When John Neumeier staged his Lady of the Camellias on the Bolshoi Ballet last year, he chose three ballerinas to dance the leading role: Svetlana Zakharova, Olga Smirnova, and Nina Kaptsova. But when rehearsals began, Kaptsova was on maternity leave. And so on April 30th, a year later, the principal dancer, greatly admired for her musicality, lyricism and dramatic ability in a wide range of roles, made her long-awaited debut in the role of Marguerite.

© Elena Fetisova, Bolshoi Theatre
© Elena Fetisova, Bolshoi Theatre
The story of Alexandre Dumas 19th century novel Lady of the Camellias is well known, having been immortalized in opera—La Traviata—in ballet, with Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand ( created for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev) as well as on screen.  Neumeier's ballet, created in 1979 for the Stuttgart Ballet, with Marcia Haydee as Marguerite is now in the repertoire of major ballet companies worldwide. In the Bolshoi’s since 2014, it offers strong dramatic roles to the Russian company's dancers.

Lady of the Camellias’ unique narrative structure is told in flashbacks after Marguerite has died and as her possessions are sold. We see Marguerite and Armand meet for the first time at a performance of Manon Lescaut, and throughout the ballet, the opera’s two lovers, Manon and des Grieux appear to Marguerite as a vision, reflecting her own experience. Each of the three acts has a lengthy pas de deux through which Marguerite and Armand's relationship is developed--from their first meeting and the thrill of new found love to their last passionate embrace before she leaves him for the final time.

The ballet's exquisitely romantic music by Chopin, played by Alexei Melentiev on stage, and by Nadezhda Demyanova in the orchestra pit, requires strong dramatic performances from the dancers to prevent the ballet from descending into shallow melodrama. Marguerite isn’t simply a courtesan with a new lover, but a woman who experiences true love with Armand. As Marguerite, Nina Kaptsova rose to the emotional requirements of this role, and won the audience’s heart. In the second act pas de deux, after she has renounced the relationship with her patron, her dancing expressed youthful ecstatic joy and delight in her new found love, which justified her devastation when, later, she reluctantly agrees to forsake Armand, as demanded by his father.

After the final pas de deux in the third act, Marguerite does very little dancing. The artist portraying her must hold the audience solely with her acting. This Kaptsova did to great dramatic effect, feverishly writing in her diary between coughing spasms and, more importantly, conveying the sorrow and despair of a young woman who knows she is dying through her every movement and facial expression. In addition to gloriously expressive dancing, Kaptsova has the ability to express emotion simply by the position of her body and the tilt of her head.

© Elena Fetisova, Bolshoi Theatre
© Elena Fetisova, Bolshoi Theatre
Making his debut as Armand, Denis Rodkin appeared to be inspired by Kaptsova's emotional intensity. Seen recently in the Bolshoi's worldwide cinecast of Legend of Love, Rodkin is tall and very handsome, but he has not made much of a dramatic impression in prior roles. In this performance, however, he seemed quite taken with Kaptsova's Marguerite and responding to her brought his acting to a new level. He was a most ardent lover while she was alive, and consumed by grief after her abandonment and death, especially when, reading her diary, he learns the reason she left him.

Kristina Kretova and Artemy Belyakov portrayed Manon and des Grieux, appearing in the "play within a play" and then in Marguerite's imagination. Kretova is a versatile dancer who expresses both Manon's coquetry in the play scenes and melancholy in the vision scenes well. Belyakov had little to dance but was an attentive partner. Unfortunately, both Anastasia Meskova and Egor Khromushin gave rather lackluster performances as Prudence Duvernoy, Marguerite's courtesan friend, and Gaston Rieux, Armand's friend.  Igor Tsvirko played Count N— Marguerite's annoyingly persistent and unsuccessful suitor—with a charming sincerity.

*****