April 9, 2017
A Hero of Our Time brought this season of Bolshoi screenings to a very fine end indeed. Created in 2015 as a collaboration between choreographer Yuri Possokhov and drama director Kirill Serebrennikov, it uses three of Mikhail Lermontov’s five novellas that make up the collection of the title, and that tell the story of the flawed Grigory Pechorin, an officer in the Russian army in the Caucasus. Pechorin symbolises all that Lermontov thought was flawed in his contemporaries. Like Onegin, he is infused with ennui and hurts everyone around him, whether he cares about them or not.
All three episodes comprise a complex plot which is not always clear in this telling but always compelling. Each is danced by a different dancer playing Pechorin: Igor Tsvirko, Artem Ovcharenko and Ruslan Skvorstov.
I was ready to love the whole world, but no one understood me, and I learned to hate.
(Pechorin in A Hero of Our Time)
It opens with Bela, danced by Olga Smirnova, a Caucasian woman, given to Pechorin in exchange for a horse. She symbolises the divide between east and west, learning Pechorin’s ways in an attempt to please, symbolised by her watching Pechorin exercise as the barre and donning a tutu over her pantaloons. Her devotion repels Pechorin and he grows bored with her. Bela is kidnapped and killed by the owner of the horse and Pechorin moves on. Smirnova is exquisitely vulnerable and yielding , her plaint arms pleading and obedient.
Pechorin arrives on the Georgian coast where he rents a room for the night, only to eventually realise that it is a house of smugglers when he witnesses their operation. The next night, he meets a young girl, danced by Ekaterina Shipulina, respondent in red. Although she is a water sprite, an Undine, she is an echo of the Firebird and Pechorin a seagull. Pechorin nearly meets his match when, following her enticements, she tries to drown him so that he cannot inform on the smuggling operation.
Back in the gymnasium of a spa town where he is recuperating from his posting, Pechorin is exercising with the men, the women on the opposite side of a screen. Three injured soldiers in wheelchairs (somewhat anachronistically, modern sports versions), spin in pirouettes and the men work weights. In the evening, they dance with the woman and Pechorin sees his friend Grushnitsy and his lover Mary. Like Onegin, he toys with Mary’s affections, leading to a duel with his erstwhile friend. In the novel, Lermontov (himself killed in a duel at the tender age of 26), places this illegal activity on a cliff top, knowing that the loser will fall and make it appear that it was an accident or suicide. Cleverly, this staging places the action on the high windowsills of the gymnasium after the dance, Pechorin killing and thus defenestrating, Grushnitsy. Mary, like Tatiana, has fallen in love, but the callous Pechorin has made his conquest and he abandons her. His real love is Vera, but witnessing his flirtation and heartless rejection of Mary, she too rejects him.
While following the plot might be tricky, there is plenty of interest in Yuri Possokhov’s daring choreography. There are breathtaking moments in the pas de deux: women suspended upside down and thrown into a triple, horizontal spin before being deftly caught. The couples dancing in the spa are almost reckless, arms stretched to the limit and the turns desperate.
Even amongst such richness, Ilya Demutsky’s matchless score stands out. It is hard to believe that the luscious complexities represent his first full length composition. He uses shawms, bass clarinet, cor anglais and places soloists on stage for each section, the most effective being the cellist. Singers underpin the most dramatic moments. Strings are sweeping and at times discordant to echo the discourse. There is layer upon layer of meaning in the music with references to Khachaturian, Shostakovich and Prokofiev as well as hints of impressionism whilst never being derivative. His is a truly original voice and we need to hear much, much more.
As ever, the season was ably introduced by the trilingual Katya Novikova who expressed the wish that this should be recorded onto DVD. Hear, hear.
Details of the 2017-8 Bolshoi Ballet cinema season will be announced soon.