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Sixty years of the Bolshoi

Posted on July 19, 2016

Jonathan Gray looks back to the Bolshoi Ballet’s first visit to London in 1956

This summer, the Bolshoi Ballet returns to London to dance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for a three-week season opening on July 25. Recently, visits by the company to the UK have become so regular they almost seem commonplace, its dancers and repertoire as familiar to audiences here as those of The Royal Ballet or English National Ballet. However, when the Bolshoi made its first appearance in London in 1956, it was an event of international importance, and not just for dedicated balletomanes.

This was the period of the Cold War, when political tensions between the west and the Soviet Union were strained, and when even a trivial incident could spark a major diplomatic row. In addition, although earlier in the century the west had enjoyed performances by companies headed by Serge Diaghilev or Anna Pavlova, there had never been a visit to London on such a scale by a Russian company.

Excitement about the Bolshoi’s visit was immense, with a huge amount of coverage in the British press. Dancing Times published a Bolshoi supplement in October 1956 that informed readers about “some outstanding characteristics of the company”, whilst adding, “but naturally everyone will react to the performances in a different way.” This last statement proved wide of the mark, as nearly everyone – press, audience, and dance professionals – were as one: total admiration. In fact, the opening night of the season – Leonid Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, with Galina Ulanova as Juliet and Yuri Zhdanov as Romeo – would go down in history, with dance critic Clement Crisp believing it to be “one of only two great first nights in the history of 20th century ballet. The first Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris on May 18, 1909; the second the Bolshoi Ballet in London on October 3, 1956.”

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In the summer of 1956, the Royal Opera House announced it would be presenting a month-long season that autumn by the Bolshoi Ballet that would include Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai and Giselle; tickets were to go on sale on August 27. The news of the visit caused a stir, and queues for tickets formed three days before they even went on sale. “It was a bit like Christmas,” recalls audience member Alex Bisset. “You knew it was coming, and then when it did it was full of goodies. I queued up for tickets in the Gallery. Hordes of people were there, and it was a fantastic atmosphere; everyone was excited and talked to everyone else because we were all there for the same reason.”

The queue was organised by the person at the front, who, “had a list of names so they could keep an eye on anyone trying to push in. It was possible to take short breaks to eat a meal or go to the loo, just as long as you didn’t disappear for too long. Of course, in those days the flower market was still there, so it was very busy in Covent Garden at night and sleep wasn’t easy. I was about a hundred from the front, so I knew I would get tickets, but when I finally held them in my hand I was thrilled and excited.” Such was the demand that people were limited to how many tickets they could purchase. “They were like gold dust.”

“There was huge expectation,” Bisset continues, but that first Bolshoi season was very nearly cancelled. Shortly before the company was due to arrive in London, Nina Ponomareva, a Russian athlete, was arrested for shoplifting in Oxford Street. Clement Crisp points out, “The Russians were upset and threatened to cancel the season. The sets had already arrived and were in the London docks waiting to be unloaded, so David Webster [the then general administrator of the Royal Opera House] had to go to Russia with Ninette de Valois to sort the situation out. It was only three days before the season opened that we knew it was going to happen.” “It was all will they, won’t they, and that it possibly might not happen, ” adds Bisset, “so there was a lot of tension on opening night as to whether the ballet was really going to take place.”

Reporting in Dancing Times about the media coverage for the first night, Arthur Franks wrote, “The national daily press treated the opening of the Bolshoi Ballet at Covent Garden as the greatest event in the history of ballet. Every paper except the Financial Times and the Morning Advertiser featured the story in their news pages, quite aside from the more obscure and in most cases smaller space devoted to criticism. Boldest of all perhaps was the coverage of the Daily Express. Although this Beaverbrook organ carried no front page story, it exhorted everyone to turn to pages 4 and 5, where there was a double page spread.”

The level of excitement was also felt in the theatre on opening night. As Crisp recalls, there was, “an electricity in the house that night,” generated by the expectations of the audience. Also in Dancing Times, The Sitter Out (probably Philip Richardson) observed, “I have never seen quite such a galaxy of dancers ‘in front’ as I saw at Covent Garden on the first night of the Bolshoi Ballet. In the centre of the front row of the Grand Tier was Dame Margot Fonteyn and… Dame Adeline Genée. Among others I noticed from Sadler’s Wells were, Dame Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton, Michael Somes, Pamela May, Beryl Grey, Svetlana Beriosova, Nadia Nerina, Elaine Fifield, Harold Turner, choreographers [Alfred] Rodrigues, [John] Cranko and [Kenneth] MacMillan, ballet master John Hart, musical director Robert Irving and even, for the last act, Rowena Jackson who had been dancing Coppélia at Croydon but managed to get back in time to see the end of the Bolshoi performance.”

