Steps back in time

Alexei Ratmansky has made a career out of rejuvenating fragments from ballet history, and Lost Illusions, his three-act ballet for the Bolshoi, is an old-fashioned novelty. Although it has a new score, new choreography and new designs – all welcome in an increasingly fossilised full-length narrative genre – its libretto was written for an eponymous ballet presented at the Mariinsky in 1935. The piece fell into oblivion after one season, and while Ratmansky’s production is a treasure trove of new roles for the Bolshoi’s dancers, it never quite convinces as a dramatic whole.

The story is deceptively simple. A young composer, Lucien, meets a ballerina, Coralie, who becomes his muse. Lured away by prospects of fame and money, however, he abandons her for her calculating rival, Florine, only to see his illusions, and Coralie’s, shattered. The 1930s libretto freely adapts what was a minor storyline in Honoré de Balzac’s novel, but in doing so it channels stock French characters who belong not in Balzac’s sharp satire of high society but in The Lady of the Camellias: the poor artist, the selfless heroine who depends on a patron. The result is a ballet juggling lyrical sweep and social grit, and struggling in the process to find a voice of its own.

Leonid Desyatnikov’s score, in turn parodic and soulful, fares best under the circumstances. A solo piano symbolises Lucien’s idealistic dreams, and while irony creeps in time and again, sung French verses by Tyutchev give tragic weight to Coralie’s plight. Ratmansky’s brand of neoclassical choreography doesn’t lend itself easily to 19th-century melodrama: his fast, offbeat combinations rarely allow the doomed lovers to soar, and major scenes, from the Sylphide pastiche to the main pas de deux, are repetitive. His customary wit shines through in quirky character details, but enshrined in Jérôme Kaplan’s cloudy sets and period costumes these Lost Illusions are already a little passé.

Ratmansky’s most distinctive moments come when he incorporates elements of ballet history. The rivalry between Coralie and Florine is a clever re-enactment of the romantic opposition between airy Marie Taglioni, the first Sylph, and her more earthy counterpart Fanny Elssler. Ballets within the ballet, one of Ratmansky’s favourite devices, highlight their contrasting styles, but Elssler has the last choreographic word: In the Mountains of Bohemia, the ballet Lucien composes for Florine in Act III, is a sharp-witted pastiche of comedies such as La Fille du bandit. As Florine, both Ekaterina Krysanova and Ekaterina Shipulina stole the show with fouettés on a table and a hint of Elssler’s Cachucha.

Lost Illusions relies heavily on the rest of the cast for coherence, however, and while Ratmansky deserves much credit for broadening his dancers’ dramatic horizons, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev still lack the lyrical chops to make the most of Coralie and Lucien. Vasiliev in particular is testing new waters as the naive, wide-eyed composer in Act I, but he’s cast against type in this very conventional role. A second performance proved more rewarding: the exquisitely fragile Svetlana Lunkina, wearing her illusions on her sleeve as Coralie, makes a perfect contrast with her brash rival. Vladislav Lantratov is all pliant lines and youthful élan opposite her, the epitome of an enfant du siècle, and a name we should hear a lot more of.

‘Lost Illusions’, Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

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