The Russians Are Coming!!

Bolshoi Ballet in "Swan Lake"

Bolshoi Ballet in “Swan Lake”

That’s Russian as in Bolshoi, all four parts of Russia’s most celebrated artistic entity—the Bolshoi Ballet, Opera, Orchestra and Chorus. It’s an institution that traces its history back to Catherine the Great. The occasion for the Russian invasion is a two-week residency connected to the annual Lincoln Center Festival.

Of all these, it is the 200-strong Bolshoi Ballet, which will perform July 15-27 at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater that is creating the most buzz, and not just because of the dancing.

Bolshoi Ballet's "Swan Lake"

Bolshoi Ballet’s “Swan Lake”

This is the same Bolshoi Ballet which was roiled by a scandal in which its artistic director was nearly blinded by a January 2013 attack in which sulfuric acid was thrown into his face. Today, after 27 surgeries, director Sergei Filin remains blinded in one eye and has only 50 percent vision in the other, but has resumed his duties as director.

A Bolshoi dancer was sentenced to prison after confessing to plotting the attack with the help of two thugs. The dancer was angered about not being cast in certain roles, and was also upset about that his girlfriend—a fellow dancer—had not been promoted.

But the investigation and trial about the attack laid bare an organization that had been rife with corruption, long-simmering resentments and resistance to change. Though lauded by critics, Filin’s reform efforts since he took over in 2011—including new ballets and new dancers like American David Hallberg—were met with protests within the Bolshoi.

Bolshoi Ballet's "Spartacus"

Bolshoi Ballet’s “Spartacus”

Ismene Brown, dance commentator for BBC Radio and former critic for London’s Daily Telegraph, said it was important to understand the bigger picture behind the Filin attack and the subsequent revelations from the investigation.

“These are symptoms, in part, of the culture clash going on between the stagnant ideas and working conditions of the Soviet era still being applied in modern Russia, while at the same time trying to catch up with the Western developments in ballet and free-market conditions,” she said. “Filin, who is 43, …  represents a more open, Western-minded approach that still recognizes the core importance of the works of the old Soviet chief Yuri Grigorovich (who is still working, at 86).

“But that argument between east/west, past/present, rages on still, with an ‘old guard’ that is suspicious of US and European dance and believes the Soviet discipline and pro-Russia focus produced the best in world ballet. This plays into the current trend in Russian politics under Putin towards inwardness and nationalism, but it’s much more than just some old cliché. It is a genuine dilemma.”

Bolshoi Ballet's corps de ballet in "Swan Lake"

Bolshoi Ballet’s corps de ballet in “Swan Lake”

And yet, in the midst of all of this controversy, there is still the dancing. The Bolshoi’s corps de ballet, for example, is legendary not just for its large size, but for its strong, dramatic style.

However, it should be noted that none of the company’s newer, more modern repertoire will be on view during its New York residency. Instead, the Bolshoi will present three traditional warhorses from its repertoire—“Swan Lake,” “Don Quixote,” and “Spartacus”—the type of traditional fare that audiences have come to expect from the Bolshoi.

Bolshoi Ballet's "Spartacus"

Bolshoi Ballet’s “Spartacus”

Anna Kisselgoff, former chief dance critic for the New York Times, said that while the Bolshoi hasn’t been seen in New York City for several years, the company has toured recently in the United States including a series of performances in May in Washington, D.C. The company also has been seen in a series of recent cinema broadcasts.

But Kisselgoff said the Bolshoi that New York audiences will witness this time around may not be the Bolshoi that fans remember or have read about.

Bolshoi Ballet's "Don Quixote. All images courtesy of Lincoln Center Festival

Bolshoi Ballet’s “Don Quixote.” All images courtesy of Lincoln Center Festival

“They have traditionally had a style that is very dramatic. Their big trademark was that they were very, very strong classical dancers who were very dramatically expressive. But now I don’t see that they do that as much,” says Kisselgoff. “They seem to have become more academic, more in a style that emphasizes having the dancers dance very pure.

“When I saw them, the thing I noticed is that it’s not the old Bolshoi style. But it also depends on who’s dancing. It will be interesting to see them in New York.”

—Karyn D. Collins

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