The Russian Ballet Collection: more newly restored films – Ivan the Terrible & Romeo and Juliet

Charlotte Kasner concludes her preview of five newly restored films of Russian ballet never previously seen in the West with a look at Ivan the Terrible and Romeo and Juliet.

Part 1 of the preview: Adam and Eve
Part 2 of the preview: La Sylphide & Chopiniana

A very Russian subject, Ivan the Terrible is perfectly suited to the abstraction and power that epitomise the powerhouse that was great Soviet choreography. It also has the advantage of not having dozens of other productions that are well-known to audiences.

The restored video dates from 1986 with Yuri Vladimirov in the eponymous role, Lyudmila Semenyaka as the ill-fated Anastasia and Boris Akimov as Prince Krubsky. It’s an all-star line-up that does not disappoint. The ballet is Yuri Grigorovich at his operatic best, painting with a broad brush as the true heir of the Bolshoi’s famed dramatic style.

Much of the music is taken from Prokofiev’s score for the Eisenstein’s two-part historical epic film with the addition of a few other works, notably the Field of the Dead lament from Alexander Nevsky which provides a moving accompaniment to Anastasia’s last solo.

The ballet dates from 1973, with Grigorovich himself providing the libretto. There are many doubts about the historical events that it portrays, not least involving Anastasia’s death which, here, makes it very much a ballet of two halves.

Lyudmila Semenyaka as Anastasia and Boris Akimov as Prince Gribskyin Yuri Grigorovich's Ivan the Terrible
Lyudmila Semenyaka as Anastasia and Boris Akimov as Prince Gribsky
in Yuri Grigorovich’s Ivan the Terrible

It is not known whether the death of Ivan IV’s wife’s death triggered what would undoubtedly later be seen as mental illness. Whatever, he was definitely proclaimed ‘Tsar of All Russia’ in 1547 at the age of seventeen with Moscow as his capital. Ivan made Russia into an empire, conquering the Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan and Sibir and culminating in bloody purges of the boyars under the first state-organised police force, the Oprichniki.

Paradoxically, Ivan was also a competent diplomat, a patron of arts, fostered trade and the founded Russia’s first publishing house. The odd massacre of the people and possibly his own son aside, he was a popular ruler in many respects and hence perhaps the theory that Russians are partial to autocratic rule. Whatever the reasons for his decline, Ivan’s rule ended disastrously with the termination of the Rurikid dynasty which declined into the Time of Troubles and the effective rule by Boris Gudunov.

Vladimirov lurches figuratively and literally from extrovert to introvert, confident leader to wild despot, all glossed by his religious devotion. He kills his eldest son unintentionally and is haunted by the realisation. Underlying everything is conflict with the boyars and, although initially loyal, it is Boris Akimov as Prince Krubsky who administers the poisoned chalice to Anastasia as he prepares to usurp the throne during one of Ivan’s bouts of mental disturbance. Ivan however forces Kurbsky to flee for his life, although he declines into lonely self-doubt and anguish.

Semenyaka, no mere feminine foil, creates a truly tragic heroine who matures from timid bride to a fully-fledged woman, her life cut short by plotting and intrigue but loyal to the end.

Presiding over all of the this, the ringers haul on the ever-present Russian bells that sound out tragedy and triumph, ringing for Ivan’s coronation as well as for his wars until they are supplanted by the trumpets of the archangels that herald Ivan’s demise.

It is all too easy to assess Ivan the Terrible, as with Spartacus, through the distorting lens of Cold War politics, when it too is as subversive as a slave uprising. Ivan’s legacy is confusing and controversial and Grigorovich raises subtle questions about the Soviet Union of the 1970s, plumb in the middle of Leonid Brezhnev’s slowly stagnating regime. Like Gudonov, Brezhnev presided over a stable empire that one the one hand brought raised standards of living and the wide availability of consumer goods to many of the populace following the deprivations of the 1930s, but equally saw the massive build-up of Soviet weaponry that consumed a huge proportion of the country’s wealth.

