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Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake Op. 20 (1875-76)
Odette / Odile: Maya Plisetskaya
Prince Siegfried: Alexander Bogatirev 
Rothbart: Boris Efimov
Jester: Vladimir Abrosimov
Choreography by Yuri Grigorovich, after Petipa and Ivanov
Production design by Simon Virsaladze
Members of the Bolshoi Ballet
Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre/Algis Zhuraitis
The Bolshoi Ballet production,
rec. live at the Kremlin Palace, Moscow, Russia, 1976
Picture format: Video/NTSC/Colour/4:3
Sound format: Mono
Menu language: English
Notes in English
VAI 4446 [141.00]
Experience Classicsonline

Swan Lake is arguably Tchaikovsky’s most recognisable music and to my mind his most beautiful and accomplished ballet score. There are countless productions on DVD and one might be forgiven for thinking, in a slightly bored fashion that this is yet another one, and for asking oneself why would we need it. There are two reasons why this is a special production and why one should watch it at least once. The first is that it was a production conceived to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Swan Lake at the Bolshoi; the second and foremost, it features Maya Plisetskaya, dancing the challenging double role of Odette / Odile.
 
Maya Plisetskaya (b. 1925) is, in my opinion, the greatest female ballet dancer ever to come out of the illustrious Bolshoi ballet. Her career, incredibly for a dancer, has stretched over sixty years; her last public performance was to my knowledge in 2005 at Covent Garden on the occasion of her 80th birthday. According to her own words, she danced Swan Lake more than 800 times between 1947 and 1977. At the time this DVD was filmed, she was already 51 years old but she appears as graceful, light and beautiful as a ballerina in her mid-twenties.
 
Plisetskaya did not have an easy life. Her early childhood was lived in the shadows of Stalinism. Her father disappeared and was executed in 1937, during the so-called Stalinist Purges, even though his death was only confirmed fifty two years later. Her mother was subsequently imprisoned and little Maya was left to the care of her maternal aunt, the ballerina Sulamith Messerer. Plisetskaya joined the Bolshoi Ballet in 1943 and right from the start, she was a different kind of ballerina, as she never spent any time in the Corps de Ballet. She became a soloist immediately after graduation and was named principal dancer in 1945, but for many years she remained unknown to the West and her career was confined within the boarders of the Soviet Union. She was labelled a “nevyezdnaya”, the official designation, in the old days of the Soviet Union, for a person who was considered “an enemy of the people” and therefore “unexportable”, which is what the term means. For this reason, she was prevented from touring with the Bolshoi Ballet abroad, most notably in 1956 when they enjoyed a roaring success at Covent Garden. It was not until 1959 that her ban was lifted and she was allowed to tour the USA with the Bolshoi to the astonished eyes of audiences everywhere.
 
Maya Plisetskaya’s red hair and striking looks, made her appearance glamorous both on and off stage but it was her virtuosity, her impeccable technique, her athletic agility and her expressive dramatic skills that made her famous and an absolute joy to watch. She was always the perfect Swan Queen, elegant, well proportioned, with a long neck and most of all, long arms of an incredible fluidity unmatched to this day. Therefore to have a film where she dances the extremely demanding double role of Odette / Odile is indeed precious.
 
Unfortunately, this Swan Lake production to celebrate the ballet’s 100th anniversary with the Bolshoi, I am sorry to say, does not do full justice to Plisetskaya’s artistry. The filming is clumsy, the picture sometimes unclear and the lighting was not adapted for the taping of a live performance. The stage is often too dark, particularly during the second act on the shores of the lake, which makes the beautiful settings, apparently especially created for the occasion, nearly impossible to see. Sadly, the sound does not make up either for the poor image quality during some parts of the production. The Bolshoi orchestra under the baton of Algis Zhuraitis gives a good, assured performance of Tchaikovsky’s wonderful music, however and through no fault of their own, the score never comes across in its full glory. This is simply because the sound was recorded in Mono, making the instruments at times muffled and indistinctive, even a little distorted if one pumps up the volume slightly. And then there is the audience at the Kremlin Palace! They obviously admire and adore Plisetskaya, however the continuous applause throughout the time she is on stage is often annoying, sometimes even irritating. It spoils the enjoyment of the performance and prevents one from hearing the music clearly, which is already impaired through the poor recording quality. Having said all this, I still enjoyed the ballet immensely and this is entirely to Plisetskaya’s credit.
 
The execution of the familiar choreography is flawless by the whole company, as one comes to expect from the Bolshoi, particularly in the decades leading up to the split of the Soviet Union, when the group was at its peak. The difficult dance sequence of the four cygnets and the waltz of the older swans is wonderfully performed, displaying not only grace but also precision. Boris Efimov makes an excellent Rothbart, dramatically expressive, threatening and technically powerful. The Jester danced by Vladimir Abrosimov is very impressive, particularly during the jumps, which he executes with apparent easiness and flexibility. Alexander Bogatirev makes a suitable Prince Siegfried; he is tall, elegant and handsome, his technique solid and graceful, displaying that recognisable Russian school that combines artistry and athleticism like no other. However, it is obvious that he is not in the same league as his partner for this is without a doubt Maya Plisetskaya’s ballet. From the moment, she first sets foot on stage, it is impossible to take one’s eyes off her. Her legendary arms immediately grab you with their liquid movements; her glamorous, dramatic stage presence takes one’s breath away. Was this woman really already fifty-one when she danced in this particular production? I found myself asking. Surely, it is not possible and somebody made a mistake about her birth date. Plisetskaya’s Odette is beautiful, fragile and sensitive. She truly gets into the character, making it believable. Like Prince Siegfried, you will want to protect and liberate her from Rothbart’s claws. In the same way, her performance as Odile is sensual, seductive, convincingly demonstrating why the prince falls so easily for her, temporarily forgetting about Odette and the promise he made her on the shores of the lake. Plisetskaya gives a remarkable fluidity to her physical phrasing, her pirouettes and her attitudes have a statuesque quality, beautifully cut out against the backgrounds, as if created by the brush of an extraordinary artist.
 
Plisetskaya’s brilliant, virtuosic technique is still to be seen in this performance from 1976, though her incredible flying leaps are a little more subdued than they were in the earlier stages of her career – just go to YouTube and watch her in two black and white films of Ludwig Minkus’ Don Quixote and Alexander Krein’s Laurencia. It will leave you breathless! Besides Swan Lake¸ she danced other great ballet roles, such as Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, Glazunov’s Raymonda and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet but she also had leading roles created for her by some of the most celebrated choreographers of the 20th century, like Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart to name but a few, however Swan Lake would become her signature role. This DVD documents why she was so great at it albeit the deficiencies in the picture and the sound. The quality of the image however improves during Act III; which is the ball in Siegfried’s palace and therefore the stage is more brightly lit.
 
Disappointingly, the DVD has no bonus tracks and I think the label, VAI (Video Artists International), missed a good opportunity here. It would have been amazing if they had included, for example, Plisetskaya’s other signature role, namely Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Dying Swan, a one act ballet choreographed by Fokine and made famous by Anna Pavlova. Plisetskaya’s performance was captured on film, in black and white. Her rendition is not only beautiful and moving but gracefully sad and evocative of the dying moments of an amazing creature. This or other rare bonus tracks would to my mind have made the DVD more valuable and more likely to be purchased. Nevertheless, if you love ballet and are not bothered by the poor quality Mono soundtrack or the slightly grainy picture, and if you admire Maya Plisetskaya’s artistry, then this certainly is a DVD for you.
 
Margarida Mota-Bull
 

 


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