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October 2005

Out of the past

by Laura Jacobs

Laura Jacobs on the Bolshoi Ballet.

The Bolshoi Ballet used to come through this country like a bulldozer pushing huge passions and vast landscapes into mountainous, murderous panoramas the dancers had to negotiate onstage. “Bolshoi” means “big” the previews always said. Bolshoi is Moscow, and the Mariinsky Ballet (called the Kirov from 1935 until the 1990s) is St. Petersburg. Bolshoi is salmon caviar to the Mariinsky’s Beluga. Bolshoi is Soviet, and the Mariinsky, candy box of the Czar, Imperial. Which is not to say that Mariinsky dancers haven’t ended up at the Bolshoi (it really doesn’t go the other way). In 1944, the legendary ballerina Galina Ulanova was transferred from the Kirov to the Bolshoi, a powdery white moth into the hot red flame where she fluttered whiter still, unsinged. But there’s a Bolshoi style, and it has something to do with all that’s unwieldy and unimaginable about Russia: the size, the scale, the killing power from above, the feral will rousing itself from below, the ghosts of oppressed peasants who knew nothing of ballet, the no-exit Kremlin counting rolls of toilet paper while checking off deaths. The Bolshoi is so complicated it’s simple, or so simple it’s complicated. But the previews never say that.

The toe shoes really do look like toilet-paper tubes when the paper’s gone: they’re cylindrical in the toe with a shank as stiff as cardboard. A metaphor for scant resources? Perhaps. But I do recall the first time I saw the Bolshoi, back in 1979, and there was nothing scant about it. The company swept through America on the kind of big-city, sold-out, sonic-boom tour that companies did in those days. It was a tour complete with a defection. The dashing Alexander Godunov, a vodka blond with icepick attack and dueling-scar dimples, jumped ship at New York’s Kennedy Airport, leaving a wife behind. (Three years later he was my first interview as a fledgling dance writer—and rather struck by my long long list of questions.)

The company came to Chicago’s Arie Crown Theater, and everyone clamored to see the golden couple, Nadezhda Pavlova and her husband, Viacheslav Gordeyev. They were a pair made in Sol Hurok heaven, or in Tolstoi, she the very picture of an exotic Russian—black-haired, with the moonlit face of a baby raised by Cossacks—and he one of those Ashley Wilkes types the Russians periodically produce, noble profiles with blond coloring and blue-blood technique, aristocratic echoes of Sun King classicism. His retiring male beauty was cloistered in the shadow of his wife’s wind-borne arabesque, her pointes like peregrine falcons. The company presented Yuri Grigorovich’s latest, his Romeo and Juliet, and in the ballroom scene young Pavlova was a rich draught, a Vermeer innocent in that long sweetheart tutu the color of claret.

The company always brought at least five ballerinas, and on that tour I remember Grigorovich’s wife Natalia Bessmertnova, a mournful soul as dark and velvety as melt- ed chocolate, and Ludmila Semenyaka, a long-stemmed blonde with a field-flower delicacy. The Bolshoi came again in 1987, a tour that seemed to focus on a single dancer, Irek Mukhamedov. Ever since Rudi and Misha, the West has hankered for the next scathing male from the Steppes, someone to put us in our place and show us how it’s done (never underestimate an audience’s wish to be smacked). Irek was “it” that year, a wonderful dancer, but he wasn’t singular in the same way. He didn’t present audiences with a complex sexuality that had been sublimated into dancing, the kind of compression that resulted in Rudi’s hot-to-trot satyr’s lust for every second of stage time (he liked to clench his buttocks when his back was to the audience, squeezing extra nanoseconds out of the spotlight), or Misha’s cold and withholding classical distance, a blue baby in tights. There were mixed generations of women on that tour, honest and aged Bessmertnova who suffered an injury and was out, and Semenyaka, who’d progressed, as so many dancers do, never really reaching maturity, going instead from spotless ingénue to a more formulaic version of that youthful reach and promise, a kind of empty professional dispatch. The fledgling Nina Ananiashvili was on this tour, along with Nina Semizorova. Semizorova was the finer dancer, but with her wasp waist and Orientalist articulation of steps she was very much the Eastern wing of Bolshoi dancing, while Ananiashvili’s body type, long and rather curveless, her dancing comparatively light and uninflected, was more Western (she would soon guest with the New York City Ballet, and then around the world). When the Bolshoi came again in 1990, this time to the New York State Theater, glasnost had deflated the political drama, diluted the atmosphere of otherness in which touring Russians had always come wrapped. The switch from Met to State Theater seemed to express that flattened sight line. Suddenly we were free to see the company not as Mysterious Other With Scimitar, but as Cut Off or Left Behind, its rich history having dropped in the exchange rate, poor rubles against the mighty dollar.