The revival of this production in 2012 was not only justified as a tribute to Grigorovich’s legacy but by its continuing recent historical relevance. There will always be those who view the ballet as an old, crude warhorse of dated Soviet dancing but they are missing so much. The production is every bit as nuanced as Prokofiev’s powerful and moving score, which is not as well recognised as it should be.

All in all, a must-see film, danced by performers who lived through the period and who give towering performances in a monumental work.

Viktor Dik and Natalya Ledovskayain a still from the film of Yuri Grigorvich's Romeo and Juliet
Viktor Dik and Natalya Ledovskaya
in a still from the film of Yuri Grigorvich’s Romeo and Juliet

On somewhat shakier ground is a 1991 recording of Grigorovich’s Romeo and Juliet, which premiered twelve years previously. It sometimes feels as if Prokofiev’s ballet has been in the repertory for as long as other classics; indeed, one wag designated it as “the summer Swan Lake,” so popular is it with the world’s companies. It was first seen only in 1938, however; a blink of an eye compared to Giselle or Swan Lake.

The designs by Simon Virsaladze looked dated even in the ballet’s first season in 1979. By 1991, and as with recent productions of Spartacus, a fair bit of bling has been added to the original costumes, which only serves to make them look more tired.

As the norm for Virsiladze’s sets, this one is pared down with the dancers working on two levels, separated by the orchestra. This must have been a boon for the audience in terms of the score but it has the problem that performers tend to dance at each other rather more often than with each other, making the ballet quite difficult to engage with emotionally.

Viktor Dik makes a creditable Romeo despite such oddities such as having a mask with no fixings, meaning that he spends the entire ballroom scene dancing one handed or whipping off his mask to grasp Juliet.

Natalya Ledovskaya plays Juliet not as a child reluctant to grow up, but as an adolescent merely shy with Paris before she is distracted by the sight of Romeo. This seems a much more credible interpretation than the usual ‘love at first sight’ scenario, not least because Romeo is, of course, initially obsessed with Rosalind. This way, they come over as fickle, impulsive teenagers rather than the far less likely deeply tragic lovers. Juliet’s revulsion at being paired with Paris is thus much more about the mess that she realises that she has got herself into by illicitly marrying and then sleeping with Romeo.

Viktor Dik and Natalya Ledovskaya in Yuri Grigorvich's Romeo and Juliet
Viktor Dik and Natalya Ledovskaya in Yuri Grigorvich’s Romeo and Juliet

Friar Laurence is quite a discomforting character, not the usual sagacious father figure, but a young man who does not shy away from handling Juliet as a partner. Grigorovich gives him classic Bolshoi one-handed lifts so that it is easy to interpret his giving assistance to the lovers as a projection of his own sexual desires. Was the close up of his hand gripping her thigh in a lift intentional? It would have been easier for Ledovskaya had she not been encumbered by a ridiculously long piece of gauze which, while not being very convincing as a cloak, did at least provide her with a shroud a bit later on!

Of course, much of the tragedy is precipitated by the death of Tybalt and here, Dimitry Erlykin is a worthy opponent. All glowering brows and macho stance, he would have made a terrific Crassus or even Ivan Grozny. He incubates all the power of the Bolshoi training in a compact frame that positively explodes with testosterone-filled fury and hatred for the Montagues. Again, he makes a very credible angry, unthinking adolescent.

Mercutio is danced by a performer simply credited as ‘Glazschneider’ in the archive annotation that accompanies the video. He is not served well by Grigorovich’s detached, abstract approach, as we never really get to appreciate the matey closeness of Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio and the latter’s clownishness cannot build into his final death scene as the dancer has little opportunity to develop his character.

Grigorovich fills a lot of the music with carnival-type corps de ballet dancing which does not help to convey the idea of the Capulet/Montague antagonism extending throughout the town. They simply seem to be enjoying themselves too much and interrupting the drama.

Despite its dated look and structural flaws, however, a Romeo and Juliet that provides pleanty of interest and some super dancing.

Part 1 of the preview: Adam and Eve
Part 2 of the preview: La Sylphide & Chopiniana

The films are not yet available, although RTRWorldwide are presently negotiating with broadcasters worldwide. They also hope to have them available on DVD later this year as The Russian Ballet Collection Volume 2.