Opening the Tomb

Two choreographers awaken sleeping ballets, one by adjusting history, one by starting over

When the dramatic Italian ballerina Virginia Zucchi played the heroine in Marius Petipa's The Pharaoh's Daughter, 23 years after the ballet's 1862 premiere, she removed her crown and disordered her hair as the result of a close call with a lion. Petipa scolded her: A princess should never appear without her crown. One wonders what he would have made of Pierre Lacotte's mounting of his largely lost extravaganza, in which the chaste Aspicia's tutus reveal her panties every time she lifts a leg immodestly high, and drama is skimped to the extent that key moments in the plot occur in haste or behind hordes of dancers.

This was Petipa's first large-scale ballet, and can charitably be seen as a transition between the dramatic naturalism of Jules Perrot (under whom he had worked) and his own great symphonic works like The Sleeping Beauty; it owes much to the then St. Petersburg ballet master Arthur Saint-Léon, who aimed to match the tsarist court in terms of splendor. The scenario, inspired by a Théophile Gautier tale, is itself laid in a palace: A British explorer enters an ancient pharaoh's domain in an opium dream and, as Ta-Hor, wins the hand of the princess after escapades involving her jealous fianc é, her presumed suicide by drowning, and Ta-Hor's near execution by a large fake cobra.

Lacotte has successfully re-created several lost ballets. Here he cut a five-hour work down to less than three, patching Cesare Pugni's music together and causing the story to jolt along, wedding caked with dancing and processions. Only scraps of the original choreography remained, but Lacotte has credentials in Petipa, via his Paris teacher Lyubov Egorova. He understands well the interplay of intricate footwork, jumps, and adagio moments. The first act effectively mingles leaping hunters and huntresses with an elegant pas de deux, which includes a fine side-by-side passage of rapid leaps and beats for the lovers. There's a charming solo for Aspicia in their second-act duet (her father and the hated fiancé, the king of Nubia, fail to notice this rapturous meeting) and an even more interesting solo (Petipa's) for her Nubian slave, variations for six court ladies and gentlemen, solos for three female rivers when Aspicia lands unharmed in Neptune's kingdom, and more—framed by a constantly changing array of corps members in various "Egyptian" costumes and updated 19th-century ballet duds (too many of both white).

Maria Alexandrova in The Bright Stream
photo: Jack Vartoogian/FrontRow Photo
Maria Alexandrova in The Bright Stream

Details

The Bolshoi Ballet
Metropolitan Opera House
July 18 through 30

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As Aspicia, Svetlana Zakharova is a gorgeous, limber, fluid creature but not yet a convincing actress. Her Ta-Hor, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, is slightly tight in the shoulders but most impressive at spins and beats. Anastasia Yatsenko as a fisherman's wife and Maria Alexandrova as the slave Ramzé danced wonderfully, as did the three "rivers," Ekaterina Krysanova, Ekaterina Shipulina, and Olga Stebletsova, and many others.

Another Bolshoi revival, The Bright Stream, is a happy ballet with an unhappy history. Choreographed by Fyodor Lopukhov in 1935, it did not not portray life on a collective farm as Stalin wished. The esteemed pedagogue Agrippina Vaganova denounced its use of a classical ballet vocabulary uncolored by character or regional differences. Lopukhov shortly lost his job and didn't make a ballet for six years; the librettist, Adrian Piotrovsky, was sent to a gulag, and Dmitri Shostakovich, sadly, never wrote another ballet score.

The comic scenario is age-old: Philandering husbands and flirty wives are taught a lesson involving disguised spouses (or other tricksters) and end up appreciating the grass on their side of the fence. Complications arise when the government, rewarding productivity (six-foot vegetables!), sends two ballet dancers and a phonograph for harvest entertainment. Shostakovitch's overture offers heroic bombast and idealistic harmonies, but once Boris Messerer's curtain (hammer and sickle, slogans in Cyrillic) rises, it's evident that Bolshoi director Alexei Ratmansky's new version of The Bright Stream veers far from socialist realism. Although most scenes end with poster-ready tableaux, the philandering agricultural student's shirt sparkles subtly, and the farm women wear floral prints to die for. Regional dances hew to the music's waltzes and polkas, and despite some modern choreographic kinks, fouettés and the like abound.

Occasionally the ensemble looks featureless, and Ratmansky's choreography can be unmusical, but his direction is astute. Notable in the July 27 cast was Gennady Yanin as an accordion player showing off his dance chops to impress a schoolgirl, choreography and music sliding from sensuous gypsy mode to jazzy tango to circusy brass. As the alluring visiting ballerina, Shipulina was wonderful both in a duet with the "betrayed" wife Zina (Yatsenko), once a ballet student, as they reminisce on pointe about their early classes, and later disguised as her male dance partner to fool the besotted, big-assed wife of a "dacha dweller." Yatsenko was especially lovely when, masquerading as the ballerina, she danced with her own husband (the excellent Rinat Arifulin)—furious at him yet loving his attentions. The wittiest encounter occurred between the matron's tall, skinny old husband (Alexey Loparevitch) and the visiting male dancer in sylph drag. Ratmansky, once a member of the Royal Danish Ballet, is well versed in Sylphide style, and Yan Godovsky dances and mimes the elusive female beautifully and hilariously.

Dusting off forgotten works has its rewards. And its dangers.

 
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