It certainly didn’t help that Grigorovich was cutting the storylines out from under these dancers, focused as he was on a mimeless, “through-danced” theater that turned misty fairy and folk tales into rocky abstractions. His 1990 Swan Lake traded the forested lakeside for a stone-strewn beach. If you didn’t know the story already, you had no idea what was going on. Meanwhile, the Bolshoi’s mightiest men—Mukhamedov, for example—were hired away by companies needing tigers in their tanks. When the Bolshoi came to New York in 2000, despite the amusing swath cut by Nikolai Tsiskaridze, a Brilliantine peacock— swishbuckling!—the pulse was feeble. The company was so low on ballerinas it had to call back Ananiashvili to star in the stint.

Ballet technique is embattled. Its very first act in class—first position—requires the student to abandon the bipedal norm and stand with heels touching and toes turned unnaturally outward, faced east and west as if aligned on the equator. To do this correctly the turn-out must begin in the pelvis, with the ball of the femur rotating in the hip. Slowly, over months and years, the dancer inches toward 180 degrees in first position, the muscles of glute, hip, and thigh supporting the rotation. Some anatomies allow more rotation than others. Some dancers, even great ones, only approximate turn-out, never really achieving it. Or they turn out the working leg, the active one in the air, while the supporting leg loosens, falls in, energy ebbing away (most balletomanes no longer see this flaw, or don’t mind it; those who do, fret).

Perfect turn-out is an ideal, and dancers fight for it, or are pushed to fight for it. It is turn-out that allows a dancer to move laterally at a moment’s notice, indeed, to move instantly and effortlessly in any direction at all, and, moreover, to move the working leg rond de jambe—“round of the leg”—in all manner of tidepools, rays, elations, realizations, rings and moats, half and whole circles that are measures of emotional depth, of mortal coils thrown off or entered into, all within the Leonardo-esque vitrine, the spherical reach of each and every limb. Turn-out is the foundation and beginning principle of all ballet companies. It joins east and west in full-circle poetic continuity. It is an aristocracy of the spirit.

But the Bolshoi isn’t aristocratic. Read up on its past and again and again you find its style, in contrast to Mariinsky elegance, described as “coarse.” Moscow artists have always thought Mariinsky restraint “cold,” while the Mariinsky views Bolshoi brashness as “common.” Company expression developed, played, to the vast stage of the Bolshoi Theatre, and to “the people,” an audience that demanded narrative clarity and drama, national dances and sheer masses onstage. “Classical canons were often infringed upon in order to bring out a full spectrum of emotions,” writes the Russian critic Elizabeth Souritz of the Bolshoi’s beginnings in the nineteenth century. “Dance technique was not refined, but relied instead on strength and outward effect.” In the over two hundred years since its founding in 1776, the company has gone through many phases. From the mid- to late-1800s a series of directors served short tenures, unsuccessfully trying to bring the era’s prevailing romantic classicism to Moscow. This was the period of Marius Petipa, and though he was ballet master at the Mariinsky he staged eleven ballets at the Bolshoi. The Petipa Don Quixote we see in various permutations today was premiered at the Bolshoi in 1869. Still, Petipa’s sensibility wasn’t Moscow. Alexander Gorsky’s was. He took over the Bolshoi in 1898 and launched large-scale, historically accurate “mimodramas,” ballets in which the scenery was as active as the dancing. The upheaval of the Russian revolution brought plow-to-the-ground realism—the Soviet story ballet—which was often based on literary classics by Pushkin and Gogol, and was driven by pantomime. In these ballets, dance cropped up only in moments when, literally, dance would crop up: at balls, celebrations, festivals. This trend was reversed utterly in the 1960s, when Grigorovich swept in with his wide-screen spectacles (at the movies, Panavision and Cinemascope were barging into theaters, fighting the small screen of TV with Liz, Dick, and a cast of thousands in Cleopatra). Mime gave way to monumentalism, rushes of danced declaration, noble emotion charging into history. Grigorovich’s ballets for the Bolshoi included Spartacus, Ivan the Terrible, The Golden Age.

