no point in naming names here, as they may not be familiar to Australian audiences) who does a perfect 180 degree high kick while pirouetting.
But they’re not all gangling country bumpkins, divinely silly as those characters are. The two leading couples, whose romantic combinations and permutations form the basis of what little plot there is, are exquisite, and strongly enough distinguished from each other to make them real rather than just copy-book dancers.
Add scenery such as was never seen in any harvest festival, the prettiest and simplest little 1930s frocks that the real collective workers would have longed to wear, and the eminently danceable music of Shostakovich, and you have a ballet as satisfying as any I’ve personally seen — better even than the folk ballets I saw at the Bolshoi Theatre on my one-off trip to Moscow many years ago. The modern (2003) choreographer by the Bolshoi’s former director, Alexei Ratmansky, pushes the dancers to their limits but shows off all their talents, and is astonishingly beautiful in its own right.
This is a supremely happy ballet, and perfect for audiences of every age, even grumpy boys, because there’s nothing precious or sissy about it, just a superb demonstration of the joy of living.
The details: The Bright Stream, a comic ballet performed by the Bolshoi Ballet, played until June 9 at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC.