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How does the Bolshoi's diverse ballet repertory inspire its identity?

The repertory of a company plays a crucial role in determining its identity – especially on international tours.

By Paul Kilbey (Content Producer (Ballet))

28 July 2016 at 10.57am | 6 Comments

Every ballet company has its own history, its own set of traditions and stagings that shape its identity. For The Royal Ballet, works by 20th century choreographers Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan – both closely linked to the Company – form a key part of its history. But so do the Company's own productions of the Russian classics.

It was with Ninette de Valois and Nicholas Sergeyev's production of Marius Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty that The Royal Ballet established itself at the Royal Opera House in 1946, and with which it first won international acclaim at its groundbreaking US tour in 1949. This production, alongside more recent productions of 19th-century works such as Peter Wright's Nutcracker and Giselle, remains a key part of the Company's identity.

Something similar is true for the Bolshoi. As its 2016 London season demonstrates, the Moscow-based troupe's wide repertory is drawn from right across its history. Le Corsaire, for instance, was first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1858, two years after the ballet’s premiere in Paris. The version performed by the Bolshoi today was re-created by Alexei Ratmansky for the company in 2007, and is mostly modelled on the 1899 staging by Petipa. For this quintessentially grand Russian ballet, the lavish sets and costumes combine with Ratmansky’s staging to give more than a flavour of the exotic original.

The Flames of Paris, on the other hand, is a Ratmansky re-creation of a very different type. This ballet comes from a period of Russian history that contrasts sharply with the Imperial Le Corsaire: Flames was first performed by the Bolshoi in 1933 (after a Leningrad premiere in 1932), to great acclaim. It engages with the theme – popular in the USSR at the time – of the French Revolution. Such a historically particular ballet inevitably demands a fresh approach today, and Ratmansky's 2008 version for the Bolshoi adapts elements of the plot while retaining the choreography as well as the action-packed atmosphere of the original. While Ratmansky’s updatings of these two works are necessarily a world apart, both Le Corsaire and The Flames of Paris thrillingly evoke fascinating moments in the Bolshoi’s history.

Don Quixote (in its famous Petipa version) and Swan Lake both had their world premieres at the Bolshoi Theatre, the former in 1869 and the latter in 1877 – although it was not until Petipa and Lev Ivanov's 1895 staging in St Petersburg that Swan Lake won popular acclaim. The Bolshoi's current productions of these ballets show contrasting approaches towards the preservation and updating of repertory. While Alexey Fadeyechev's Don Quixote stays quite close to the dazzling Petipa blueprint, Yuri Grigorovich's Swan Lake approaches its story from a different angle, renaming Von Rothbart 'the Evil Genius' and making Siegfried the psychological focus of the ballet.

Contemporary work is crucial to any ballet company, of course, and Jean-Christophe Maillot's The Taming of the Shrew shows the importance of new ballet to the Bolshoi. First performed in 2014, this take on Shakespeare's play features contemporary sets and costumes and a score made up of music by Shostakovich. But it also marvellously demonstrates the same sort of breathtaking, virtuoso dancing for which the Bolshoi has long been famous. A company's history, however long, always continues to inform its present.

The Bolshoi Ballet's summer season at the Royal Opera House in London runs 25 July–13 August.

Tickets are still available for some productions.

This article has 6 comments

  1. Christian Webb responded on 4 August 2016 at 6:30am Reply

    Re the Bolshoi's performance of Swan Lake on Fri 29th July. The outstanding contribution for me was from Vyacheslav Lopatin who played the jester to perfection. An incredible and noteworthy performance clearly appreciated by all the audience. All the more galling then that he did not appear for a curtain call. I genuinely suspect the cheers would have exceeded those of the principal dancers. Fair is fair and sheer skill and artistic flair should not go unrewarded. Maybe politics were involved, I don't know, but I still feel cheated he did not receive the recognition he certainly deserved for an outstanding contribution.

  2. David responded on 5 August 2016 at 11:37pm Reply

    I've been to three now and every act has started late, it's as if no-one in the Bolshoi owns a watch! If you're standing and you're told each time by the announcement it's about to start and you have to stand up another 5-10 minutes it's pretty annoying. Then further time is lost when the orchestra tune up and don't get me started on all the clapping. But gripes apart Swan Lake and Don Quixote were world class (though I enjoyed Royal Ballet's productions more) and second act tonight of Flames of Paris was OK. Christian above is spot on in his comment too.

  3. They put on a brilliant production of Don Quixote! You can see the commitment from every dancer - whether or not they are in a coveted part or less coveted one, each artist performs his or her role like it is a dream role of a lifetime. Whatever the politics behind the scenes, they are one of the greatest companies in the world right now.

  4. Steve Clark responded on 12 August 2016 at 11:42am Reply

    Thoroughly enjoyed the Bolshoi's Flames of Paris on 6/8/16 with Kristina Kretova and Vyacheslav Lopatin (despite a couple of stumbles). Act 2 better than Act 1. Confirmed my longtime suspicions that whilst the Bolshoi are undoubtably one of the World's leading companies, the Royal Ballet are THE World's leading Ballet Company!

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