Bolshoi power went through the back and arms, the spine awesomely pliant in the women, and the men presenting themselves like horseless riders, their heft and aggression up in the chest, ready for all that high-hearted projection of story. Choreographers for the Bolshoi had little use for petite batterie, the quick and articulate footwork so endlessly cultivated in the garden ground beneath a dancer. These skippery, diminutive Petipa-Cecchetti poesies were the stuff of sylphs, sonnets, lacemaking for aristocratic cuffs and collars, an artifice essentially pointless in state-sanctioned Bolshoi epics. Oppression, class struggle, the brave slave rising against louche masters—it was grande batterie, with its grands jetés and shoulder-high cabrioles, that addressed, attacked, such subjects. It was one-armed big-top lifts that spoke to Soviet masses, and a poster-art plastique. A strange turn-out spoke too.

I haven’t made a study of it. I only know that the Bolshoi is unique through the leg. We’ve seen this onstage for decades: that hydraulic lift in the thigh that has the pushing, heavy weight of water, not the sensation of air rising, as we expect in ballet. The Bolshoi women, and this is a generalization but not a reckless one, often have a ropey leg, a hand-over-hand look to the muscles, especially in difficult développé en avant, as if they’re hauling something up and over a wall, in rescue. Even doing développé à la seconde (the pointe drawn up through passé to open sideways, lifting in line with the ear), the leg doesn’t float up, fully rotated and released from under the buttock, feeling lighter as it goes higher. Instead you feel the will of it, a sort of smooth clench. This développé never quite taps into heaven, hits the celestial catch that springs the lock en l’air, the battle transcended.

A ballet company is a kingdom, a church, a tribe, and you could say, if we extend the Soviet metaphor, a collective farm. Just as crops all draw from the same soil, take the same rain, and bend to the same breezes, so the dancers in a ballet company grow from the ground up in the same way. It isn’t that Bolshoi dancers are turned-in, it’s just that they’re not meticulously, idealistically, turned-out. Why is that? Since the 1930s, after all, the Bolshoi has followed the same Vaganova syllabus as the Mariinsky school. And yet so much depends on where one puts the emphasis. If big and broad is the imperative, great swaths of movement versus fine skeins, the technique will adjust. If a masculine physicality and scale are the preference, more feminine refinements will recede, along with the kind of placement those refinements require. Grigorovich put his lens not on niceties, delicacies, but on barn-burning bravura with a cinematic flow. That was the angle for thirty years.

And so one sees placement that sinks back behind the vertical, tailbones not quite as tucked under as they should be. If you allow the back to sway, even the littlest bit, you lower the pelvic ceiling over the legs, leaving less room for full rotation. It means you must compensate with other muscles, with winching adjustments lower on the leg. “It’s like from the knees down, I always thought,” says the arts writer Bob Sandla of Bolshoi turn-out, “rather than from deep in the hip.” Is there a gain? “Undoubtedly, a sense of security in their balance,” says the Ballet Review critic Don Daniels, “which helps them then produce effects either of weight or of being able to lift up off that into jumps. Because it’s amazing how the company still produces women who can jump.”

A similar adjustment can be seen in Bolshoi feet and that very stiff toe shoe the women have worn and many still wear. Despite a love of female arches plump as nesting birds, this company is not known for feel through the foot, a soft roll up and down through the metatarsals. “Clunky,” is what a former Mariinsky dancer I know calls Bolshoi feet, going on to explain that the Bolshoi toe shoe was fashioned for more stable balancing. Does a dry foot affect the working of the leg higher up? Of course it does. Ballet is a physics of muscular rolls and waves that the dancer learns to shoot, leverage, and lift out of. When everything connects, it’s metaphysics—a kind of light. The Bolshoi, it seems to me, is not about light; that’s why Ulanova was such a beacon within its ranks. Instead, the company has made a stronghold of ballet, a place in which attack, intensity, tenacity—the anatomical battle inherent in the art—is itself the subject, the spectacle. In his brilliant Harvard lectures, collected into The Poetics of Music, Igor Stravinsky contemplated a similar dynamic of force. Of Beethoven and the one musical gift he lacked, the gift of melody, which he doggedly hammered and chiseled out of heavy gray sky, Stravinsky wrote, “Beethoven amassed a patrimony for music that seems to be solely the result of obstinate labor.” The same could be said of Bolshoi dancing.

