Moscow on the Hudson–The Bolshoi’s New “Sleeping Beauty” at the Cinema

Live cinema broadcasts of opera have been around for a while now, as have the debates surrounding the role of this new medium in promoting an interest in flesh-and-blood performances in the opera house. What is not in question is the success of these broadcasts as a marketing tool for the Metropolitan Opera. Not surprisingly, other opera houses have followed suit, beaming their performances around the world. Opera on film is the new reality.

Ballet companies have been somewhat more recalcitrant, but are quickly catching up; there have been live broadcasts from the Royal Ballet and the Paris Opéra, and the Bolshoi seems to be especially gung-ho about the potential of the medium. (The main source of ballet in cinema in the US seems to be a company called Emerging Pictures.) The world of ballet is suddenly becoming globalized in a new way– audiences can get a sense of what is happening on stages far afield without waiting for companies to tour. And they can become familiar (up to a point) with a vast array of dancers, allowing for comparisons of style, ability, and interpretation. In this respect, it has never been a better time to be a balletomane.

It doesn’t hurt that the Bolshoi has been in the news of late because of its decision to invite the young danseur David Hallberg—a jewel in the crown of American ballet—to join the company, a first for this proud institution. (The brouhaha over the recent departure of two of its biggest stars, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, has brought the company notoriety of a different kind.)

Be that as it may, ballet broadcasts in cinema offer a rare opportunity to transport viewers to a kind of virtual seat thousands of miles away. It’s not the same as being there, of course, and yet I can say that there was a palpable excitement last Sunday morning at the Big Cinemas on 59th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues (in Manhattan) as the lights went down for the live screening of the Bolshoi’s “Sleeping Beauty.” The new production, by Yuri Grigorovich (after Petipa), was danced by the beautiful Svetlana Zakharova, a seasoned prima ballerina, and David Hallberg, the lanky Nordic prince from South Dakota. The pressure on Hallberg must have been immense; he is the first foreigner to be taken into the company in modern times. Zakharova is a national treasure. To say nothing of “Sleeping Beauty” itself.

Hallberg needn’t have worried. As he blazed onstage, it was immediately clear that this would be a transformative performance. His jumps were airy, expansive, seemingly effortless, the landings elastic and soft. He showed a new assurance, an open-heartedness that dovetailed with his usual elegance. The shapes he created with his torso, shoulders, and arms, were exquisite; the line of his long legs and feet, even more so. He used every inch of the stage; in fact, one might say, he almost made the enormous stage of the Bolshoi look small (as he routinely does at the Metropolitan Opera House), sometimes ending a series of jumps halfway into the wings. Most of all, he was completely alive, moving through and with the music, engaged with the people around him.

Zakharova, who trained at the Mariinsky before moving to the Bolshoi, is a great beauty, and her dancing—especially the way she uses her arms and shoulders– is infinitely refined, but she expresses almost nothing. She started off well, with a burst of little jumps across the stage in her first entrance as the young princess, but quickly settled into an affectless, strangely disconnected account of the role of Aurora. There was no sense of wonder in the famous Rose Adagio (in which she is presented to four suitors), nor of surprise in the scene in which she accidentally pricks her finger with the poisoned spindle, nor of longing for rescue in a dreamy vision scene that follows. She went through the motions, never less than impeccably, but without ever losing herself in the role. The pivotal, spell-breaking kiss became essentially a non-event; Zakharova jumped up from her century-long slumber and never looked back at the prince who had traveled so far to save her. It goes without saying that there was little chemistry between the two, though Hallberg did his best to engage her.

Zakharova and Hallberg were not helped by Grigorovich’s production, which leaves out many of the details (of mime and atmosphere) which would normally help them to build their characters. In the vision scene, in which the Lilac Fairy normally explains (in mime) to the prince that there is a princess in need of his love and rescue, this mimed explanation was omitted. The elegant, detailed set (by Ezio Frigerio), depicted handsome vistas of architectural follies and ships, but made no attempt to illustrate the evil forces that befall Aurora’s kingdom through the dark magic of the malevolent fairy Carabosse. There were no vines, no thorns, no imminent danger of death. Fairy tales are all about contrast: without darkness, there is no light. Carabosse herself, played by the character dancer Denis Savin, was an almost camp figure, a grande dame en travesti, hardly to be taken seriously. And yet, for the danger to Aurora’s life to register—and for the ballet to have any tension at all—Carabosse’s rage must be incandescent and larger than life. Just watch Frederick Ashton’s interpretation of the role here. Savin was funny and wry—he would be fantastic with the Trocks—but his take on the role has draws no blood.(The powdered wigs int he final act, too, should go.)

Another problem was the glacial, steady tempi taken by the conductor, Vassily Sinaisky. The entire ballet seemed to proceed at exactly the same, slow pace. It’s a sumptuous production, but not really a convincing one. On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be a weak dancer in the whole company. Even so, it’s safe to say that Hallberg was, hands down, the most affecting thing on that stage. His new company will learn as much from him as he will from them. And luckily, American audiences will be able to see him in the flesh, back with American Ballet Theatre, in its run of Alexei Ratmansky’s Nutcracker at BAM (Dec. 14-31), and again during that company’s spring Season at the Met (May 14-July 7).

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Marina Harss is a translator and dance writer in New York City. Recent translations include Elisabeth Gille’s ”The Mirador” and Alberto Moravia’s ”Two Friends.” Her dance writing has appeared in The N more


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