AUDIENCES EXPECT big things from the Bolshoi. And why shouldn't they? The very word means "big" in Russian, and the ballet company, nearly the size of an army regiment with 250 dancers -- yes, 250 -- remains among the most admired classical troupes in the world. In the midst of a four-city American tour, the Bolshoi Ballet, accompanied by its own orchestra, stops at Wolf Trap this weekend, bringing its much-beloved version of "Don Quixote," replete with pyrotechnic dancing and plenty of Mediterranean flair.
The Bolshoi has long been known for its superhuman principal dancers and its passionate displays of emotion. Men who wield their steely legs with protean force and women, elegant and crystalline, who display stunning foot-to-ear leg extensions are invariably acclaimed as among the planet's best dancers. "This house called the Bolshoi Theater really has a great classical tradition," acknowledges Alexei Ratmansky, artistic director of this grandest of companies.
While Ratmansky himself was a product of the Bolshoi school, he never performed with the company. As a dancer and choreographer he has worked on ballet stages from Copenhagen to Kiev to San Francisco, but now he has returned home to his roots. At just 36, it's stunning to think that this young but driven dancer stands at the helm of such an illustrious institution, but not completely unexpected. The Bolshoi floundered when legendary artistic director Yuri Grigorovich's 31-year tenure ended in 1995. Since then, successors have been as frequent as curtain calls after a grand pas de deux -- six in just 10 years.
Overseeing the ballet for a little more than 18 months, Ratmansky is intent on leading the company into the 21st century. "You can't possibly do only classics," he says, "because the dancers and the audiences need new works."
Although this weekend's "Don Quixote" is far from a new work, Ratmansky wants his dancers to experience the joys and challenges of contemporary choreography, including his own. So he tries to balance tradition with innovation. At Wolf Trap, tradition will be evident.
First choreographed by ballet's greatest classicist Marius Petipa in 1869, "Don Quixote" has been revived and retrofitted over the years. The most-frequent rendering is based on Russian ballet master Alexander Gorsky's 1900 setting. This year happens to be the 400th anniversary of the publication of the Cervantes novel on which the ballet is very loosely based; accordingly, there has been a rash of "Don Quixote" revivals (among them the restaging of George Balanchine's version in June by the Suzanne Farrell Ballet at the Kennedy Center). The Bolshoi production is an old-fashioned standard, adored for its color, pumped-up score by Leon Minkus and earthy character dancing, as well as its flashy use of fans and capes. The unattainable quest of the Don and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, recede into the background. At the ballet's center: the lighthearted love affair between the flirtatious Kitri and her handsome suitor Basil.
It's a story built for dancing.
Ratmansky explains its provenance: "It's the only ballet Petipa created not for [the rival company] Maryinski but for the Bolshoi. It brings out something very important for Moscow ballet. The Bolshoi style compared to the Maryinski is a lot more emotional. There's more bravura, it's more democratic, more character dancing and more free." Most of all, "Don Q," as aficionados call it, brings out the best in dancers.
"It has something . . . of a sportlike quality," Ratmansky says. "They compete to be better than each other, and it's very exciting to watch them to do more, be better, be stronger . . . drive [themselves] to virtuosity."
BOLSHOI BALLET'S "DON QUIXOTE" -- Friday and Saturday at 8:30. Filene Center at Wolf Trap, 1551 Trap Rd., Vienna. 800-955-5566 or www.wolftrap.org.