The Bolshoi that came to the Metropolitan Opera House this July was not the tattered thing we saw in 2000 but a company in the act of regrouping, reacquainting itself with itself. After a revolving door of artistic directors over the last ten years, a new director, Alexei Ratmansky, a mere thirty-seven, took the reins in 2004. Trained at the Bolshoi school, but not asked into the company, Ratmansky danced in the West for the last decade. It’s always foolish to believe one knows what’s going on in a director’s head, trusting that the power of their position won’t warp them, but at this point I think it’s safe to say that Ratmansky has brought objectivity to his programming, a sense of the outsider throwing open a window. At the same time, he’s been quite clear about Bolshoi style. He told Time Out magazine he plans to preserve it and expand it.

Week One was the preserve part. The company presented two ballets with which it is deeply identified: the classic Petipa Don Quixote, recently restaged by Alexei Fadeyechev, and the ballet of 1968 that made Yuri Grigorovich’s name, Spartacus. I don’t cherish the kind of Bolshoi performance one gets in Don Quixote—so hot it’s cold, so big it bullies. The company, at the very start of its tour and getting used to an unraked stage, may have been pushing hard to get through. But the acrobatic joi and color is circusy, and the crowded bombast tiring to the eye. Spartacus was the more interesting display. It is not a long ballet, but the demands on its men, especially the two male leads, Spartacus and Crassus, are staggering. The ballet is structured as a series of soliloquies, solo introspections connected by rallies and battles. You can look at Spartacus as a Soviet cartoon. In some ways it’s not unlike our own swollen genre: the made-for-TV mini-series (an epic called Rome is now airing). There is very little detail in Simon Versaladze’s dark, dungeony set—no scenery to chew—thus the characters must inflate their dancing to fill the frame. This specialized approach to space, muscling it up, has a gnashing power. Grigorovich favors long diagonals across the stage—leap, leap, leap, leap, bronze pose!—and Spartacus spends more time in the air than on the ground. For sheer stamina, there isn’t a man on ABT’s roster, and I mean no disrespect in this, you can imagine getting through the role, and I doubt any would want to. With rough vigor Yury Klevtsov carried the ballet, as Spartacus must. And with the male corps dancers in American companies usually looking so dutiful, it was a thrill to see a horde with chops, and a tired hero leaping higher still. There is a commitment in the attack, a willingness to die trying that reaches past the footlights and is winning.

The second week was one of expansion. The company revisted historical moments with two ballets, The Bright Stream and The Pharaoh’s Daughter. Both have been rechoreographed for the company, and both put the spotlight on petite batterie, which brought a welcome lightness to the stage—chatter, wit, and in the case of Pharaoh’s Daughter, some seeding and weeding in the garden ground.

The Bright Stream, an example of the Soviet genre known as the “tractor ballet,” is a pastoral set on a collective farm. Zina, the morale officer of the collective, has invited a theatrical troupe to take part in the harvest festival. Once a student of dance herself, Zina recognizes the troupe’s Ballerina as her childhood friend. The Ballerina and her male partner excite quite a few hearts among the workers, one of which belongs to Zina’s husband, and as a prank decide to trade costumes. In Act Two, all manner of pursuit ensues: it’s a late-summer night of mistaken identities, then reconciliation. Premiered in 1935 with choreography by Fyodor Lopukov, The Bright Stream enjoyed a success until Stalin saw and hated it. Careers and at least one life, that of the librettist Adrian Piotrovsky, ended. When Ratmansky decided to revive the ballet, he kept Piotrovsky’s original libretto, but choreographed it from scratch.

The score of The Bright Stream is not the gem it’s been made out to be. While the young Dmitri Shostakovich is certainly having fun with musical forms, there’s a sameness of depth from one number to the next that leaves the ballet aurally unshaped, shallow. The naiveté is too broad, and the satiric tonalities too knowing. It’s as if Shostakovich is having too much fun, not paying enough attention to the overall silhouette of the story. But the small scale on which Shostakovich works is good for Ratmansky, who brings his experience with Western dance into his choreography for The Bright Stream. Act One is engaging, with its bucolic, autumnal coloration, and scenic charms that include miniature planes and trains, and bright Soviet posters, Russian Constructivism defanged. Life on this collective farm is Chekhov without the tragedy, plus a dash of French farce. Ratmansky seems to have made a study of the human-sized solos and duets—especially Frederick Ashton’s teacups and Toby mugs —that populated Western ballet in the decades just before Grigorovich swung the Bolshoi toward the tundra. He handles these dances with fluency and tenderness, but he does not have poetry. In Act Two, that absence becomes a nagging presence. Ratmansky allows the romp in the park (i.e., male dancer in tutu and toe shoes chased by an old man) to go on much too long, or maybe just not imaginatively enough—it’s like a one-note joke from the Trocs. The soufflé sinks, and the ballet ends cheerfully but without much glow.

