To celebrate Yuri Grigorovich's 90th birthday – the Bolshoi Ballet’s Artistic Director and principal choreographer from 1964 to 1995 – the company presented 11 of his ballets this season.

Svelana Zakharova and Mikhail Lobhukin © Damir Yusupov
Svelana Zakharova and Mikhail Lobhukin
© Damir Yusupov

Ivan the Terrible – more a theatrical dance drama than a ballet – premiered in 1975 with sets and costumes by Simon Virsaladze, Grigorovich’s longtime collaborator. The powerful score comprises selections from several Prokofiev compositions arranged by composer Mikhail Chulaki, including the film score for Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, and excerpts from his Third Symphony, Russian Overture, and Aleksander Nevsky. According to the program notes, Grigorovich’s primary influence when he created the ballet was Prokoviev’s music – not historical facts concerning the Tsar’s life.  

Virsaladze’s set is still innovative today. Rather than a backdrop, it is an integral part of the performance. At first sight, it appears to be three enormous black cylinders that fill the stage, but as the production progresses through its 16 scenes, they change color, alternating between opacity and transparency, silently sweeping open and closed to reveal either Russian battle and town scenes in crimson, bronze, and gold, or icons of saints and angels, depicted in black and deep aqua. Ivan’s realm is the center cylinder, in which sits a five foot tall dais that functions as a throne room, bed chamber, and the tomb from which Anastasia’s ghost appears. The Boyars—the highest ranking members of the feudal Moscow aristocracy – occupy the other two, from which they observe the tsar and descend to express their resentment and to plot Ivan’s downfall.

The libretto comprises specific events in the Tsar’s reign, including his accession to the throne, the Boyar’s resentment, his marriage to Anastasia, his defeat of a foreign invasion, a celebration of victory by the Russian people, the plotting of the Boyars, the poisoning of Anastasia, Ivan’s vengeful massacre of the Boyars, and his descent from grief to seeming madness.

The scenes alternate between large group dances – the battle scene, victory celebration, and massacre of the Boyars – and pas de deux and solos for the principal characters: Ivan and Anastasia in love, Prince Kurbsky despairing at his loss of Anastasia, Anastasia anxiously awaiting Ivan’s return from battle.

The choreography is a combination of ballet, folk dance, and highly stylized dramatic movement, with many moments of stillness; some of the scenes with Ivan and Anastasia proceed at an almost languorous pace. Throughout the ballet– and particularly at the beginning and end of several scenes – Grigorovich has created visually striking images and tableaux.

To make this dance drama work as a theatrical performance, a great dance actor is needed: one who can command the stage when standing still, dancing, and crawling on the floor in despair. The role was created by Yuri Vladimirov and subsequently interpreted by several generations of greatmale dancers, the most memorable being Vladimir Vasiliev and Irek Mukhamdov.

To this illustrious group of great interpreters can be added Mikhail Lobukhin. Trained at the Vaganova School, Lobukhin danced with the Mariinsky Ballet Theatre before joining the Bolshoi in 2010 because he felt its repertoire offered a better fit for his talents. Since then, he has developed into a brilliant performer.

Beyond the role’s requirements for incredibly strong technique and stamina, Ivan must be danced with total conviction, and Lobukhin does so, powerfully conveying the complexity of the Tsar’s character and moods. He transitions believably from powerful autocrat to gentle lover to vengeful murderer; from a heroic warrior and proud conqueror to a tormented and grieving victim of treachery. He gave a stunning performance.

Svetlana Zakharova made her debut as Anastasia, a role in which it is difficult to make much of an impression because it seems neither obviously technically nor emotionally demanding. Nevertheless, Zakharova’s musicality, elegance, and exquisite form together created a beautiful and moving Tsarina.

Denis Rodkin played Prince Kurbsky – leader of the Boyars – who secretly loves Anastasia but nonetheless reluctantly participates in the plot to kill her. In the past two years, the tall and handsome Rodkin has been faulted for a lack of gravitas and dramatic ability. In this breakout performance, he exceeded expectations – and then some – with powerful dancing and convincing acting.

Grigorovich is well known for his use of the corps de ballet to propel a ballet’s narrative and he is a master of movinga group of men to rousing music to exhilarating effect. In the battle scene and the dance of the Oprichniks (Ivan’s secret police), the combination of the dramatic music with multiple crescendos, the power and menace of the choreography, and the strength, speed, and energy of the Bolshoi’s men made for thrilling theater.

Pavel Klinichev conducted the orchestra through the intensely dramatic score with great feeling.