Bolshoi Ballet, Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow – review

The Bolshoi Ballet’s warring internal factions have been the downfall of artistic directors since Soviet-era iron man Yuri Grigorovich left in 1995. Current director Sergei Filin’s repertoire policy has been an attempt to straddle the fence with a mix of Grigorovich revivals, western classics new to Moscow and new creations. Some of the greatest successes of his predecessors, Alexei Ratmansky and Yuri Burlaka, have been lost in the process, and recent premieres haven’t entirely filled the gap.

One of them was Moidodyr (“Wash ’em Clean”), a children’s ballet new last season. Its score, by Efrem Podgaits, won a competition launched in 2008 by Russia’s theatre union, and Podgaits’ prize was a Bolshoi commission. It took five years to reach the stage, however, with a choreographer from St Petersburg rather than Moscow: Mariinsky soloist Yuri Smekalov.

Originally a popular Soviet children’s tale by Korney Chukovsky, Moidodyr may be the first ballet about hygiene. Its hero is a little boy who refuses to wash, and is therefore chased by a giant washbasin (the eponymous Moidodyr) and its army of assorted toiletries. The production takes absurd ballet characters to new heights: its roll call includes dancers dressed as sponges, socks, a dustpan and a samovar. Act Two brings a male dancer pretending to be a comb, brushing his way through a corps of women dressed as hair, or human-sized mops; elsewhere, toothpaste joins forces with a male toothbrush (what else?) and merrily rubs stains off an army of pint-sized teeth, played by Bolshoi Academy students.

By the time our hero is clean, the oft-derided chickens in Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée look positively Shakespearean. The many children in the auditorium didn’t seem to mind, however, and Andrei Sevbo’s designs incorporate drawings and video into a beautiful, vibrant whole; details such as characters running off into the auditorium (and greeting their young audience) are well judged. Dance-wise, however, Smekalov only delivers the bare minimum: character-driven scenes are efficient, but the choreography for the leads falls short of the standards of other child-friendly ballets, with very clumsy phrasing and a few hip-hop or Michael Jackson-inspired moves for the boy. The starry Bolshoi casts have little to do; Moidodyr might be better used as a training ground for students.

Housekeeping was also the topic of choice for a more grown-up premiere last year: Mats Ek’s Appartement, created for the Paris Opera in 2000 and a rare contemporary addition to the Bolshoi’s repertoire. Its raw movement style is still a stretch for the company and the audience, and the babushki sitting near me didn’t seem best pleased about its vacuum-wielding ballerinas or the baby in the oven. Notable performances came from Maria Alexandrova, a force of nature in the oven scene, or Semyon Chudin and Yan Godovsky, different yet equally believable in the television solo.

Appartement was paired last week with Yuri Possokhov’s bravura Classical Symphony. Sandwiched between the two was a divertissement, and the audience clapped their way through pas de deux from Spartacus or Giselle, led by a few vocal cheerleaders. The claque seems to be alive and well in Moscow, and a conservative force to be reckoned with, too.

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