Theater archives

DVDs deliver unforgettable vintage Russian ballet stars


Classical dance fans in the West are perennially thrilled to hear that the Russians are coming. Via the burgeoning DVD industry, they’re traveling across space and out of the past—on small, shiny disks designed to last forever. New releases include several Bolshoi and Kirov chestnuts. VAI offers its digital version of a 1957 film of Swan Lake starring the flamboyant Maya Plisetskaya and the gentlemanly Nikolai Fadeyechev. Empire Musicwerks counters with The Nutcracker (Ekaterina Maximova and Vladimir Vasiliev, from a 1978 film) and Cinderella (Gabriella Komleva, from 1985).

All three productions, and others like them, hold great interest as period pieces. The older they are, the more evident the differences they reveal between ballet then and ballet now. The Swan Lake, for instance, shows a style of dancing more natural, less highly wrought, than today’s, and an acting style, alternating subtlety with melodrama, that is sincere to the core. The Nutcracker documents the subsequent pursuit of mannequin-sleek bodies and sheer physical prowess.

As dance aficionados know, film isn’t good at capturing a large moving group in a full stage view. The results are rarely visceral enough, often incoherent. In exchange, though, the camera can get you almost as close to a legendary ballerina as her partner once was. So, if you’re not put off by unattractive takes on the choreography (Yuri Grigorovitch’s, for Nuts) or hokey shooting techniques (Lake), you can revel in some consummate dancing here: Plisetskaya, a marvel of passion and plastique, as the heavenly swan and the hellish one; Komleva, charming in her girlish role even at fortysomething, her gift for belief in her part fused with an instinct for music; Maximova coating her razor-sharp technique with a dulcet joy. Not bad for home entertainment.