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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Balanchine Tests Bolshoi's Limits

The premiere of "Balanchine's Ballets" at the Bolshoi Theater opens a new chapter in the history of Moscow ballet. For many decades the very name of George Balanchine, seen by many as the greatest choreographer of the 20th century, was blacklisted in Russia.

Born of Georgian stock in St. Petersburg in 1904, Balanchine emigrated from Russia after the revolution. Seen as a formalist, his unconventional, entirely plotless ballets were not accepted in his homeland. It was not until the early 1960s with the Khrushchev Thaw that he first came to Russia at the head of his world-famous New York City Ballet. This and subsequent visits left an indelible mark, but many of his compositions still remained unknown to Russians. It is only over the last decade that several of his ballets (with the collaboration of the U.S.-based Balanchine Fund) first appeared at St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater, then in Perm and now at the Bolshoi.

The evening of "Balanchine's Ballets" held last week was conceived as a "retrospective triptych" of Balanchine's work. Alongside the late "Mozartiana" (1981) to Tchaikovsky's music, two of his earlier masterpieces were also shown - Igor Stravinsky's "Agon," virtually unknown to Moscow audiences, and Georges Bizet's "Symphony in C."

It was clear from the outset that Balanchine's ballets would receive a very different interpretation on the Bolshoi stage than in New York.

Like Stravinsky, Balanchine was a master of all the styles and movements of the 20th century, although he loved classical ballet above all and enriched it with ideas taken from American film and musicals. For Balanchine, a dancer is not an actor participating in psychological theater (as he is perceived in Russia) but above all a virtuoso "instrumentalist," rather like a first-rank musician.

"Dance with your body, not your face" is one of the fundamental precepts of Balanchine's aesthetics. This is why his corps de ballet resembled an orchestra, and why his leading soloists created an image that was sooner musical than dramatic. It is something for which Russian dancers are neither taught nor prepared.

"Agon" is one of Balanchine and Stravinsky's most complex works. The Balanchine ballerina Suzanne Farrell was asked by the Fund to come to Moscow to perform the central role of a ballet that American specialists call "the joke of two geniuses for 12 dancers." The logic of its various, purely musical charades escaped the Russian performers. Like diligent students, the four soloists and eight performers headed by Inna Petrova and Dmitry Belogolovtsev assiduously carried out the difficult choreographical text, but the sharp, disjointed solo fragments, duets and trios - filled with unconventional pauses and accents - gave the dancers plenty of difficulties. Least successful of all were the large group scenes.

There was no decor or even costumes, which, coupled with Stravinsky's atonal score, made "Agon" somewhat impenetrable not just for the Russian performers but also for a Russian audience. Only by watching this ballet several times can you fully understand its many ingenious musical and choreographical discoveries.

"Symphony in C," composed when Bizet was only 17, is far more accessible. This is a ballet about ballet and about the endless possibilities of classical dance. In the hands of a true master, it glitters like a diamond. The ballerina and her partner are at the center of every movement. They are surrounded by pairs of soloists (the female corps de ballet), while the entire cast is brought on stage for the grand finale.

In the first section, Konstantin Ivanov and Nadezhda Gracheva both danced the duets better than the solos, which demand so much precision and flair. Nina Ananiashvili, who learned the ballet on tour at the New York City Ballet, danced the slow movement to great effect with the ever-elegant Andrei Uvarov. In the technically complex third movement, the young Maria Alexandrova, in only her second season at the Bolshoi, fully justified the hopes placed on her, dancing with Nikolai Tsiskaridze, the acknowledged leading man in the troupe and well suited to Balanchine. The fourth allegro movement, however, was performed without much assurance by Anna Antonicheva. Her supple legs and great lift are better suited to a slower tempo.

The black and white costumes that became de rigeur in the spare stagings of New York set the tone for the Bolshoi's staging, but the badly cut tutus weighed down the ballerinas while the stage was so covered in gloom that the audience could not see many of the finer details. However, the black costumes did work well for the male dancers, giving their silhouettes a real elegance.

Despite the extremely restricted rehearsal time, both Farrell and choreographer John Taras, who acquired the rights to "Symphony in C" following Balanchine's death in 1983 and who assisted briefly in the rehearsals that lasted just three weeks, declared themselves fully satisfied with their collaborative work. Whether this was sincere or mere politeness is hard to tell. In any event, work on Balanchine's repertoire in Moscow has only just begun. The Bolshoi and the Balanchine Fund have agreed on a three-year period in which the Bolshoi is entitled to perform these ballets, which will return to the repertoire in September.