The Pharaoh’s Daughter, commissioned by Ratmansky’s predecessor Boris Akimov and premiered in 2000, has been called a revival though I don’t think that’s actually the right term for it. The ballet is important as Petipa’s first big success at the Mariinsky, the triumph of 1862 that won him his job as company choreographer. Pierre Lacotte, a choreographer who has made a career reconstructing romantic classics, was asked to bring the ballet back for the Bolshoi. Extensive research turned up a ballerina who had danced the lead only once and remembered nothing, and two notated bits of Petipa: the grand waltz in Act Two, and a solo for the Nubian slave girl, Ramze. The libretto—which was originally by Jules Henri de Saint-Georges and Marius Petipa, and here adds the names Théophile Gautier and Lacotte—is silly now and was no doubt silly then. But it was also timely. Spurred by Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign of 1798, fashionable society had long been aware of Egyptian iconography. In the 1840s, Austin Henry Layard’s discovery of ancient Assyrian ruins brought the focus back to the Near East; into the 1860s English and French archaeologists were digging away. The plot, to wit: An English explorer in Egypt is forced by a sandstorm to take refuge in a pyramid where he smokes opium and dreams in three acts that he wins the Pharaoh’s daughter, Aspicia, and then he wakes up and the ballet is over. “The Mummy meets La Bayadère,” writes Matthew Gurewitsch, and it’s true. The eerie rise of the caskets from the floor, Aspicia’s dust-mote emergence from her tomb—Lacotte’s horror-movie effects are delicious. The hero, Lord Wilson, buttoned up to his pith helmet in white linen, looks like one of the tenderfoot Englishmen in any Tarzan movie. (As the Egyptian dreamboat Ta-Hor, he strips to a glittering loincloth). The ballet evokes the heated, creaky adventure genre of old, those Saturday afternoon movies that got kids dreaming.

So Lacotte brings a sense of fun to the ballet, a light touch, but he’s also dead serious. The Pharaoh’s Daughter is pastiche on a very high level. Obviously, Petipa is the model, though at times one feels Lacotte has drawn also from Bournonville, especially in the men’s solos where Cesare Pugni’s melodies have a low-skimming sort of bounce (Pugni’s music, I might add, is much better than expected). Quite wonderful is Ta-Hor’s display of entrechat-échappé sauté, a burst of vertical jumps moving stage left to right like exclamation points on a stele. Coming midway in the ballet you feel his elation, that he’s suddenly one with his dream. In choreographing for the women, Lacotte has looked carefully at that Petipa solo for Ramze. Set on an axis of effacé-croisé, and punctuated with toe taps of shivery quickness—as if Ramze is reaching out her pointe to pat the heads of royal mice—the solo is like a little recitation or school figure. She seems to be saying, “See what perfect manners I have.” Ramze points the way for Lacotte’s choreography: precise, positioned, and often à terre (“on the ground”). The solo for Aspicia that follows seems to grow out of Ramze’s solo, that pointe reaching forward in effacé, but it’s bigger, more romantic.

Petipa took pageantry and pure dance and knit-and-purled them into a spiritual whole. He achieved wholeness through his ability to plant an image in a step—the spindle of The Sleeping Beauty seen in a sous-sus; brisé volé as the hovering wingbeats of a bird—and to keep it growing through the ballet. We cannot ask Lacotte to be Petipa. Lacotte does not use steps in a symbolic way. But he does have a poetic sensibility. When Aspicia plunges into the Nile in Act Three, the dance Lacotte makes for her and four Servants to the God of the River Nile (I kid you not) is a voluptuous wave upon wave of supported arabesques promenades, a scalloping line with pull and drift. Though it’s too soon to tell how The Pharaoh’s Daughter will settle in time, one thing is sure: Lacotte has a true instinct for how a ballerina must be presented. And his work for the corps de ballet is fresh, a brightness in the eye. I admire the way he sometimes stitches the corps like a decorative edging on the ballet, and how he makes the défilé in Act Two look like the stratified rows of activity on an Egyptian relief. In Act Three, after Aspicia jumps into the Nile, a corps of river nymphs awaits her down below, positioned in repose in a floor pattern so odd you can’t figure out the logic, and yet it’s completely right—an underworldly vision.

