Photos by Damir Yusupov/
The Bolshoi BalletNot that I sympathize with Joseph Stalin, but we see eye to eye on Dmitri Shostakovich. Stalin pronounced the Russian composer's work "a muddle instead of music," and I must agree. I played Shostakovich in orchestras throughout my childhood and teens, and his music was always exasperating: hand written in squiggly Russian, with funny-looking rests that virtually assured I would be the lone squeaky violin that piped up when the rest of the string section was silent. There were sharps and flats sprinkled liberally over the score—invariably in an impossibly foreign key. I would seethe as the strident notes swelled up around me, my ears desperately hoping for a melody I could latch on to—and find out where the hell we were.
We have Stalin to thank, in a fashion, for the buzz around the Russian Bolshoi Ballet's presentation of Shostakovich's one and only ballet, The Bright Stream. Enraged, perhaps, by its cheeky portrayal of life on a collective farm—where everyone falls in love—the dictator banned the ballet immediately following its debut in 1935. Too utopian? Too cheerful? Too much fun? Hope so. Make a wish.
Artistic director Alexi Ratmansky, 35, restaged the work this year, with improved choreography (Agrippina Vaganova, originator of classical Russian ballet technique, famously criticized the old version) and a breezy demeanor. Though the ballet was originally conceived during one of the most terrifying periods of Russian history, when many of the composer's colleagues were carted off to the gulags, the music is surprisingly oblivious and tuneful (for Shostakovich), and the story frothy.
The curtain opens over a set bedecked with all the old knee-jerk symbols: columns, pillars, golden wheat, the hammer and sickle, even slogans like "Every kitchen maid must learn to govern the state!" Within this pastoral scene, a love triangle ensues, complete with positively operatic gender swapping—watch out for the burly men en pointe. And everything turns out well in the end.
Neither the new choreography nor the storyline offers much in the way of political commentary, but The Bright Stream is dance-y and whimsical. Look for the Bolshoi dancers to show off their humorous side—an oddity for the staid state company, known better for their strapping men and dramatic flair. Their other OCPAC ballet, Spartacus, a lovely swords-and-sandals ballet with lots of one-handed lifts, better embodies the Bolshoi aesthetic.
Although Shostakovich has always sent me packing, I'm willing to be proved wrong this time. And what better group to dance to the legendary Soviet composer than the 130 touring dancers from the Bolshoi? Even if his music is a bit like a modern painting—a vortex of colors and dissonance—no one would ever call him dull.
THE RUSSIAN BOLSHOI BALLET PERFORMS THE BRIGHT STREAM AT THE ORANGE COUNTY PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, SEGERSTROM HALL, 600 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 556-2787; WWW.OCPAC.ORG. THURS., AUG. 11, 8 p.m.; AND SPARTACUS, FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 P.M. ALL SHOWS, $25-$110.