The novel Ondine (1811) – the story of a water nymph – by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué inspired several ballet productions; notably Jules Perrot’s with music by Pugni in 1843 (revived by Pierre Lacotte in 2006 at the Mariinsky) and Sir Frederick Ashton's with a score by Hans Werner Henze as a vehicle for Margot Fonteyn in 1958. The Bolshoi Ballet’s production, choreographed by Viecheslav Samodurov on the Henze score, premiered in June of this year.

Igor Tsvirko (the Fugitive) and Ekaterina Krysanova (Ondine) © Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi Theatre
Igor Tsvirko (the Fugitive) and Ekaterina Krysanova (Ondine)
© Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi Theatre

In all prior productions, the librettos were a conventional romantic ballet depiction of the story of a water nymph and a mortal human falling in love and marrying – or attempting to marry – with the ensuing complications and various outcomes depending on the production. The Bolshoi’s production has no narrative. The synopsis provided in the programme outlines ideas that the ballet is supposed to represent (a man encountering the supernatural when all his aspirations and hopes have ended, and the pursuit of a dream in a transitional state between life and death). In an interview on the Bolshoi Theatre’s online channel, Samodurov said that he found it difficult to explain what the ballet is, that the emotional message of the ballet is more important than the action, and that the audience “will draw its own conclusions.”

The ballet has 10 scenes in three acts, most of them metaphors for a situation that the main protagonist (The Fugitive) is experiencing: a cliff, a wall, a labyrinth, a dream, a fantasy, a vortex, a crossroads, a choice. However, neither the music nor the choreography clearly elucidates these different situations. Rather, the progression of the ballet through the ten scenes is more or less indicated by set, lighting, and costume changes. The sets are modern, minimalist, and stark: square concrete pillars, transparent vinyl screens through which the characters try – unsuccessfully – to communicate, mirrors, a billowing curtain, and bars of florescent lights that ascend and descend throughout the performance for no apparent reason.

Given the absence of a narrative or a coherent emotional structure, the music and choreography alone must engage the audience for 90 minutes – a formidable task. Because Samodurov opted for abstraction, his choice of the Henze score – relentlessly melodramatic and tediously repetitive – is a mystery. Hewing closely to the score, the choreography has the same deficiencies.

A scene from <i>Ondine</i> © Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi Theatre
A scene from Ondine
© Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi Theatre

The choreographer has said that he was trying to find a fusion of dance styles in this ballet. The work can more accurately be characterised as a modern dance work than as a contemporary ballet, even though the dancers work on pointe. The choreography for the women alternates between undulating and sharp, angular movements; for the men, it is generally fast and powerful with a lot of running, jumping, and turning. Sixteen men (The Fugitive’s Reflections) and sixteen Ondines appear and move about in most of the scenes, but their purpose is never clear. The third act has a pas de huit for four couples that is completely at odds with the rest of the ballet – an interjected divertissement – though it does at least provide some structured dancing.

In the programme notes, Samodurov states that the music is “complicated for interpretation”. Given this, the lack of narrative and meaningful choreography, the dancers perform heroically, moving with precision, intensity and energy throughout the entire ballet. Ekaterina Krysanova did the best that was possible with the role of Ondine – given that her sole purpose for 90 minutes is to entice The Fugitive to her underwater realm. Igor Tsvirko is a charismatic and dramatic dancer who cannot help but dance with intense passion. But the role of The Fugitive provides little scope for his talent. While all of the dancers in the pas de huit were excellent, Artur Mkrtchyan stood out with his powerful and sinuous dancing.