Shostakovich on Stage – Ballet Triple-Bill: The Young Lady and the Hooligan … The Bedbug … Leningrad Symphony

Shostakovich
The Young Lady and the Hooligan – Choreographic novella in seven tableaux

Choreography – Konstantin Boyarsky
Scenario – Alexander Belinsky, after the film scenario of the same name by Vladimir Mayakovsky
Sets – Vyacheslav Okunev (after sketches by Valery Dorrer)
Costumes – Tatiana Noginova
Lighting – Vladimir Lukasevitch

The Young Lady – Svetlana Ivanova
The Hooligan – Igor Zelensky
A Guide – Sergey Popov
The Guide’s Girlfriend – Tatyana Tkachenko

Shostakovich
The Bedbug – One-act comic ballet
Choreography – Leonid Jakobson
Libretto – Leonid Jakobson after the play of the same name by Vladimir Mayakovsky
Sets – Boris Messerer
Costumes – Tatiana Noginova
Lighting – Viktor Lukasevitch

Mayakovsky – Nikolay Maumov
Zoya – Ksenia Dubrovina
Prisypkin – Andrey Ivanov
Elzevira Renaissance – Yana Selina
Renaissance’s Mum – Polina Rassadina
Renaissance’s Dad – Anton Lukovkin
Bayan – Soslan Kulaev
Dancer – Stanislav Burov
His Lady – Alisa Sokolova
Boxer – Dmitry Pykhachev
His Lady – Yulia Slivkina
Dandy – Ivan Sitkonov
His Lady – Lira Khuslamova
Ballroom Pianist – Nikolay Zubkovsky
His Lady – Elena Chmil
Sailor – Dmitry Sharapov

Shostakovich
Leningrad Symphony

Choreography – Igor Belsky
Sets – Vyacheslav Okunev (after sketches by Mikhail Gordon)
Costumes – Tatiana Noginova
Lighting – Vladimir Lukasevitch

The Girl – Uliana Lopatkina
The Boy – Igor Kolb
The Traitor – Nikolay Zubovsky

Artists of the Mariinsky Ballet Company

Orchestra of the Mariinsky (Kirov) Theatre
Tugan Sokhiev

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Reviewed by: Tim Ashley

Reviewed: 27 July, 2006
Venue: The Coliseum, London

The second half of the Mariinsky Theatre’s “Shostakovich on Stage” season examines the composer’s relationship with dance, and opened with a triple bill of ballets premiered in the early 1960s. None of them is danced to an original score, though one assumes Shostakovich sanctioned the use of the works to which they are choreographed. All three made their appearance at a time of historical revisionism and artistic restitution that saw the premieres of the Fourth (long-delayed) and Thirteenth Symphonies and the transformation of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” into “Katerina Ismailova”. There were moves westwards and tentative cultural exchanges, though the propagandistic mood remained: Igor Belsky’s “Leningrad Symphony” featured in the programme of the Kirov’s first visits to London and Paris in 1961.

Lost writers, meanwhile, were being re-established. Both Konstantin Boyarsky’s “The Young Lady and the Hooligan” and Leonid Jakobson’s “The Bedbug” are based, significantly, on works by Vladimir Mayakovsky, the trailblazing modernist of the Leninist era, who committed suicide in 1930 in despair over the Stalinist betrayal of Communist ideology. All three ballets, in different ways, engage in a dialogue with the changing boundaries of Soviet acceptability.

To consider them dated, as some have already done, is to miss the point: they provide us with important insights into the cultural world in which Shostakovich lived and worked in the early 1960s and force us to realise that he was not, by any means, alone in encoding ambivalent responses to the Soviet System in his work.

Ostensibly a morality play, “The Young Lady and the Hooligan” is set at the time of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, or NEP (1921-24), a tentative attempt at a mixed communist-capitalist economy that foundered into corrupt racketeering, sleaze and gang warfare. The eponymous Hooligan is a member of one such outfit, though he finds his world turned upside down when he falls in love with the Young Lady, a bookish, very Soviet schoolteacher. She is drawn to him in her turn, but will have none of his dubious ways. He rescues her from his incensed gang members when they try to scare her off, though the Hooligan is killed in his turn by a figure ambivalently referred to as ‘A Guide’ – in reality the capitalist profiteer for whom the gang work. At this point the Young Lady realises she loves him in her turn, though it is of course, too late.

On the surface, the ballet enacts the parable of a man corrupted by capitalism who is redeemed though the love of an ideologically sound woman. In terms of both narrative and choreography, however, such stereotypes begin to blur. The plot peers back through Communism towards clashes between Romantic individualism and societal control: the central couple are essentially re-playing the narrative of Werther and Charlotte, in which the prudish, morally conventional heroine can only actualise her emotions for the hero when he is dying, and any possibility of a genuine relationship is void.

