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Performing Arts

Man and Machine
by Balletomane

On April 8, 1931, at the Leningrad State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet (now the Kirov), the dress rehearsal took place of a new ballet by a young composer called Dmitri Shostakovich. It was the one and only performance; not, however, because the audience didn't like it but because it was not politically correct. The sets and costumes were partly destroyed, there were denouncements.

The new production of Bolt on the New Stage of the Bolshoi Theatre is not a reconstruction of the original ballet, but a re-imagining, with endlessly inventive choreography by Alexei Ratmansky (Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Ballet), massive moving sets by Semyon Pastukh, and sometimes good costumes by Galina Solovyova. It is a thrilling evening - funny, sad, stirring, imaginative, and the dancing's good too.

Bolt? The very name of the ballet tells you that this is not a ballet set in the Wonderland of classical ballet. Bolt is staged on a factory floor; the set is the machinery itself - giant cogs, enormous metal panels moving up and down, pistons with steam, an outsize lightbulb. The original ballet was inspired by the industrial expansion taking place in the Soviet Union, under Stalin, during the First Five Year Plan. The dancers are the workers who make the machines run, exhorted to do great deeds by the Factory Director, the Chief Engineer and the Bureaucrat.

The plot is literally about putting a spanner into the works, but it is really about an outsider; we know this when we see the hero Dimka, unable, or unwilling, to keep up with the morning exercise routines. Dimka has girlfriend trouble, with Maria, the Komsomol leader. He's not too hot at working either - eating an apple when all around him are building up a sweat. His laziness gets him fired, and when we next see him he is boozing and flirting with the floozies. He tries and fails to make it up with Maria, then decides to get his own back by sabotaging the new machinery; does he do it? Buy a ticket and you'll find out.

The eponymous bolt, as a physical object, doesn't appear until the end of Act I (and is never seen after that). It's all part of the joke that Shostakovich is playing on the tradition that he was brought up to compose, and then satirises. His music is by turns New Orleans, St Petersburg, Chicago; Bolt is a jazz ballet, a constructivist ballet, a classical ballet, it is also burlesque and slapstick. Shostakovich pays homage to, and then laughs at, classical ballet, all in the same musical number.

Like the music, the choreography speaks many different languages. Ratmansky is faithful to the game-playing: his Bolt has pirouettes and press-ups, acrobatics and assembles. In their first-act duet, for the first few minutes, Dimka and Maria look as if they are in Romeo and Juliet - cue violins, adagio, developpe, rond de jambe : aah; then the music abruptly switches to sliding trombones, and the dancers slither : wow.

The Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, conducted by Pavel Sorokin, gives its all to the twists and turns of the score; the crystal acoustics of the New Stage enable us to hear equally clearly the strident brass notes (Shostakovich imitating factory turbines in The Dance of the Machines), and the delicacy of a xylophone.

You don't have to know your classical ballet to enjoy Bolt, but if you do you can appreciate the multitude of references and echoes that come at you thick and fast - the reference to the fight between Siegfried and Rotbart in Swan Lake, here echoed when Dimka and shock-worker Yan fight for the affection of Maria (Rotbart, you remember, loses his wings, Yan gets a punch to the jaw).

The final divertissement in Act II is all about spectacle. This allies it closely with The Nutcracker; Tchaikovsky created dances for the Kingdom of Confiturenburg, Shostakovich plays him at his own game creating dances for what we might call 'Redville.'

How inventive can you be? How about the Budyonny Cavalry, dressed in red leather, rolling about on scooters in formation; this comes close to the circus you might think, but the inter-weaving diagonal movements across stage come straight out of any number of classical ballets. You think you're looking at vaudeville (the music says you're right), and then yet again the quick change in mood and style, when the Aviators come onto the stage, and in a graceful evocation of a plane rising, two by two, a dancer is lifted high into the air by another, his arms outstretched - simple, and effective. There is a moment when the old staging of Bolt is remembered, with some dancers costumed in the cut-out cardboard panels of a steamship. There is a diver in flippers. Over the top? A bit too Broadway? Yes, and the audience loved it.

Maria and Yan make it up with Ivashka (Dimka's sidekick and partner in crime), and everybody lives happily ever after (except for Dimka who was shot by a firing squad of Red Army guards, just before the curtain fell). It's a serious joke.

When: March 7 and 8, 7pm
Duration: Two hours, including one interval
Where: New Stage of the Bolshoi Theatre

© 2005 Jeremy Noble