The Bolshoi Ballet is legendary, part of an artistic vision that is over 200 years old and that produces dancers through an intensive regime requiring the ultimate in talent and dedication. It is one of the defining cultural symbols of Russia, an identity that its dancers embrace and are ever-conscious of. The world, they believe – and rightly so – looks to the Bolshoi Ballet as a standard of classical dance.

Maria Vinogradova and Denis Rodkin in Spartacus © Marius Fiskum / Nordlysfestivalen
Maria Vinogradova and Denis Rodkin in Spartacus
© Marius Fiskum / Nordlysfestivalen

The company doesn’t travel much, relatively speaking: the kind of large and spectacular performance that is part of their identity is costly to organise and tour. Just maintaining the company in Moscow requires some 3,000 employees and participants. Of that figure over 200 dancers comprise the company – the largest in the world. That a selection of dancers from the company travelled to perform at the Northern Lights Festival in Tromsø, Norway, is, in the words of the Bolshoi’s Artistic Director Sergei Filin, “rare and special”.

The programme was designed by Filin and the participating principals and soloists to be compatible with Tromsø’s Kulturhuset theatre. The house holds just over 1,000 audience members, which ensures a closeness and intimacy unavailable in Moscow, or in many main theatres worldwide. From almost anywhere in the audience you can count the long eyelashes of the ballerinas and the drops of sweat on the danseurs’ foreheads. Every curvature of muscle and sinew is on view for admiration. Rare and special, without a doubt.

Suitably, the programme emphasised the form central to classical and Romantic ballet, and the one most of us think of when we think of classical ballet: the pas de deux. Though highly gendered, its heroine and hero taken from the fairy tale world of graceful princesses and bold princes, the pas de deux can span an emotional range from elegant nobility to sassy playfulness. The Bolshoi dancers performed a wide selection of styles: primarily classical, with touches of the “Romantic, dynamic and modern”.

Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin in the pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty © Marius Fiskum / Nordlysfestivalen
Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin in the pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty
© Marius Fiskum / Nordlysfestivalen
The choreography of Marius Petipa dominated the first half of the programme, with an opening pas de deux from Le Corsaire, performed by Anna Tikhomirova and Igor Tsvirko. A bold and exuberant piece, the choreography requires the male dancer to end his leaps in a deep grande plié, from which he springs up smoothly into the next set of leaps.

That was followed by Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin in the Grand pas from Sleeping Beauty. These two dancers personify classical ballet’s ability to recreate a world of elegant courtliness, their steps carefully enunciated and exquisitely placed. Chudin has an impressive ballon, and Smirnova’s attitudes (the position as well as the emotional state) were to die for. In the second half of the program, they danced the Diamond adagio from Balanchine’s Jewels, a piece described by the Balanchine Trust as recalling “the order and grandeur of Imperial Russia”. It is similar in tone to Sleeping Beauty’s third-act pas de deux. But the selection from Jewels displays Balanchine’s propensity for dazzlingly quick and light movement, adding a spiciness to the elegance and a greater challenge to sophisticated dancers.

Mikhail Lobukhin’s style is easily identifiable with Bolshoi – where the men dance almost to extreme positions, suffusing their attack with a near reckless energy. It’s always thrilling. It appears also in the women’s dancing, but in a slightly more constrained way – combining that energy with refinement. Lobukhin partnered Kristina Kretova, who projects a playful, slightly coquette sweetness, in the pas de deux from Le Talisman. And Anna Nikulina, dressed in Odile’s black tutu, danced the third act pas de deux from Swan Lake, partnered by Ruslan Skortsov, giving her partner sly and seductive looks. They also performed a duo from The Golden Age, with its exotic lifts, a feature also prominent in the Monologue and Adagio from Spartacus. The latter was choreographed by Yuri Gigorovich in 1968. Spartacus was danced by Maria Viogradova whose long-limbs gave a serpentine quality to the character. Denis Rodkin was an able partner, the two executing some breathtaking lifts.

Sergei Filin with the Bolshoi Ballet and Arctic Symphony Orchestra © Marius Fiskum / Nordlysfestivalen
Sergei Filin with the Bolshoi Ballet and Arctic Symphony Orchestra
© Marius Fiskum / Nordlysfestivalen
The programme closed with the “Grand pas” from Don Quixote. A brilliant programming choice, the sequence conveyed the largeness of a spectacle with only four corps de ballet members, two soloists, and the principals, Kristina Kretova and Mikhail Lobukhin.

To watch Bolshoi dancers perform in both rehearsal and performance is to see how extraordinary are the human body, mind and heart.

Maestro Alexei Bogorad, the resident conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre, led the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra in support of several of the pieces. A new orchestra, established in 2009 and comprised of the Tromsø Kammerorkester and Bodø Sinfonietta, it added members of the Military Band of Northern Norway to its ranks for this production. The soloists performed admirably, and the entire ensemble did a fine job, with occasional wildnesses. Performing for dancers is a very specialised form of music, which takes some time and many rehearsals to develop. During the lengthy ovation, leading soloist Kristina Kretova leaned over the pit to give the musicians a well-deserved “Bravi!”