Due to injuries, the Bolshoi was short on spectacular men, though the scrupulous classicism of Dmitry Gudanov was a nice surprise, his performance of Ta-Hor honest in every detail. The generation of women on view was transitional. Anna Antonicheva and Maria Allash, among the oldest, are very much Bolshoi women—Antonicheva with a quiet integrity, a flow like poured honey, and Allash slightly metallic, but sound and game. Ekaterina Shipulina won fans. I saw her only as Queen of the Dryads in Don Quixote and found her dancing a bit slippery, unstructured. The company was certainly pushing Svetlana Zakharova into the prima position. She’s a star it lured to Moscow from the Mariinsky, reputedly at high price. No one, however, held the stage like the Bolshoi’s home-grown Maria Alexandrova.

Offstage, Alexandrova has the pallid face of a waif, with short bangs and quick eyes. Onstage, in full makeup, she’s an exotic with high Eastern cheekbones, a cloudless brow, and a Sphinx-like self-possession that has all the time in the world. Alexandrova has rather old-fashioned proportions. She’s longer waisted than is today’s norm, with a broad Athenian back that really centers her in a role. Indeed, for a Bolshoi woman she has a very straight placement over the hips—she doesn’t punch out poses with her ribcage or tailbone, and there’s nothing decorative in her dancing. Her legs have none of the extreme curves so prized by ’manes. That leg, coupled with a long, strong, but again, not overly-arched pointe, gives her a sterling stillness in balances, a cool aplomb in sous-sus that thumps your heart. It’s the glamour of the Forties, the era’s black-and-white stills—ballerina as will in shades of silver.

Alexandrova doesn’t need hyperbole in her limbs because it leaps out in her dancing, which is, for all her straightness, full of deep reserves of ballon, a softness upon landing that is in constant play with the explosion, the phosphorus pop of her jumps. She has a tinderbox power, a sensation of combustion held back. In fact, in many ways, Alexandrova reads as a corrective to Zakharova, who is all Aubrey Beardsley extremes, curve on curve ending in a lotus-like pointe so lathed over and out it’s almost an object of fetish (The New York Times ran a photo of that foot). Problem is, Zakharova’s dancing is trapped, stopped, in all those curves. She does the steps, she grooves into her big arabesque, but there’s no rhythmic vitality, no unpredictable life. She’s like a supermodel: an extraordinarily beautiful object when posed, absolutely average when asked for more.

Sharing the stage with Alexandrova can be tough on other dancers. In The Bright Stream, Svetlana Lunkina, a leading soloist who was promoted to principal during the Met engagement, danced Zina to Alexandrova’s Ballerina. Lunkina is thin as a wraith, the picture of a Romantic dancer, with a picture-perfect technique that’s quite turned-out. She’s a pretty ingénue. Yet next to Alexandrova she’s low relief. It’s a matter of projection, the concentration of energy and how it is deployed. There’s no discernible horizon line around Alexandrova’s dancing—it goes up to the gods. Lunkina has everything but that power of projection.

While Zakharova was given first and last night performances of The Pharaoh’s Daughter, it is really Alexandrova’s ballet. She brings to it complete understanding of the style, and a fascinating range of emotional temperature. This is not to say she has a wildly emotive face, but she can be warm, gracious, porcelain in the sun, or go cold as champagne flutes in the freezer—I love the feeling of frost she brings to the stage. I even love the fact that she is only adequately turned-out, riding slightly above the battle but not beyond it. When she performs rond de jambe en l’air, she’s like a luxury liner on the wide circle of sea described by that leg—the move is made longer and larger by the degree of resistance she powers through.

It’s tempting to say that Maria Alexandrova represents the ballerina model for the Bolshoi of tomorrow, but it just doesn’t work that way. Suzanne Farrell was a one-off; the New York City Ballet never produced another like her. American Ballet Theatre’s Veronika Part is an aberration; even at the Mariinsky she was a phenomenon, a white tigress raised on rose petals, glowing in the dark. And Alexandrova, she really does have the strangeness of the Sphinx, an atavistic energy alert but wrapped in calm. To read the future in a ballerina is to misunderstand her. Ballerinas are never about the future. They come from an old world and live only in the present. They have a professional life that is short, and a body ready to betray them in the blink of a broken bone—as you read this, it’s sand through the hourglass. The great ones are all pharaoh’s daughters, emerging from the past, awakened onstage. When a company has such a dancer, and can recognize her, and support her, and spotlight her, and feed her ballets that keep her on her toes, it is doing exactly what it was meant to do.

Laura Jacobs's most recent novel is The Bird Catcher (St. Martin's Press).


more from this author

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 October 2005, on page 31

Copyright © 2014 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

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