It was the American ballerina Merrill Ashley who told me about Olga Smirnova. A superb Balanchine dancer, Ashley had been in Moscow with the Bolshoi Ballet in June, setting Diamonds, the final part of Jewels, Balanchine’s trilogy exploring the ideas of cities, styles, women dancing. “You must see my ballerina in Diamonds. She’s prodigious – 19 years old, just graduated from the Vaganova School in Petersburg, and just recruited for the Bolshoi. She has the most exquisite upper-body, and a magical presence.”
Rarest praise. So to Moscow last weekend to see Jewels, which the Bolshoi is playing at the start of its season, to find Ashley coaching, to be knocked sideways by two performances, and to fall under the spell of Smirnova. The young ballerina makes her entrance in the second movement. The score is Tchaikovsky’s third symphony, shorn of its first movement. We are to watch Balanchine’s homage to the 19th-century balletic spectacles, those grand Mariinsky machines that brought the ballerina in glory to her partner, the incarnation of brilliant femininity as identified by the classic academic dance. The male dancer enters – last weekend it was the assured and powerful young Semyen Chudin. Then Smirnova far upstage, and the immediate, transfixing effect of a physical talent unique in my by-no-means brief experience. I expected something fascinating, but instead was dazzled by a presence and a manner uniquely lovely and obviously entirely natural. No flummery or conscious craft – just an exquisite physique, ideally schooled, and an indefinable authority.
In ballet, épaulement denotes the dancer’s ability to turn, bend and shape the placing of the trunk, shoulders, arms, neck and head to produce the subtlest contrasts and oppositions. In Italian art it is contrapposto, and this is what gives life, veracity and power to a drawn or sculpted position. In classical ballet it turns the academic pose into the beautiful, the fascinating. Smirnova, with unaffected grace, offers something that is entirely natural: the simplest position or the grandest action seems marvellously to flower as she states it. And her stage manner is simple, authoritative, gracious and allied to a technique that finds no unease with Balanchine’s tremendous dances, but rather brings them to a fascinating life. I saw superb performances by Suzannne Farrell, for whom a fascinated Balanchine made Diamonds. Smirnova’s radiance, the unaffected nobility of her manner and the charm of her means make the role hers. She creates something magical and it touches the spirit. Not since the earliest performances by Altynai Asylmuratova have I seen so luminous a debut. We have much to hope for.
This Bolshoi production looks splendid on the new stage. The designs are inoffensive (though I did not enjoy the rather unyielding line of the tutus in Diamonds). The opening Emeralds was beautifully shaded in its effects, and Yevgenia Obraztsova danced the ballerina role ever associated with Violette Verdy, and rivalled Verdy’s subtleties of manner – mondaine and charming. Rubies is the most difficult for the Bolshoi dancers to pull off. Its sassy, streetwise energies are still foreign to Moscow’s aesthetic, but the underlying structure of the scene is admirably shown. Semyen Chudin, Smirnova’s partner in Diamonds, is a notable young danseur: his effects are big, lusciously muscled and handsome in paying their academic dues. He is in no way obliterated by her effulgence.
Londoners will be able to see Smirnova when the Bolshoi Ballet returns to the city next summer. Jewels will, alas, not be on show – Covent Garden has also scheduled this ballet for later local performance – but the company is in spanking form, and the repertory is as rich as the dance-forces.