It is not often that you go to the ballet for a good laugh. But exactly this was on offer from the Bolshoi Ballet with its production of The Bright Stream. Some moments are so funny – a hairy-chested sylph, a milkmaid at work on a two man cow and even a dog riding a bicycle – that you can hardly see for tears misting up your binoculars – Yet it is not a slapstick work by any means. The two-act ballet is a nostalgic return to days gone by – even if those early days of communism often proved grim and challenging. In a small village in the North Caucasus, however, life on the Bright Stream kolhoz – or collective farm – seems all fun and games in the matter of love, and there’s plenty of clever choreography for the excellent dancers to perform, and a story to hold the attention.

Ruslan Skortsev as the Ballerina © Damir Yusupov
Ruslan Skortsev as the Ballerina
© Damir Yusupov

The original production of Bright Stream with choreography by Fyodor Lopukhov, and music especially created for it by Dmitry Shostakovich, premièred in 1935 at the Maly Theatre in Leningrad. Seven months later it graced the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre. To many its choreography broadcast a new dance language – bold and modern, and daring even to include humour. But the authorities soon showed their displeasure and attacked it as a ‘ballet fraud’ in the Pravda newspaper, with the result that it was soon deleted from the repertoires of both theatres, and subsequently lost. In 2003, Alexei Ratmansky reproduced the old work, using the original score and scenario but creating completely new choreography. From its première, his Bright Stream became an instant hit with audiences both at home and abroad – and it’s easy to see why.

The Bright Stream © Damir Yusupov
The Bright Stream
© Damir Yusupov

After a rousing introduction conducted by Pavel Klinichev, the curtain lifted to show a front cloth covered with Soviet slogans – ‘Build a new country’; ‘Women come to the kolhoz for work’; etc. Then the stage was bathed in golden sunlight as fields of grain were being harvested. Three cutout tractors floated across the backcloth, followed by three bi-planes to give historic background. The heroine, Zina, (danced with strength and lightness by Anastasia Meskova) sits engrossed in a book, then dances out her reveries. Agricultural student Pyotr, (Denis Savin who impressed with good jumps and turns), with whom she is deeply in love, joins her. The kolhoz folk gather to celebrate the coming harvest and are excited about the forthcoming visit of a famous ballerina. A puffing train announces her arrival along with her dance partner, and when the two girls meet, they realize that they already know each other – that they danced together at ballet school. They have fun remembering steps they used to do and the Ballerina (a gracious and charming Ekaterina Shipulina) teaches Zina some new works. No one at the kolhoz, including Pyotr, knows that she was also a ballerina in the past. Introduced to the Ballerina, the young student becomes immediately infatuated with her and takes her to see the village, leaving a shocked and tearful Zina. But these are not the only couples that have love troubles.

The Bright Stream © Damir Yusupov
The Bright Stream
© Damir Yusupov

There’s also Galya, a schoolgirl and the smarmy accordion player, whose attentions frighten her. The other couple are elderly dacha dwellers – a bustling, busty busybody in a red-layered dress and red shoes with pointes that she hobbles about on, whose eyes are set on the young male ballet dancer. Her tall absent-minded husband, shows little interest in kolhoz goings-on until he falls passionately for the Ballerina. Thus the plot begins. Assignations are made, but there’s an element of mischief. After assuring Zina that she has no intention of stealing her Pyotr, the Ballerina sets out to hoodwink the busybody who has made eyes at her dance partner. Swapping clothes. she now becomes the dancer in cap and pantaloons, while he puts on the Ballerina’s tarlatan, crown and enormous pointe shoes. The dacha dweller arrives on his bicycle for his surreptitious meeting with his new love and sits on a bench to wait for ‘her’. Suddenly a sylph runs heavily across the stage, arms held out awkwardly, dark hair curling out from his white bodice. ‘She’ does a pastiche of clunky steps from romantic ballets such as La Sylphide, and there are humorous lifts that don’t succeed. (As the Ballet Dancer/Sylph, Ruslan Skvortsov proved himself a true comedian, relishing every deadpan expression, and impressing with his pointe work.) The elderly man gets more and more confused by the Sylph’s erratic behaviour and runs off after ‘her’ just as his wife comes to have her dalliance with the ‘male’ dancer.

The Bright Stream © Damir Yusupov
The Bright Stream
© Damir Yusupov

The Ballerina, now a snazzy young man, behaves charmingly while fending off any close contact with the overpowering lady. Meanwhile, Galya keeps her rendezvous with the gigolo, knowing she has help at hand – one of her male friends has dressed up as a large dog! Suave, in jodhpurs with hair smarmed and oiled, the cad swoops and preens like a predatory bird in some very clever choreography as he tries to impress the schoolgirl. (With perfect timing and great acting, Igor Tsvirgo made the audience cry with laughter.) Needless to say the dog saves her honour and ends up on the bicycle. The scene is pure delight and the split-timing choreography is well danced by all. The ‘wrongdoers’ discover the mischief of the others and take it in good humour, returning contentedly to their original partners. Then there is a final jubilee celebration for the good harvest and, as the villagers joyfully dance, the Soviet ‘sun’ shines down on them all – and on the symbolic statues of communistic glory which line the back of the stage. It was a bright and cheery performance for the audience, and the whole cast performed with enthusiasm and gusto.

****1