Though ballet had its genesis in the courts of Europe, it was in Russia that it evolved into the art form that we know better today – particularly with the creation of the story ballet or balet-dram culminating in tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, Slepping Beauty and Nutcracker trio of masterworks. Of equal significance was the level of training needed for the dancers to develop the skills, assets and grace required. Nijinsky, Pavlova, Karsavina and Massine are just a few examples of the dancers whose fame has spread internationally.
These stars were soon admired outside of Russia, often in tours organised at the last minute. Diaghilev's Ballets had their Paris and London performances in the early 1900s and even undertook a United States tour for the 1916/17 season concluding with performances at New York's Metropolitan Opera House.
Fans of Kirov will particularly appreciate the first act of The Stone Flower danced by the main dancers of the early performances. The ballet, first choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky for the Bolshoi Ballet, was not warmly welcomed and was quickly dropped from the repertoire. Soon after, Yuri Grigorovich mounted the work for the Kirov in a version that enjoyed both critical and public favour. It was also this ballet that highlighted the ascendant partnership of dancers Yuri Soloviev et Alla Sizova, two of the brightest young stars.
Soloviev was one of three dancers who dominated the company's male contingent, the other two being Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev. The dancers were not terribly competitive. Nureyev and Soloviev were friends and roomates for a period while Baryshnikov was relatively new to the company and was yet to achieve his super-star status.
These selections also display the versatility of the Bolshoi dancers. Plisetskaya's brilliant, high-flying Don Qixote Kitri is a far cry from the celebrated Odette in Swan Lake, yet both have been hailed as definitive. Maximova, whose impish charm delighted in her lighter roles, is equally effective as a Giselle. Struchkova's Ciderella sails through the air in her solos while providing sheer dance poetry in her pas de deux flawlessly partenered by Lavrovsky. Timofeyeva made her auspicious debut as the Swan Queen, but the sheer exuberance and athleticism exhibited in the Gayaneh excerpt is that of a dancer intent on dazzling. Those who experienced Vasiliev's powerful Spartacus, a theatrical tour de force, would hardly recognize the dancer who excelled in such comic roles as Basilio earlier in his career.
Perhaps the most celebrated and beloved of all Russian ballerinas was Galina Ulanova. Her career was launched with the Kirov Ballet, but in 1944 she moved to the Bolshoi where she ultimately became the company's prima ballerina assoluta. She was the most lyrical of dancers with innately musical legato phrasing and plasticity. She was, moreover, a continuing inspiration to the company's young dancers with a particular strong influence upon Maximova, who thrived under her tutelage. For the Russians, Ulanova came as close to artistic sainthood as any dancer in its history.
Agnès Letestu (Cinderella), José Martinez (The movie star) – Corps de Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris
Agnès Letestu (Odette), José Martinez (Siegfried) – Corps de Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris
Bolshoi Theatre, 1945-1977
Tchaikovsky – Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes
Nadia Nerina (Giselle), Nikolai Fadeyetchev (Albrecht) – The Royal Ballet