- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Bolshoi Ballet’s visit to the Kennedy Center last week was highlighted by one of the most magical and dazzling performances ever seen here. At Saturday’s matinee two young dancers — Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev (mark those names) — tore up the stage in “Don Quixote,” breezing through the difficult pyrotechnics of this most virtuosic of ballets.

Their astounding technical aplomb was only a portion of what made their performance memorable. They radiated joy and youthful freshness, and also a daring that led them to add even more brilliant challenges to roles already full of them.

She has just turned 21; he, a mere stripling of 18, is making his debut with the company in “Don Quixote” and also his American debut. It’s safe to predict they will be ballet’s next superstars.

Miss Osipova has an airy, soaring leap that rises higher than any dancer I’ve ever seen. It recalls descriptions of Vaslav Nijinsky’s famed leaps — she rises in the air and at height she hangs suspended for a moment, her body floating. When the role calls for fouettes — fast spectacular turns — she makes them into double turns.

All companies have individual virtues, and Miss Osipova, as the heroine Kitri, has Bolshoi virtues writ large: a feminine, womanly quality that keeps virtuosity from looking brittle; sky-high extensions; and arm movements that grow from deep in the back, giving them a plushy eloquence. These qualities shone especially in her beautiful serene dancing of Act II’s vision scene.

Mr. Vasiliev, with less experience, is understandably less finished a dancer, but he has technique to burn. He came into his own in the last act, adding daring flourishes to the popular stand-alone pas de deux often excerpted for galas.

Portraying a headstrong young couple is an ideal assignment for this pair right now. While not the most challenging in terms of emotional depth and nuance, the roles call for spirit and charm, which they have in spades.

In fact, “Don Quixote” is an ideal Bolshoi vehicle. It is lively and full of fun, staged with magnificent splendor, and ripe with challenging roles. The company’s strength in depth was evident in roles that called for the broad humor of the Don’s sidekick, Sancho Panza (Alexander Petukhov); to the dramatic supple gypsy (Yuliana Malkhasyants); to the Mistress of the Dryads (Ekaterina Shipulina); to Kitri’s friends (Anna Rebetskaya and Olga Stebletsova); and on and on.

The Bolshoi concluded its engagement with three more performances of the ballet, and began the week with a new version of “Cinderella” set to the well-known Sergei Prokofiev score. While “Don Q” referred to the company’s proud past, this “Cinderella” was emblematic of its search for new paths. Interestingly, Alexei Ratmansky, artistic director of the Bolshoi, recently choreographed a version of the story for the Kirov Ballet, Russia’s other major company. It’s understandable, if not indeed inevitable, that Russian companies would want to turn to Mr. Prokofiev, who has written such striking music for dance (“Prodigal Son,” “Romeo and Juliet”).

But for his own company Mr. Ratmansky turned to Yuri Possokhov, one of the noblest, most imaginative dancers of the last few decades. Both men are an interesting amalgam of Russian roots and strong outside experiences: Mr. Ratmansky danced with Canadian companies and the Royal Danish Ballet and Mr. Possokhov spent 12 years as dancer and choreographer with the San Francisco Ballet. Both have been exposed to the best of Russian and Western choreography, giving rise to perhaps too high expectations.

Mr. Possokhov appears to have been struck by the sad details of Mr. Prokofiev’s later years and there is indeed melancholy in the music. The ballet has striking modern sets by Hans Dieter Schaal, especially the meteor from outer space — shades of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince” — but the ballroom scene’s dramatic staircase left too little room for the corps to move in sweeping floor patterns. The staging is full of imaginative ideas, in fact more than can be accommodated in a seamless flow. Many seem generated by the librettist, Nikolai Volkov.

A central conceit is having a Storyteller (Victor Barykin) who touches our imagination with his mixture of tenderness and awkwardness. It is basically a non-dancing role, although the Storyteller supports Cinderella during the ballroom scene, His ungainliness is part of his poignancy.

The company’s reigning ballerina, the lithe and willowy Svetlana Zakharova, danced the title role with sweetness and disarming naturalness. Cinderella’s choreography was lackluster — the romantic pas de deux lacked individuality — and her partner, Sergei Filin, made one wonder what had happened to all the vaunted male dancers until the swashbuckling men in “Don Quixote” bounded on later in the week.

The Bolshoi is a grand company with an extraordinary group of beautifully schooled dancers, a rich style and an adventurous young director at its helm. Let’s hope for another visit soon.

****

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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