Demonstrators at the door and the threat of imminent disruption added to the excitement of the Bolshoi Ballet's return to London. However the protester I met at the stage door was wearing evening dress, and handed me a passable simulation of a programme with such authority and politeness that I though he must be one of the Coliseum staff. I should have known better: he wished me a pleasant evening in the theatre, and even the friendliest of Lord Harewood's minions don't let themselves go to that extent.
The fake programme carried a two-page synopsis of Swan Lake as we know and love it (backed up by case histories of Russia's persecuted Jewry). "Villagers and friends dance ... ," it started. Not so. Siegfried (Mikhail Lavrosky) leapt alone at curtain rise. "The Queen Mother presents him with a crossbow" ... no crossbow. This Siefried is a bird watcher, not a hunter.
Von Rothbart does not (mercifully) take "the guise of an owl." In Grigorovich's production, which replaced in 1969 the tired shambles which the Bolshoi showed on their last visit to London, the magician has a strong dancing role, and a consistent characterisation which Boris Akimov would not abandon, even at curtain call.
But the biggest changes are in Acts 3 and 4. You would not know it, the way Lavrosky comes down to the front of stage and raises his fingers in solemn oath but he caught back his promise to the black Odile before it was made. (Shades of "one leap and Jack was free.") It follows that at the end the lovers survive to face "a golden dawn" (the official programme) while Rothbart dies .the death. The Panovs' sympathisers may find an ironic satisfaction in the fact that Soviet
ideology demands that in Russia love must triumph over evil, so that Swan Lake has to have a happy ending.
Lavrosky is a strong dancer with a big style (a bit too big for thg stage at times), but his acting manner is stiff. He looks a bit of a prune. Natalia Bessmertnova dances Odette in a condensed and to-the-point Act 2 with such clinical detachment as to nullify the dramatic interest and the. quality of her technique. As Odile she excels — but surely it is not right to keep everything in reserve for the Black Swan.
The dance for the five princesses from whom Siegfried is to choose a bride (a mesage imperiously conveyed by the regal Alla Boguslavskaya without all the finger-wagging you get in British productions) are all on point — but with sufficient suggestion of nationality in the arm and hand movements.
The sets each had a flyaway curtain draped to midstage, and ,the icy lakeside was particularly effective. The court, however, looked more like a cathedral and I could see no reason why the disconcerting number of trumpeters about should pretend to sound a fanfare at the end of Act 3, not when anyone is arriving but as ,Rothbart and Odile have just left.
The applause at the end was ecstatic, and went on nearly quarter of an hour. Despite the excellence of the specially gathered orchestra led by John Georgiadis and conducted by Mark Ermler, however, I could not say this was an exceptional Swan Lake. The Bolshoi can no longer claim to be noticeably pre-eminent over the world's ballet companies, and though Swan Lake is by rights their own, there are versions in the west which are better dressed, dramatically stronger and even almost as well danced.
The company did not seem at all disquieted by the tension surrounding their visit. You cannot, as a member of the audience remarked, tell the KGB from the potential defectors when they are dancing on the stage.