Russian ballet dancers Olga Smirnova, Artemy Belyakov (R)
Moscow - AFP
Shakespeare's 16th-century Padua is a far cry from Jean-Christophe Maillot's scintillating new "Taming of the Shrew" at the Moscow Bolshoi.
Instead, for his debut this month at the scandal-hit theatre, the French-born choreographer has devised a sensual and modern version of the comedy, with a minimalist stage set and music woven together from film scores.
Maillot's bold new production has been welcomed by a company still reeling from the events of last year, when bitter infighting culminated in an acid attack on the ballet company's artistic director, Sergei Filin.
For Filin, who is still convalescing from the horrific burns he received during the attack, Maillot's arrival at the theatre is something of a coup: before now, the former top dancer turned renowned choreographer had spent two decades working exclusively with his troupe at Les Ballets de Monte Carlo.
His first ballet at the historic Bolshoi offers a new interpretation of Shakespeare's famous comedy, turning a play often denounced by feminists as misogynistic into an ode to an "extraordinary woman".
"It is not the story of a woman who is being schooled by a man," Maillot said after a rehearsal earlier this month, before the troupe went on a much-awaited tour to New York showcasing company classics such as "Swan Lake" and "Don Quixote".
"This is a story of an extraordinary woman who cannot stand the idea of being in love with a man who is no less extraordinary," Maillot said.
In his version, the headstrong "shrew" Katharina is danced by a playful Ekaterina Krysanova, while Vladislav Lantratov dances the part of Petruchio, the suitor who eventually "tames" her.
Olga Smirnova, one of the Bolshoi's rising stars, lends elegance and delicate lyricism to the character of Katharina's meek younger sister, Bianca.
The ballet takes place on a stark, modern set, to music composed of 25 fragments -- mostly film scores -- written by Soviet composer Dmitry Shostakovich.
Onstage, dancers fight and caress, punch and kiss each other and -- in a fairly daring scene for the Bolshoi, a theatre known primarily for classical fare danced with technical precision -- even appear to have sex on stage.
"The show would not exist without these dancers," Maillot said. "Going for the easy metaphor, I would say they are like Ferraris. In Monaco, I see them driving confined to a small area, and here I had a huge circuit, and I made them drive very fast."
- 'For the first time' -
Known for giving a contemporary personal twist to classics, Maillot was first invited to be the chief choreographer at the Monte Carlo company by Princess Caroline of Monaco in 1993.
Many of his productions starred his longtime muse Bernice Coppieters, who retired earlier this year.
"If one didn't do something for 20 years and does it for the first time, where else do it if not in the Bolshoi!" Maillot told journalists after the rehearsal.
"And I must say that I was not surprised, but extremely pleased to ascertain that it is probably if not the best, then definitely one of the finest companies in the world," he said.
In a challenge for both the choreographer and the troupe, Maillot only had 13 weeks to create the ballet with dancers who were also working on other productions.
But Moscow's critics hailed the two-act work as "charming" and praised its "delicate psychoanalysis".
The success of the ballet is a symbolic victory for the Bolshoi which suffered a devastating blow to its image as a result of the last year's scandals.
Soloist Pavel Dmitrichenko was convicted of masterminding the attack on Filin and sentenced to five and a half years in jail.
But the ensuing trial also exposed bitter infighting at the company and led to a shakeup in the theatre.
Principal dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze was dismissed after he conducted a highly public feud against Filin. The Bolshoi's then-director, Anatoly Iksanov, was also sacked, and the chief conductor Vasily Sinaisky opted to resign.
Filin, himself a former dancer, continues to battle with the consequences of his injuries, and was hospitalised for several days last month with a complication.
However he was released in time to oversee the premiere, telling journalists he was "very happy with the new and original work made for and by the Bolshoi dancers."
Maillot, too, said he hoped this might be the start of a new era for the world-famous Bolshoi.
"There is a wonderful spirit in this company, despite what we have heard," he said.
After the troupe finishes its programme in New York and takes a summer break, "Shrew" will resume in October for several performances.