The sublime and the stressed-out

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The only programme of short ballets that the Bolshoi is putting on during this season is curious indeed. It offers one of the family jewels, Asaf Messerer’s Class Concert, a study in the ardours of ballet-class; Elsinore, commissioned this year from Christopher Wheeldon; and Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, a prizewinner in the Olympics of Unnecessary Stress.

Messerer, a great teacher until his death in 1992, made Class Concert as Moscow’s answer to that other hymn to ballet training, Harald Lander’s Etudes. Their common theme is the dancer’s daily pursuit of transcendent skill, the sweated labour from which balletic artistry must emerge. We see the Bolshoi’s dancers turning and leaping, showing off (of course) but also showing off the power of their training, the disciplined energy, that boldness of statement, that have ever identified Moscow’s prowess. (We also see, but may shut tight our eyes, child students – dirtiest of theatrical weapons – posturing and looking cutissime.)

It is, naturally, exhilarating in terms of physical skill. But it also suggests a mysterious aspect of dancing, that of the athletae dei, those early Fathers of the Church who struggled with faith, whose title Martha Graham annexed to identify the often-ignored spiritual aspect of dance itself. A fine staging by Mikhail Messerer, nephew of Asaf, and himself a distinguished teacher.

Wheeldon’s Elsinore is a puzzle. It was created for the Bolshoi in February and presented under the title Misericordes. It is set to Arvo Pärt’s third symphony, a work whose “medieval” atmosphere, we are told, attracted Wheeldon. There is a sombre set by Adrianne Lobel, and Paul Gregory Tazewell has produced costumes that are darkly effective.

A man apart, with four couples. Seek not to pin incident from Hamlet on dance that seems deliberately to avoid such meaning. Rather do we see anguish, the reign of obscurity both real and psychic, the emergence of a brooding unease from choreography that stretches academic positions, and effectively so. But the dance is saturated with the unexpressed and appears coded, and we are without the key, working in the dark at Bletchley Park. As with Wheeldon’s DGV, made for the Royal Ballet last year, there seem creative uncertainties that make uncertainties for us. The Bolshoi’s artists, with the admirable Dmitri Gudanov as Not Hamlet, dance superbly.

Tharp’s In the Upper Room reeks of the 1980s, and I wish it would go away. It’s the one where the cast are variously dressed in convict’s pyjamas, red point shoes and sort-of-sneakers, and must dance like demons hounded by the energies of Philip Glass’s churning fatuities. A stage clouded with mephitic vapours (probably given off by the soundtrack) is the arena in which the Bolshoi’s cast rush, twist, ape the unfocused energies of social dance, tear their physical passions to tatters and win applause for sweat-drenched bravura. I have never seen this nugatory piece better danced – but not even Moscow’s skills (and trapped in it are such luminaries as Natalia Osipova, who deserves remission of sentence for good behaviour) can make it seem even momentarily worth their while.

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