Monday, 10 April 2017

A Hero of our Time

Standard YouTube Licence

Bolshoi Ballet A Hero for our Time streamed from Moscow, 9 April 2017

I could not help wondering whether I was letting my love of ballet get the better of me as I drove for nearly an hour to the nearest cinema to show the Bolshoi's A Hero of our Time on the first really good day of the year, especially as the forecast for the rest of the week is nothing to write home about. But I am very glad I did because this was one of the best live screenings that I have ever seen. It was the Bolshoi Ballet at its very best.

One of the reasons why I trekked to the Pictureville cinema at the Science + Media Museum in Bradford is that I read Lermontov's short stories in translation when I was at school. It was just after I had made the acquaintance of Leon Bakst and other late 19th and early 20th century artists who in turn led me to Diaghilev and eventually to ballet. I had read Princess Mary with particular attention because the death of Grushnitsky in a duel with Pechorin foretold the manner of the author's own death. Lermontov was only 26 when he died. He had published A Hero of our Time the year before his death and it was already in a second edition in his lifetime. Think what he might have achieved and he lived as long as Tolstoy.

A young man's novellas need to be interpreted by a young composer and that is precisely what we got with Ilya Demutsky's score. Demutsky speaks English well having studied in San Francisco and he discussed his work in that language with the presenter Katya Novikova in the interval. He told her that this was his first full-length ballet which makes it all the more remarkable. Novikova had noticed that he opened each ballet with a single instrument on stage: a clarinet for Bela, a cello for Taman and a cor anglais for Princess Mary. Demutsky explained that was to set the atmosphere. For instance, Lermontov had described Taman as "the nastiest little hole of all the seaports of Russia". Demutsky spoke how he had expressed that nastiness in his music.

Lermontov's book is a collection of novellas or long short stories centring around the adventures of Pechorin, a young army officer, who makes his way through the Caucasus mountains which were then the frontier of the Russian empire. The choreographer, Yuri Possokhov, has taken three of those stories, Bela, Taman and Princess Mary. Rather than repeat the plot word for word I shall leave it to my readers to consult the excellent introduction on the "About Performance" and synopsis pages on the Bolshoi's website.

As Pechorin appears in all three ballets, it would have been asking far too much of one dancer to perform that role through the whole show. Especially as there were was a lot of jumping to be done, The role was therefore split between Igor Svirko in Bela, Artem Ovchanrenko in Taman and Ruslan Skvortsov in Princess Mary. Readers will remember that Skvortsov impressed me particularly for his performance as Siegfried in Swan Lake when the company visited London last year.

The Bolshoi fielded three of their best leading ladies with Olga Smirnova dancing the beautiful, tragic Bela,  Yekaterina Shipulina the enticing and ultimately treacherous Undine and the magnificent Svetlana Zakharova as Mary. All three ballerinas were impressive but Zakharova showed her genius in one prolonged camera shot immediately after a duel where her face expressed her complex emotions more completely than any poem or novel. I have never seen this in a dancer before and rarely in an actor, Truly an artiste sans pareil.

There were several other memorable performances in Princess Mary. Denis Savin as the unhappy Grushnitsky. How my heart leapt out to him as he flinched from aiming at his friend Pechorin who seemed to have no qualms in dispatching Grushnitsky. Why is duelling so prominent in Russian literature? There is another in Pushkin's Onegin. Duelling is homicide no less. Kristina Kretova was a compelling Vera. Yet another victim of Pechorin. Finally, the wheelchair dancers deserve a cheer. They are every bit as polished and graceful as the rest of the cast.

I should say a word for the set designer Kirill Serebrennikov and the lighting designer Simon Donger. The conjuring up of ripples of water on the backdrop in Taman impressed me particularly. So, too, of course, did the sanitorium in Princess Mary.  

I am not sure when the Bolshoi will return to Covent Garen but I hope that they will bring A Hero of our Time when they do.

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