Swan Lake/Flames of Paris, Royal Opera House, London – review

As the Bolshoi Ballet’s London visit ended last week, there came two evenings of prodigious dancing. On Thursday Olga Smirnova, at only her second appearance in the ballet, claimed Swan Lake for her own. Unlikely words but, in my long experience of this most demanding work, I have seen few ballerinas who have so illuminated the double role of doomed swan-queen and evil enchantress. As Odette, Smirnova was all tragic grace, dance and music singing their sad songs through her ravishing line. The wicked Odile was, and how original, still Siegfried’s beloved, still touched by a haunting allure. And yet chillingly fatal. Smirnova danced, music and choreography made real, lustrous. Added joy: Semyon Chudin as her Siegfried – his dancing grand in scale, impeccable in statement, princely. A noble hero.

On the following evening, The Flames of Paris. This was a famous Soviet-era rabble-rouser about the French Revolution, made in 1932 with a jolly score, and re-made by Alexey Ratmansky five years ago. I reported on it at that time, and record that it is still a skilled adaptation of a Soviet blockbuster intended to inspire the proletariat with the right sense of purpose, and doing so through roaring effects of vivid social protest. Ratmansky understands this tradition: his mass dances, scenes of revolutionary fervour, flag-waving ardour and cascade of dazzling steps, are intoxicating, and given with superlative skill by the Bolshoi dancers.

The Versailles scene, with Louis XVI and his court posturing while watching the world’s most unlikely divertissement, is interminably tiresome (though cheers for the lustrous classicism of Artem Ovcharenko). But we have Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev among the mob, and they provide outbursts of staggering dance: she spinning adorably in multitudinous pirouettes, soaring, racing with delicious ease through movement that defeats mere mortals; he taking to the air, turning a few times, deciding to come to earth and then jetting off to produce more aerobatics, more astounding complications, with a nonchalant manner. Impossible! But the Bolshoi knows how. Bravissimo.


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