Russians on the Nile
Spartacus, The Daughter of Pharaoh Bolshoi Ballet
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
-D oth the last ballets of the Bolshoi Ballet's 1/London season were set in the ancient world — The Daughter of Pharaoh in ancient Egypt, Spartacus in ancient Rome — and both were kitsch. The Daughter of Pharaoh is a recent (2000), heavily cut, and fairly unreliable reconstruction of the first big hit by Marius Petipa, who choreographed the original in 1862. Spartacus, made just over 100 years later (1968), was the first smash-hit choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich, whose regime in the late 20th century enjoyed almost the length and influence within Russian ballet that Petipa's had had in the late 19th. Petipa went on to better things, Grigorovich to worse. But after the nullifying shock of the Bolshols new Romeo and Juliet, of which I wrote a fortnight ago. both Spartacus and The Daughter of Pharaoh seemed reassuring — ordinary ballet business carrying on after a terrorist bomb.
Pharaoh's Daughter (this less pompous title is widely used) is implicitly Tsarist, Spartacus implicitly Soviet. Each is wonderfully ludicrous, not least in musical terms. The ballet composer Cesare Pugni produced in Pharaoh's Daughter a version of Egypt so unEgyptian that Verdi's Aida — completed just three years later in 1871 — sounds, by comparison, radically concerned with cultural authenticity. Still, today as in his own day, Pugni's music has its dansante qualities: perky, harmless, sub-Auber stuff. Aram Khatchaturian's Spartacus score, composed in the early 1950s, is just the opposite. You can't tell whether Pugni was trying to tell his story with musical seriousness, but you can't miss Khatchaturian's coarse, earnest intensity. The snag is that Khatchaturian is often funny by accident. He builds a big dance suite for the Romans, then brings in a bossa nova rhythm under all the fake pomp-andcircumstance. Well, these are Romans — and here are Latin rhythms.
What a marvel that the Bolshoi has never danced this Spartacus funny on purpose! The story is told like a strip cartoon; the dances are built out of woefully few steps, bangingly, repetitiously structured. Yet the thunderously heroic ardour of everyone on stage transcends the thin material. Imagine Flash Gordon played like Henry V. Maybe this kind of transcendent valour is what Pharaoh's Daughter had in the 19th century? Read the original scenario and it sounds like something out of Round the Home. Lord Wilson, sheltering in a pyramid from the violence of the simoom, smokes opium and has a threeact dream in which he becomes Taor, beloved of the Pharaoh's daughter, Aspicia, who's soon so enamoured that she flings herself into the Nile rather than accept the suit of the King of Nubia. The next scene occurs in the Nile. (Anna Russell voice: 'In it.') Aspicia becomes a naiad — junior ballerinas dance the rivers Guadalquivir, Thames, Rhine, Congo, Neva and Tiber — but Father Nile then agrees to return her to earth: where the good end happily (apart from a black slave who gets bitten by a serpent of Isis), the bad unhappily. And then Lord Wilson wakes up. The End.
Such twaddle once worked. Photographs of Anna Pavlova, so communicatively absorbed, suggest why. Pharaoh's Daughter stayed an important part of the repertory until the Bolshevik Revolution. Today, reconstructed by Pierre Lacotte, it looks intentionally trite. Would it have looked better uncut? Among much else, we didn't get to see Petipa's dance version of the Thames. There's little reason to trust Lacotte's staging for authenticity — an anachronistic mishmash of pseudo-imperial ballet steps and mime — but some weary pleasure may occasionally be gleaned from his dancerly niceties. He choreographs like a balletomane: no bad thing in such a ballet. No, Svetlana Zakharova was never the dramatic heir to the Aspicias of yore, yet she did seem (as never in Swan Lake) charmingly alive: a real dancer, relishing her opportunities for warm upper-body liveliness and lowerbody virtuoso brilliance.
As always with the Bolshoi, the Covent Garden audience included a good many groupies in full voice cheering everything as if it mattered tremendously. Alas, it didn't. Today's Bolshoi has no superhumans: no serious heir to Galina Ulanova. Maya Plisetskaya, Vladimir Vasiliev. Today, the Bolshoi suffers from a sense of inferiority, possibly to the Kirov, certainly to the West. The expressionist new Romeo, directed by the British Declan Donnellan, is the kind of let's-trash-our-own-heritage error that few troupes can afford. Company style is in transition. Wrists are seldom broken as they used to be; the old Bolshoi grand jete, in which the front thigh is hurled like a javelin, seems less pronounced.
Problems notwithstanding, the Bolshoi's energetic good cheer and grand professionalism still pour forth. The stylistic finesse discernible in Pharaoh's Daughter and the pounding passion of Spartacus show that it still has resources that could carry it to new peaks. This was not a great season. Yet even now I want to see the Bolshoi next time, transcending trash with a large-spirited zeal that is this company's abiding secret.
Alastair Macaulay is chief theatre critic of the Financial Times and chief dance critic of the Times Literary Supplement.