Bolshoi Ballet: Big ballet at its best

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The Bolshoi’s Svetlana Zakharova in Don Quixote
Photo: Damir Yusupov

Bravura defines Russia’s fabled Bolshoi

Around the world, the Bolshoi Ballet equals boffo box office. More than 10,000 will head to the National Arts Centre next week to watch the 336-year-old Moscow ballet company’s Don Quixote, originally created for them in 1869 by the illustrious French-Russian choreographer Marius Petipa.

Ballet tradition doesn’t come any weightier than that, but what draws audiences worldwide to the Bolshoi is also the thrill factor: breathtaking athleticism and such theatrical expressiveness that the dancers’ exquisite technical prowess appears as natural as breathing.

“’Bolshoi’ means ‘big’ in Russian and I’m expecting them to own Don Quixote,” observes Merle Adam, director of National Capital Dance Educators, a member of the Russian Society of Ballet and an eminent teacher of the Russian style. “If you look at the Kirov version of the ballet, the male dancers look wrong, they look too delicate and refined. This is Spanish and bulls, you don’t need some prissy-looking prince!”

Indeed during the Cold War era, the state-funded Bolshoi became almost synonymous in the West with what Adam refers to as “high-testosterone” propaganda ballets such as Spartacus. “They used troops of men doing big movement on a big stage with overwhelming sets.”

The last time the Bolshoi banner was in Ottawa was in 1974 for a mixed-repertory program at the NAC that included a 26-year-old dancer named Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was to defect when the tour went on to Toronto.

Thus Don Quixote marks the Bolshoi’s first full-length classical ballet here, and it’s a stunningly popular choice with its mixture of Spanish and Gypsy dance, comic farce, lavish sets, spectacular feats and Ludwig Minkus’ original sweeping score. The main story amidst many stories centres not on the aging Don and Sancho Panza, but star-crossed lovers Kitri and the barber Basilio. Those who had hoped to see the real-life star couple of Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in those roles will be disappointed. In a ballet-world upset in November, the young married couple traded the Bolshoi for the lesser-known Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.

But the depth of Bolshoi talent runs as deep as Moscow’s snows and is constantly renewed by fresh up-and-comers from the Bolshoi school. With 230 dancers, the Moscow company far outnumbers all of Canada’s professional companies combined.

But what ultimately counts in ballet is quality. The Russian style, notes Adam, comes from centuries of ballet tradition and excellence. “They’ve been taught by unbelievably possessed and imaginative generations of teachers. It’s a vast, vast power that they have imparted in these dancers.”

Don Quixote
by Bolshoi Ballet
@ NAC Theatre (53 Elgin)
May 23-26, 7:30 p.m.

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