The Bolshoi Ballet has made headlines over the past year for all the wrong reasons. A vicious attack on its artistic director, bribery allegations, the recent sentencing of one of its dancers to a penal colony in connection with the attack — all of these offstage battles have revealed an ugly side to one of the world’s great artistic repositories.
This is why I’m especially curious about the troupe’s first Washington performances since a masked assailant jumped out of the Moscow dark to throw acid at artistic director Sergei Filin. This happened in January 2013, and Filin, a former dancer, was all but blinded in the attack.
There is no word yet on whether he will join the company for its Kennedy Center Opera House run of “Giselle” May 20-25. But Filin’s dreadful ordeal and the turmoil flowing from it will undoubtedly color the Bolshoi’s performances here. Given the real-life context that surrounds it, this ballet about betrayal, physical fragility and spiritual strength cuts close to the bone.
“Giselle” is not the kind of ballet you’d automatically associate with the Bolshoi, whose reputation has been forged through virtuosic, emotionally heated works such as “Spartacus,” “Swan Lake” and “Don Quixote.” “Giselle” is a French ballet. In a very French way, the catastrophe that the first act builds up to is not a violent uprising or a calamity caused by evil magic, but rather the quiet revelation of a rupture of trust.
Intimacy is shattered — not a kingdom, not heroic destiny, just the tenderness between two people. This occurs when the peasant girl of the title, who is charming and pretty but frail, discovers that the man she loves has lied to her about his identity and his availability. Giselle succumbs to the shock.
Yet in the second act we find out that’s not quite the end of her. Her fleshly heart may have stopped, but its ennobling humanity carries on, and Albrecht, her remorseful suitor, finds an unsettling but ultimately liberating redemption at her grave.
In its choreography and style of dancing, this Romantic-era ballet, first performed in 1841, is soft and simple. But there are plenty of dramatic opportunities, though the way to achieve them is through subtlety and extreme sensitivity. The Bolshoi has announced that ballerina Svetlana Zakharova, an international favorite, and the sleek blond American star David Hallberg, will perform here, and while it is ill-advised to get one’s hopes up that the casting will hold this far in advance, I’m doing it anyway.
This will be Hallberg’s first time dancing here with the Russian company since he joined it with great fanfare in 2011. (He splits his time between the Bolshoi and American Ballet Theatre.) And I’ll be interested to see what Zakharova, a prima known for her grandeur and hyper-flexibility, brings to a role demanding innocence and vulnerability.
Of course, vulnerability must be running through the once-mighty Bolshoi like wildfire. Its behind-the-scenes instability has been horribly exposed. Yet this is also where its strength — the strength of its artists, most of all — can triumph. By the end of “Giselle’s” second act, its heroine’s immortal soul can finally rest. And Albrecht, changed for the good, can go on with his life. What will the Bolshoi’s second act be? Can “Giselle’s” theme of compassion and moving on be, for the company itself, a saving grace?
●The Year of the Horse has just begun, according to the Chinese zodiac, but I’m waiting for “Year of the Rabbit.” That’s the title of a work by New York City Ballet soloist Justin Peck, unveiled to glowing reviews in 2012, with Peck hailed as a choreographer of great talent. Washington audiences will get a chance to judge for themselves when City Ballet performs at the Kennedy Center April 1-6. One program features Balanchine’s full-length “Jewels”; the other, Peck’s “Rabbit” (with music by electronica composer Sufjan Stevens, in a classical orchestration) and two by proven great talents: “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement” by Alexei Ratmansky and “Soiree Musicale” by Christopher Wheeldon.
●On the modern-dance front, February draws a crowd of reliable regulars: First, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Kennedy Center Opera House Feb. 4-9, and along with its ultra-reliable, forever-the-grand-finale “Revelations,” it essays Bill T. Jones’s elegiac “D-Man in the Waters” and the extreme-stretching game of Twister that is “Chroma,” by Britain’s Wayne McGregor (whose troupe Random Dance comes to the Kennedy Center May 1-3).
●Washington’s own Dana Tai Soon Burgess appears at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater Feb. 7-8, with four works including “Homage,” inspired by the National Portrait Gallery exhibit “Dancing the Dream.” This is the latest piece to spring from the fertile imagination of this choreographer with a refined visual-art sensibility.
●The Mark Morris Dance Group returns to George Mason University Feb. 22-23 with superb dancers and works that balance dramatic tension with natural, harmonious ease. Among the Washington area premieres are “A Wooden Tree,” accompanied by vintage recordings by Scottish songwriter Ivor Cutler, and “Jenn and Spencer,” set to Henry Cowell’s “Suite for Violin and Piano.”
●Kyle Abraham, awarded a 2013 MacArthur “genius” grant, comes to the Atlas Performing Arts Center May 17-18 with “Live! The Realest MC.” Think Pinocchio, but in an industrial dystopia of Facebook updates, murky gender roles and hip-hop celebrity. What does it mean to be real, to be a boy, to be a real boy? Abraham’s works merge sharp observation on difficult topics with seductive physicality, as we have seen in previous tours of his “Pavement” (on living with gun violence) and “Radio Show” (on losing a father). We’re fortunate that Dance Place, which is presenting Abraham at the Atlas, got him on its roster early, and brings him back often.