Coming to cinemas, a ballet to take the breath away: Bolshoi Ballet in Lady of the Camellias

Coming next in the Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema season is John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias. Charlotte Kasner takes a look.

The seeds of John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias were sown when Marcia Haydeé commissioned him to produce a work for Stuttgart Ballet. Initially he planned a production of Cleopatra but changed his mind when, exhausted after work, Haydée inspired him to consider Margueurite Gautier’s demise! Kevin Haigan took it to Hamburg three years later in 1981 where he danced it again with with Haydée, subsequently mounting it for the Bolshoi, transferring Neumeier’s knowledge and application of Stanislavski’s techniques back in home in Moscow.

And what a superb production Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias is; one that deserves to be in repertoires all over the world. So good, in fact, that I wanted to watch a second time. Perhaps no companies can compare to Neumeier’s own Hamburg Ballet and the Bolshoi, though. It certainly suits the latter live a well-fitting glove.

This is a full and rich ballet that far extends the skeleton Marguerite and Armand that Frederick Ashton created. He sketches the characters, the original production having as much to do with the relationship between his first cast than the choreography.

Svetlana Zakharova and Edvin Revazov in the Bolshoi Ballet's production of Lady of the Camellias by John NeumeierPhoto Damir Yusupov
Svetlana Zakharova and Edvin Revazov in the Bolshoi Ballet’s production of Lady of the Camellias by John Neumeier
Photo Damir Yusupov

Neumeier gives us so much more, ably abetted by this cast. Ukrainian Edvin Revazov, guesting from Hamburg Ballet, is perfect casting for Armand. He looks about 18 and perfectly naive, but of course has the technique and the maturity to pull off this dramatic and demanding role. He carries off brilliantly long moments of stillness in close up when we see the events of the past unfolding behind him; perfect for film but tough for a dancer.

Svetlana Zakharova is matched perfectly too; young enough to be pitiful but looking old enough to create a suitable age gap with Armand. There is no need to underline her dramatic and technical ability as she inhabits her character. Mention too must be made of Kristina Kretova as Prudence Duvernay who has some wonderful moments and her delicious partner Mikhail Lobukin as her lover Gaston Rieux.

The bold opening, in silence, forms a memento mori as Gautier’s possessions are picked over in the sale in her apartments following her death. The music, champagne, dancing, lights: all ephemeral. How grating the piano sounds as would-be purchasers plonk at the keys. In contrast is the melodious simplicity of Chopin’s piano music as Armand’s father gazes at the portrait of his son’s dead lover, the price tag dangling where an earring should dazzle on a live face.

Slowly the past comes alive again and the orchestra begins. Neumeier creates a parallel with his leading characters’ lives by showing a play within play using the characters of Manon Lescaut and her lover des Grieux, As the company watch their dancing, both Marguerite and Armand intersperse themselves with the dance, immediately identifying themselves with the tragedy from the century before.

How touching when Armand goes to see Marguerite alone and her attempts to play the coquette melt before his ardour. Zakharova and Revazov exude passionate intensity that is as much about humanity as sexuality. Marguerite is bemused by the sincerity for perhaps the first time in her life, which she knows is soon to be over.

Svetlana Zakharova and Edvin Revazov in Lady of the Camellias by John NeumeierPhoto Damir Yusupov
Svetlana Zakharova and Edvin Revazov
in Lady of the Camellias by John Neumeier
Photo Damir Yusupov

Neumeier demands much of his dancers in what is effectively a 40-minute pas de deux, the technical demands no less than the dramatic. He makes much use of pirouettes for Armand, as if he is in a heady mental and physical whirl of adolescent love.

A summer party where high spirits reign, is interrupted by Armand’s father, who forbids Armand from seeing Marguerite who nevertheless defies him and, spurning her other lovers, declares her love for Armand publicly. The ensuing pas de deux where Marguerite literally and figuratively lets her hair down could not be more of a contrast with the first. The music, now paired down to two on-stage pianos, is deep and lush, the coquette banished for the woman so soon to be extinguished, and the boy so soon to lose his first and perhaps only true love. Gone too, the whirling pirouettes to be relaxed with languorous ports de bras, delicate bourrées and long, lingering lines.

Svetlana Zakharova and Edvin Revazov in Lady of the Camellias by John NeumeierPhoto Damir Yusupov
Svetlana Zakharova and Edvin Revazov in Lady of the Camellias by John Neumeier
Photo Damir Yusupov

Again, they are interrupted by the arrival of Armand’s father who again forbids Marguerite’s liaison with his son. Manon reappears, her clothing slowly decaying along with her mortal flesh, and they dance a haunted duet as shadowy lovers dangle jewels in front of their faces. Marguerite reluctantly agrees to return to her life as a courtesan.

When Armand returns, his dance is as fluid and languorous as before. Not so Marguerite, who dances one beat behind like a spiky ghost. The next time he visits, it is to find everything packed and, as she returns for the remaining valise, the servant gives him Marguerite’s farewell note.

Spurned and angry, a drunken Armand declares his revenge on Marguerite and stars a liaison with another courtesan. But it is no good and he quickly takes up with Marguerite again only for Manon to re-appear like a doomed shade predicting their fate. Neumeier evens quotes Giselle briefly in his choreography and the Chopin echoes the softest of Adam’s music.

When Manon, now stripped of her clothing, is carried off by her lovers, Marguerite pauses, knowing that it is her fate too. A she leaves Armand sleeping, des Grieux dances a solo centre stage, his fate to be bereaved also.

The marvellous and heartrending ending will take your breath away. When, back with his new lover at a ball, Armand again drunkenly confronts Marguerite, scornfully handing back a bundle of love letters, she runs off distraught. Back where we started, at the sale of her possessions, he finds her diary and is reminded of her last hours. Rewinding time to her last ball, Neumeier draws comparisons one last time, showing us a veiled and pallid Marguerite, alongside a fading and dishevelled Manon. With the weight of Manon’s fate hanging heavily over her, Marguerite flees to write one final entry in her diary so that Armand so that he will at last understand the truth.

The Bolshoi Ballet in John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias is in cinemas on Sunday November 1, 2020. Visit for venues and booking links.