Alexei Ratmansky has enjoyed an ongoing choreographic love affair with the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, having made eleven ballets to his compositions; an impressive achievement given that Shostakovich only composed three scores specifically for dance. After unsuccessful efforts in The Golden Age (1930) and The Bolt (1931), Shostakovich had just one more attempt with The Bright Stream (1935), originally choreographed by Fyodor Lopukhov. That ballet is long lost (none of Lopukhov’s ballets survive). In 2003, prior to becoming director of the Bolshoi, Ratmansky crafted this version in homage to both Lopukhov and Shostakovich (two years later he also choreographed a full-length version of The Bolt). It is surely only a matter of time before The Golden Age gets the Ratmansky treatment!

<i>The Bright Stream</i> © Natalia Voronova
The Bright Stream
© Natalia Voronova

This ballet is a Russian mix of La Fille mal gardée and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on speed. There can be no more complete combination of ballet and farce than in this rural romp; made all the more absurd given that Ratmansky retained the original 1930s libretto (by Lopukhov and Adrian Piotrovsky). It is such a quaint piece of Soviet memorabilia that it becomes its own pastiche (the opening backcloth of black and red Cyrillic headlines, complete with ubiquitous hammer and sickle, put me in mind of the recent satirical film, Death of Stalin).

In a further nod to Fille, the narrative is set around the harvest festival at a Collective Farm in the Kuban region of Southern Russia, between the Caucasus and the Black Sea. The plot reunites two young women who went to ballet school together: one, Zina, gave up the profession and became the farm’s “morale officer”, while the other (unnamed) is now a famous ballerina. She arrives with her (also unnamed) dance partner, as official guests for the festival. Zina’s husband, Pyotr – a man with questionable taste in slacks and jumpers – falls for the ballerina, as does “The Old Dacha-dweller”, while his wife is instantly attracted to the male dancer. There’s also a sub-plot involving the dancers’ accordion-player falling for a local schoolgirl! Zina and the ballerina (what a great name for a band) hatch a plot for the two visiting dancers to cross-dress; while a tractor driver disguises himself as a dog to protect the schoolgirl from that sleazy musician! All this constitutes a second act bedroom farce (minus the bedroom) of incomprehensible shenanigans. I have never heard so many people laughing, so regularly, while watching ballet!

Ratmansky has allowed free rein to these comic characterisations, achieving some memorable burlesque moments: notably by Anna Balukova as the (wait for it) “Old Dacha-dweller’s anxious-to-be-younger-than-she-is wife” wearing a flamenco dress and pointe shoes while seemingly stepping out of a saucy, seaside postcard; Yuri Ostrovsky as her languid, hen-pecked husband, played in the same style and manner as Don Quixote; Alexei Matrakhov as Gavrilych, a red-faced, bow-legged, jolly farmer; and another Alexei (Putintsev) as the acrobatic tractor driver pretending to be a dog.

<i>The Bright Stream</i> © Natalia Voronova
The Bright Stream
© Natalia Voronova

Apart from the comic antics (some questionable, some hilarious) there are also plentiful thrills in the dancing of the six leads with two elegant pas de deux, countless virtuoso jumps and spins and complex footwork, including a memorable step-based solo for Denis Savin as the lusty accordion-player. Yulia Skvortsova portrayed Galya, the wide-eyed, innocent schoolgirl, to appreciable effect.

The classical dancer roles were performed by Ekaterina Krysanova (who was Zina when The Bright Stream first came to the UK, in 2006) and Ruslan Skvortsov (reprising the role he danced in 2006). Skvortsov was the central comedic figure of the second act, performing as a hairy-chested sylph en pointe with all the skilful mimicry of a dancer from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo! Krysanova was suitably captivating as the ballerina and her reunion duet with Daria Khokhlova’s Zina early in act one was a masterclass in synchronised ballet. As Pyotr, Igor Tsvirko was the hapless “Brian Rix” figure of this particular farce (if under 60, google him) carrying off his “celebrity obsession” with believable backwoods’ naivety.

This bright, brief and breezy production is occasionally hard to follow, but nonetheless soaked in rustic charm: the sets appear to be made of cardboard with psychedelic cornfields defying perspective to reach up to the skies, complete with flying tractors passing by. Whatever one thinks of this deliberately dated Russian comedy, the choreography is joyful, as is the music, characterised by tuneful melodies and harmonies, which for reasons much more absurd than this ballet’s plot was denounced by Pravda, less than a year after its premiere, condemning both Shostakovich’s score and Lopukhov’s choreography to an early demise. Ratmansky’s resurrection of the music for its intended purpose, in this loving homage to the original choreography and libretto, seems to have rightfully won back a permanent place in the Bolshoi repertoire.

***11