The Bolshoi’s Swan Lake is much reduced, as if a casserole that has been simmering on the stove for ages, which – in a way – it has. The famous Moscow theatre was the birthplace of this most famous of all ballets, having hosted the first performances, ironically without initial success, in 1877. There have been ten different productions in the Bolshoi repertoire since then, entertaining both the Tsars and Commissars alike; the ballet surviving all extremes of regime change. Yuri Grigorovich originally conceived this psychological interpretation in 1969, revisiting the concept in a revival that premiered in 2001, by which time the Soviet Union had collapsed and Tchaikovsky’s thematic allusion to an unhappy ending was no longer an affront to communist sensibilities.

Semyon Chudin (Siegfried) and Olga Smirnova (Odette) © Natalia Voronova
Semyon Chudin (Siegfried) and Olga Smirnova (Odette)
© Natalia Voronova

Swan Lake is traditionally a ballet of four acts (although most productions have only two intervals): Grigorovich’s staging reduces to two acts, each split into Prince Siegfried’s unsatisfying “real world” followed by the “fantasy world” of his dreams. Siegfried is the key to Grigorovich’s altered imagery; a role that is much expanded from the norm. He dances the pas de trois (essentially a pas de quatre, because the cheeky, lovelorn jester joins in) and the soliloquy that turns into a pas de deux with The Evil Genius (Rothbart, in other interpretations), leading the Prince to his dream of the lakeside; not – in this narrative – with a crossbow in his hands, on a swan hunt; but fantasising a more meaningful purpose in life.

Semyon Chudin drew the honour of dancing as Siegfried on this opening night, and one can easily understand why: he is stately – statuesque even – with a noble bearing and elegant definition in his always beautiful lines and posture. He is ramrod upright and every step is made with cautious and precise deliberation. It is like watching a great artist paint, by numbers. His movement has style and elegance, but it can also seem paradoxically leaden; it is a strange and, sometimes uneasy, contrast. And then comes the matter of expression. I could never tell what this Siegfried was thinking (other than deliberating on the next step), which is a problem given that much of the action takes place in his character’s mind. In the first scene, his cheeks curved inwards with a pained expression as if he was sucking the sourest of gobstoppers.

On the plus side, Chudin allowed himself to be totally absorbed by his main partner, Olga Smirnova (Odette/Odile) whilst appropriately, and nonchalantly, captivating the seven other women with whom he danced (two compliant friends and five eager princesses, all prematurely described as “brides” in the programme). For all the concerns expressed previously, each of which were formed in the largely pedestrian first act (before Odette appears), Chudin has an impeccable technique and is the securest and most pliant of partners.

Semyon Chudin (Siegfried) and Olga Smirnova (Odette) © Natalia Voronova
Semyon Chudin (Siegfried) and Olga Smirnova (Odette)
© Natalia Voronova

Smirnova is the archetypal image of a Russian Odette/Odile, stepping into a mould of glacial perfection, occupied in previous generations by such legendary ballerinas as Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya. Her extremes of expressiveness were palpable, both as the white and black swans, and she embodied the seductive overlay of Odette’s grace in the temptress form of Odile, more than sufficiently to understand Siegfried’s unwitting deceit.

Mikhail Lobukhin has an imposing physique but nonetheless his dancing as the Evil Genius seemed strangely underpowered, in contrast to Georgy Gusev as ‘The Fool’ (court jester) who existed merely to provide crowd-pleasing and explosive balletic tricks. Amongst the putative brides – each of whom gets a strong solo in Grigorovich’s choreographic addenda – I was especially taken by the back-to-back performances of Daria Bochkova and Anna Tikhomirova as the Spanish and Neapolitan princesses.

Any major Russian orchestra must have an intuitive feeling for Tchaikovsky’s music, and here, conducted by Pavel Sorokin, the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra gave a performance that was sublime in places (the lead violinist was superb during the Black Swan pas de deux) albeit in tempos that often seemed unusually sedate; emphasising the slow deliberation in the steps. The imagery of Simon Virsaladze’s watery, grey designs successfully linked the palace to the lakeside and emphasised the psychological associations in Siegfried’s mind.

The real star of this performance was the corps de ballet, in the two white "acts", fronted by three outstanding “big” swans, and supported by an excellent quartet of cygnets. Their harmonious alignment of movement and line, particularly in the musical uniformity of their steps and the absorbing symmetry and elegance of arms and wrists, never fell short of being a joy to behold. This was the best of Russian ballet at its very best.

In the great and ever-growing catalogue of the ballets by this name, Grigorovich has cast a veneer of modern thinking over an interpretation of Swan Lake that manages to be innovative, whilst still remaining true to all the traditional elements of the choreography by Petipa, Ivanov and Gorsky (who made five of those ten Bolshoi productions).

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