The Young Lady (Svetlana Ivanova) is frequently observed against the background of a corps de ballet dancing in the swaying, semi-pastoral style that formed a kind of choreographic shorthand for a contented proletariat – we encounter it again in “Leningrad Symphony”, just before the invasion starts; though the style itself gradually becomes associated with her emotional limitations as well as her moral rectitude. The Hooligan’s choreography – astonishingly executed by Igor Zelensky – is rooted in the whirling leaps and virile athleticism usually associated with icons of male Soviet nobility (the Russian men in “Leningrad” Symphony, and, more obviously Spartacus in his various incarnations).

Dramatic narrative and choreographic stereotyping are, in short, beginning to come apart, an impression reinforced by Boyarsky’s characterisation of the Guide (Sergey Popov) and his Girlfriend (Tatyana Tkachenko). The tensions inherent in the NEP era allow Boyarsky to peer towards the west in his depiction of the real bad guys. Tkachenko preens on point like a catwalk model, while Popov sports a tux and bow tie. Together they sashay through tangos and Charlestons, the dances of the ‘decadent’ New World, ambivalently paraded to be both enjoyed and condemned.

Boyarsky was by no means alone in his attraction to the period. Yuri Grigorovich’s Bolshoi version of “The Golden Age”, seen at Covent Garden in the 1980s, is also set during the NEP and jettisons Shostakovich’s original scenario in favour of a narrative that also derives, in part, from Mayakosvky’s play: Grigorovich’s alluring gang leader, however, has a rival in the form of a macho fisherman, with whom his heroine eventually pairs off.

The ambiguities deepen and darken, when we get to “The Bedbug”, danced to a ragbag mix of Shostakovich’s music that includes snippets of the First and Fifth symphonies, though the central pas de deux uses the slow movement from the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings. As with “The Young Lady and the Hooligan”, we are ostensibly dealing with a morality play, though in this instance the outcome and inferences are grim. The naïve, petty-bourgeois sailor Prisypkin (Andrey Ivanov) dumps his girlfriend Zoya (Ksenia Dubrovina) to marry the preposterously grand Elzevira Renaissance (Yana Selina). This time around there isn’t so much as a hint of redemption, and we leave Prisypkin surrounded by Elzevira’s ghastly family and friends.

The tone, however, is mordently satirical and surreal. Mayakovsky features as a character in the piece (beautifully played by Nikolay Naumov, sporting a copy of one of the writer’s trademark jumpers), controlling the action and setting many of the dances in motion, as if the ballet’s vision is ultimately his and not necessarily Jakobson’s. Hiding behind Mayakovsky, however, permits Jakobson to unleash choreographic anarchy. The dances are grotesque, deliberately clumsy. Point shoes are abandoned and the women swivel about in high heels. Prisypkin’s two pas de deux, the first with Zoya, the second with Elzevira are cringe-making in their fumbling awkwardness and garish eroticism.

The designs, meanwhile, are a riot of Monty Python-esque collages. The ballet’s thrust is ostensibly anti-capitalist; the bedbug of the title symbolises the itch of greed that none of the characters can shake off. Underneath the surreal carapace, however, lurks a subversive vision of the world in which self-interest reigns supreme and any form of altruism is impossible, all of which squares uneasily with communist ideology.

“Leningrad Symphony”, meanwhile, is a far finer ballet than either of the other two, though in many respects it also forms a kind of ‘official’ Soviet statement, shorn of any attempt at iconoclasm. It’s danced to the first movement of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, and as with Massine’s symphonic ballets (“Choreatium” to Brahms’s Fourth, and “Les Présages” to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth), narrative and action are acutely welded to musical structure. The first subject introduces the Russian men led by the figure simply called the Boy (Igor Kolb). The second subject brings on the women and their corresponding leader, the Girl (Uliana Lopatkina). The repetitions of the ‘invasion theme’ form an effective interlude in place of the movement’s formal development, and the stage is suddenly filled with strutting phalanxes of soldiery. The lurch towards the recapitulation brings with it the gradual expulsion of the invaders, while the recapitulation itself marks a return to a comparable re-working of the opening dances.

Belsky’s choreography, with its grieving, drooping women and displays of male aggression, shores up gender stereotypes rather than subverts them. The opening is very much a pastoral idyll on which Boyarsky may have drawn for his depiction of the Young Lady’s ‘companions – though there are brief flurries of anxiety as the men mimetically prime unseen rifles and pretend to take aim. There’s a telling moment at the start of the invasion sequence, when the pastoral continues obliviously over the snare drum taps, as the dancers briefly seem unaware of impending danger. The invasion brings with it contrasting male dance styles: the invaders slouch towards the earth they pound with their feet, while the Russians, stripped to the waist, leap above them as soaring icons of male beauty. It’s thrilling to watch – you can’t help but be completely swept away by it and it is tremendously danced. Kolb really seems to fly. Lopatkina, a great artist, is sorrow incarnate, and the corps de ballet’s precision is breathtaking.

Tugan Sokhiev conducted all three ballets, in this instance; this was the second performance: Valery Gergiev took over the baton for “Leningrad Symphony” on opening night, and all three were wonderfully played. The whole thing was a great night out that afforded countless insights into Shostakovich’s world.

  • Shostakovich on Stage continues until 29 July at The Coliseum, London (details through ENO link, below)
  • English National Opera

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