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The Bolshoi Ballet is one of the leading ballet companies in the world, with good reason. With over two centuries of performances and a company of skilled dancers to its name, the Bolshoi is well known for its ability to combine dramatic intensity with refined ballet technique. Their adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow reminds everyone just why their performances are world famous.
This particular ballet was directed by Jean-Christophe Maillot and one thing that was clear throughout was the lack of adherence to traditional conventions which would be expected from any other company. During the course of the two hour show the distinction between traditional and contemporary was blurred together seamlessly, obvious from the moment the performance started. Instead of the curtain opening onto a large dance routine with a fanfare flourish, a lone ballerina, Anna Tikhomirova who danced the role of the Housekeeper, strutted out in front of the curtain in high heels with her pointe shoes slung over her shoulder. The house was silent as she sat down and changed shoes, participating in a humorous non-verbal exchange of expression and body language with the conductor, Igor Dronov, as she did so.
The curtain rose as Tikhomirova danced under it to centre stage, the rest of the corps de ballet gathering round her, laying the setting of the house of Baptista, father of Katharina (danced by Ekaterina Krysanova) and Bianca (Olga Smirnova). The stage design was minimalist, with only a large white staircase, pillars and several boxes which were constantly moved around between dancers to connote the setting. The plot was as minimal as the stage, with any unnecessary characters and events being cut allowing the focus to fall purely on the principals, soloists and the story they were telling. The Taming of the Shrew is a ballet that has been adapted and performed countless times and Maillot’s interpretation, by cutting extraneous details, allowed the story to be conveyed simply but dynamically and could be followed by anyone possessing a basic knowledge of Shakespeare’s original work.
Krysanova and Smirnova, were joined by fellow principal dancers Vladislav Lantratov and Semyon Chudin, dancing the roles of Petruchio and Lucentio respectively. Their technique was unmistakeable- as you would expect from a company as esteemed as the Bolshoi- as was the strength and flexibility demonstrated by their performance of breathtakingly bold moves. The trust the dancers had in each other could be seen with every leap and lift; one of the most impressive occurring near the beginning with the three suitors lifting Bianca above their heads, turning her upside down and, with her head inches from the floor, passing her to Baptista (Artemy Belyakov) who singlehandedly lifts her over his shoulder in a full circle. Not only was the skill of the principals and the soloists utilised to their fullest during the performance but also that of the entire corps de ballet, every single move was executed perfectly in synchronisation with their fellow dancers and created an impressive visual display.
It’s clear the principal dancers were not just chosen for their dancing but also for their acting. In ballet, the facial expressions and body language of the dancers have to mix with the choreography in a way that enhances the story and doesn’t appear incongruous to it. The Bolshoi is well-known for its expressive performing style and the dancers are crucial to that, with not just looking the part but also acting their parts well. Throughout the performance it was clear they embodied their characters, allowing the emotion to be displayed clearly on their faces. However whilst this was distinctive enough on camera, the subtleties of their performance may not have translated well to the back of the cavernous amphitheatre in Moscow.
The dancing itself was flawless, choreographed to music by Dmitri Shostakovich whose musical score was chosen for being classical and modern as opposed to a more dated, traditional soundtrack. The music followed the dancers perfectly, interweaving with Maillot’s choreography and highlighting the drama of the story. It also embodied the Bolshoi’s signature style; instead of conforming strictly to traditional ballet moves, elements of the contemporary genre could be seen, for example flexed feet where they would normally be pointed, a lack of clear lines and perfectly placed arms in favour of more unconventional moves that better express the passion of the dancers. Maillot’s gamble to mix contemporary and ballet paid off and brought a refreshing take on ballet as both a genre and an art form. The ballet did not shy away from the cruder elements of Shakespeare either- I for one did not expect to see a sex scene in a ballet, even if it was covered by a sheet- and the use of visual humour such as swearing did seem out of place in a performance that would be classes as ‘high culture’. However it worked; instead of detracting from the ballet, it added to it and was a good way to update a well-told story and make it appeal more to a younger, contemporary audience.