Yuri Grigorovich’s A Legend of Love premiered in 1961 while he was head of the Kirov (Mariinsky) Ballet, with Rudolf Nureyev in the lead role of Ferkhad. It was Grigorovich's second ballet – the first being the highly successful Stone Flower –and it established his reputation as an innovative new choreographer. The production was a multi-national collaboration: the choreography by the Russian dancer, the libretto by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, a score by Azerbaijani Arif Melikof, and sets designed by Georgian Simon Virsaladze.

Nina Kaptsova (Shireen) © Elina Fetisova
Nina Kaptsova (Shireen)
© Elina Fetisova
While not a critical success, the ballet has proved popular with the public and has been staged in several European countries. It entered the Bolshoi's repertoire in 1965; and after a five year absence, the Bolshoi revived the ballet in October 2014.

The ballet’s casts at both the Kirov and the Bolshoi read like a veritable Who’s Who of Ballet:  Irina Kolpokova, Natalia Bessmertnova, and Ludmilla Semenyaka (Shireen); Alla Osipenko, Alla Shelest, and Maya Plisetskaya (Mekhmene Banu); and Yuri Soliviev and Maris Liepa (Ferkhad).

The ballet’s story, of Persian origin, is basically a tale of unrequited and thwarted love. In exchange for saving the life of her dying sister, Shireen, Queen Mekhmene Banu is required by the healer to sacrifice her beauty. Later, while out walking, the sisters come upon Ferkhad, a court painter, and both fall in love with him. Ferkhad falls in love with Shireen and Mekhmene Banu falls into a state of grief and despair because she knows he will never love her because she has lost her beauty. Ferkhad and Shireen declare their love and elope and the Queen’s army pursues and captures them. Mekhmene Banu's jealousy leads her to set an impossible task for Ferkhad to accomplish before he can be with Shireen: to bore a hole through an iron mountain to reach a water source for the kingdom.

The third act includes two fantasy pas de deux as Ferkhad dreams of Shireen and the Queen dreams of Ferkhad. Shireen beseeches the Queen to allow her to be with Ferkhad and the latter relents. However, seeing the kingdom’s need for water, Ferkhad decides to continue his efforts to reach the water source, and leaves Shireen waiting.

The ballet’s choreographic structure foreshadows that of Spartacus (1968): solos for the central characters, numerous and varied pas de deux, and use of the corps de ballet as an integral component of the narrative. Legend of Love was the first ballet in which Grigorovich used several groups of men performing simple and repetitive movements en masse to powerful music that builds to a crescendo. The ballet’s score is exotic and dramatic in equal measure and perfectly fits the narrative and choreography.

Maria Allash (Mekhmene Banu) © Elina Fetisova
Maria Allash (Mekhmene Banu)
© Elina Fetisova
The ballet has four main characters. Maria Allash played Mekhmene with both commanding authority and the despair and anguish of a woman who knows that Ferkhad will never return her love. She believably expressed the contradictory emotions in the different acts. Her love for her sister was so great that she sacrificed her beauty to save her life, yet her jealousy of Ferkhad’s love for Shireen causes her to thwart this love, causing her sister great anguish. The role requires strong technique, powerful dancing, and dramatic ability and Allash excelled in all three.

The dancer playing Shireen, which is a lyrical role, has the challenging task of holding her own on the stage with Mekhmene. Nina Kaptsova accomplished this admirably with her exquisite line, expressive dancing, and strong dramatic interpretation. But what makes Kaptsova’s Shireen so memorable is her unerring musicality and her ability to become one with the role. She imbues every movement – whether a grand jeté or the tilt of her head – with meaning. 

Denis Rodkin (Ferkhad) © Mikhail Logvinov | Bolshoi Theatre
Denis Rodkin (Ferkhad)
© Mikhail Logvinov | Bolshoi Theatre
Ferkkhad was danced by Denis Rodkin – who performed the role when the ballet was screened in cinemas worldwide last autumn. He has an impressive physique, a strong elegant jump, and good partnering skills. His interpretation of the role has improved since last year – he is more expressive emotionally – but he needs to develop a more finely tuned musicality to really bring out the nuances in the choreography.

Denis Savin – widely considered the Bolshoi’s most accomplished dance actor – portrayed the Vizier and danced the role with great energy and his trademark intensity.

Both the female and male corps de ballet were excellent, particularly the latter. Grigorovich is an absolute master in using the male corps to thrilling effect and the thirty members of the male corps almost stole the show with the astonishing power of their dancing in the procession scene in Act I and the chase scene in Act II. One can think of no other ballet company in the world that could perform these scenes with the energy and conviction of the Bolshoi’s men.

*****