Legend has it that Laurencia led a 15th-century peasant uprising in a Spanish village, which inspired the Golden Age novelist, Lope de Vega, to write Fuente Ovejuna (the village name), published in 1619. If it took de Vega two hundred years to immortalise the village, then Laurencia had to wait another three centuries for her headline... in the title of a ballet created by celebrated Georgian dancer, Vakhtang Chabukiani.   

<i>Laurencia</i> © Attila Nagy
Laurencia
© Attila Nagy

Laurencia was originally made for the Kirov in Leningrad and premiered in March 1939 with Chabukiani dancing the role of Frondoso, alongside Natalia Dudinskaya as the heroine. It is a quintessential example of the “choreodrama” genre so beloved by the leaders of the Soviet Union and later by Chairman Mao; in the same mould as Vasily Vainonen’s Flames of Paris (1932) and The Red Detachment of Women (1964). All three ballets concern the overthrow of a despot by the underprivileged, and each showcases heroic women. They all end with the victorious masses spread across the breadth of the stage, advancing on the audience in joyful celebration of their triumph.

<i>Laurencia</i> © Attila Nagy
Laurencia
© Attila Nagy

Given that the two Soviet ballets were creatures of their time, it is not surprising that both fell out of favour and ceased to be performed long before the age of Glasnost. Russian ballet pedagogue Michael Messerer restaged both Laurencia and Flames of Paris on the Mikhailovsky Ballet of St Petersburg: the former in 2010, and the latter, three years later. His version of Laurencia is not based on Chabukiani’s Kirov production, which was last performed in 1972 (although a version was sustained in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi) but on a later staging for the Bolshoi, last presented in the late 50s. As a child of one of the most famous Muscovite ballet dynasties (his mother, Sulamith was prima ballerina at the Bolshoi and his cousin was Maya Plisetskaya), Messerer has used his memories of the ballet (aided by unearthing an old film of Chabukiani’s choreography) to piece together a staging that must be as close to authentic as possible.

Authentic is another way of saying dated, although this slice of Soviet history associated so well with topical events that one of the dancers was identified to me as the second “#MeToo girl”! Budapest has not seen a classical ballet premiere for three years and it was clear from the audience reaction that Messerer’s staging had reawakened something essential (perhaps because the Chabukiani original was also part of the Hungarian repertoire in the soviet era).

<i>Laurencia</i> © Attila Nagy
Laurencia
© Attila Nagy

Laurencia is a big ballet requiring virtuoso dancing from a large cohort of soloists and, with a few minor exceptions, the Hungarian National Ballet's ensemble matched these challenges. Tatiana Melnik is a rare jewel in the company’s crown and she conquered the title role with a rich mix of expressiveness: from the bashful young woman, first encountered; through her coquettish courtship with Frondoso; and onto the Boudicca-like warrior, leading the village’s indecisive menfolk into rebellion. Gergely Leblanc was her love interest, Frondoso; a dancer who was fast-tracked from the corps de ballet by artistic director, Tamás Solymosi. Leblanc has bulked-up considerably since I last saw him dance (now more Mukhamedov than Dowell) with striking muscularity and power to merit the Chabukiani role, although somewhat lacking in elevation. 

Cristina Balaban and Lili Felméry were those “#MeToo girls” (Pascuala and Jacinta), friends of Laurencia who are molested and (one assumes) raped by the despot’s soldiers. Both are arresting dancers (Balaban takes the role of Laurencia in a later cast) who augur well for the company’s future. The evil local Commander, named Parancsnok, whose victorious return from the war opens the ballet, is portrayed by Iurii Kekalo as a cartoonish villain: imagine, if you will, the long-limbed John Cleese performing Monty Python’s Ministry of Funny walks but in the black-bearded image of Rowan Atkinson dressed as Blackadder II (the Elizabethan one) and you have Kekalo’s frenzied portrayal of Parancsnok to a tee!

<i>Laurencia</i> © Attila Nagy
Laurencia
© Attila Nagy

Amongst many fascinating group dances were a well-synchronised pas de six, a couple of flamenco-inspired dances, including a solo performed with hyper-plasticity by Jessica Carulla Leon, and some tame efforts at dancing with castanets (a couple of weeks’ rehearsals was never going to replicate the skills achieved in a lifetime of flamenco training). The sets and costumes were made anew for the Hungarian production based on the original designs and were full of vibrant colours and Messerer cleverly transitioned his choreography into the rebellion scenes by projecting footage from an old film that gave a fitting impression of scale. Alexander Krein’s original score contains some memorable lyrical themes and was strongly interpreted by the local orchestra under the expert direction of Pavel Sorokin, a ballet conductor in great demand internationally.

This ballet needs to be appreciated through its historical and cultural lens and enjoyed for its visual spectacle, strong and purposeful choreography and a pacy momentum that builds into a rousing finale.


Graham's accommodation in Budapest was funded by Hungarian State Opera

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