The Bolshoi's "Swan Lake" production shows two contending forces -- traditional and innovative -- in a state of deadlock.
Yuri Grigorovich is an intelligent and technically skillful choreographer (his "Ivan the Terrible," seen here in 1975, showed his ability to produce original work of impressive substance), who has tried with "Swan Lake" to instill a sense of stylistic and dramatic consistency into a classic freighted with antique conventions. Thus, he has eliminated the "character" (i.e., folk or ethnic) dancing from the Ballroom act -- the Spanich, Neapolitan and other national-style dances -- and replaced it with pointe-shoe dancing of strictly classical species, with the merest tinge of national gesture (hands at the back of the head, for example) in accord with the musical colorings.
He has pared the pantomime to the bone, tightened the narrative action (Acts I and II are conjoined without intermission), and turned von Rothbart from the fairy tale's evil monstrosity into a kind of demonic double of Siegfried, just as Odile represents a nefarious incarnation of Odette. All this is persuasive, at least on an intellectual plane, if less so in actual dance realization.But on the other hand, Grigorovich has retained the circusy, dramatically superfluous role of the Jester (an earlier Soviet interpolation), removed or altered some of the most formally gratifying choreography due to Petipa and Ivanov, the original creatures of the ballet, and given the whole a sophomoric "happy ending" which controverts the underlying theme of ennobling sacrifice.
The stylized Gothic settings by Simon Virsaladze, moreover,though conceptually interesting, have the gauche look of the pseudo-baronial veneer -- all smeary dark reds, blacks, browns and gold -- one expects to see in a freeway steak house. One result is a "Swan Lake" with no recognizable lake.
On the whole, the production isn't convincing either as modified tradition or contemporary interpreation, and succeeds only in conveying the strain between the two tendencies. To see how far off the mark it is, one has only to think of the Balanchine version, in which the quintessence of the ballet, its music, its moral underpinnings and its choreographic idion have been ingeniously compacted into a single act.
What saves the Bolshoi still and preserves its stature as a model for the rest of the world is the dancing. Natalic Bessmertnova's performance in "Swan Lake," displaying her characteristically stretched out line, the supply torso and arms, and that dolorous lanquou she seems to bestow on the most stereotyped of phrases, was a wonder, despite the occasional rhythmic flaccidity and dramatic pallor. Long-limbed Irina Prokofieva exhibited a similar kind of patrician pathos as Katerina in "The Stone Flower." Bessmertnova's younger sister, Tatiana, showed another side of the Bolshoi women's prowess in the strength, clarity and electric attack of her Spanish variation in "Swan Lake."
Alexander Godunov, who partnered Bessmertnova's Odette in the performance I saw, looked artistically leaden, but his springy jumps, whirring pirouettes and boldly outlined contours were altogether typical of the Bolshoi males. This was dancing on a grandly heroic scale, impervious to fatigue, unshakeable in authority, unmistakably Bolshoi in its histronic amplitude.