The lights dimmed; the conductor Yuri Faier took his place on the podium; and Romeo and Juliet commenced. “I was standing at the back of Gallery,” remembers Bisset, “and the first thing you saw when the curtain went up was Galina Ulanova as Juliet standing behind a gauze, along with Romeo and Friar Laurence. I thought to myself, ‘well, if I leave now, I know I can say I saw Ulanova on stage.’” Crisp recalls, “The theatre was spellbound, but the dancers thought they had failed during the first act because nobody made a sound – the audience was so absorbed. At the end there was 40 minutes of applause.” “Although you had huge expectations, you just didn’t know how it was going to be,” continues Bisset. The ballet was gigantic in scale and completely new to London, with fast-paced crowd scenes that included sword fights and contrasting, intimate pas de deux that contained spectacular, dramatic lifts.

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The performance was a particular triumph – both dramatically and technically – for Galina Ulanova, then a mature ballerina of 46 years of age. “Romeo was something we had never seen before – huge crowds on stage doing something positive, where everyone had a role,” says Bisset. Above all, thinks Crisp, “It had an urgency. We loved them, and they were here!”

The audience was enthralled, but what impression did the Bolshoi make on the British dancers watching? Dame Beryl Grey, who was in the audience that night, says emphatically, “We were stunned by it all, but the one to make the biggest impact was Ulanova, who was such a great artist. She had a quality we had never seen before: she was absolutely convincing in her performance, the beauty of her movement, the way she ran, her musicality and sense of acting. She was just perfection.

“We were also knocked for six by the fantastic lifts the men could do, and the standard of dancing was far superior to ours. We were just swept off our feet. To see these tremendous dancers with such stage experience and quality; it brought the house down. It was a most marvellous inspiration.”

Sir Peter Wright, who saw the Bolshoi dance many times that season, agrees. “We hadn’t seen dancers like them before. Their lifts, their technique, it was very different from what we were doing. I discovered that partnering was much more scientifically taught at the Bolshoi – in fact, we didn’t have any proper training for it at all. We loved the way they jumped so high, and the way they used their backs. It was just fantastic. I was less keen on Swan Lake, but Romeo was wonderful and I adored The Fountain of Bakhchisarai.”

Anya Linden also has strong memories of the Bolshoi’s first visit. “It was the nearest thing to a ‘revelation’ that I’ve ever experienced. We had never seen a company where every person on the stage was so completely engaged, body and soul, in every role they danced. As our company [The Royal Ballet] watched the dress rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet from the auditorium, we were transfixed by every aspect of the production, its wonderful sets, the glorious music and, above all, the ecstatic dancing of Galina Ulanova herself. How could someone run across the stage and convey so much urgency and love as she did when she ran to Friar Laurence’s cell to marry Romeo? You could feel her heart beating, and it took our breath away.”

“I’ve so far only mentioned Romeo and Juliet, and Ulanova, when of course, there was Swan Lake, Giselle, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai and Walpurgis Nacht with the marvellous Raissa Struchkova, Yuri Zhdanov, Serge Koren, Marina Kondratieva, Nina Timofeyeva and so many more. And again, there was Ulanova’s wonderful Giselle, of which the naughty Robert Helpmann said, “She won by a short neck!”.

That sense of discovery and excitement was highlighted by Mary Clarke in her review in Dancing Times. “What a lot we have to learn!,” she exclaimed. “Each night I went to the Bolshoi Ballet I felt more ignorant and more lacking in theatre experience. I had been so complacent in advance, thinking that because I had seen some concert performances, some films and another Soviet company in Paris I knew precisely what the Bolshoi had to offer. The first night of Romeo and Juliet proved me wrong, and each succeeding production drove the lesson home.”

Another Bolshoi production to make an impact was Giselle. It was a work that was very familiar in London, but the dramatic way the Bolshoi danced it would change the way the ballet was viewed for years to come. Peter Wright, who has staged numerous productions of the ballet himself since the 1960s, was particularly impressed by what he saw. “I was knocked sideways by Giselle for various reasons, but mainly because of Ulanova. The first time I saw her was in a rehearsal of Act II. I was sitting near the front and thought the dancers appeared exhausted. In the middle was a woman who looked like the cleaning lady. Yuri Faier tapped his baton on the podium to start the rehearsal with the orchestra and suddenly the stage was transformed when this woman suddenly became Giselle. I couldn’t believe it because her whole body and posture changed. I was so amazed I started to cry. Then, when I saw the actual performance, in Act I Ulanova was a peasant girl, but she also had humour. She danced superbly, and if ever a dancer became the character she was playing, it was her. In the mad scene, Ulanova didn’t let hair down or go over the top. She was in shock rather than being mad. As far as I’m concerned, Ulanova is the greatest Giselle ever.”

This was a view shared by Mary Clarke, who concluded her Dancing Times review by writing: “Irradiating the whole production was Ulanova’s Giselle, a living, breathing character so totally and absolutely realised that one forgot completely that one was watching the greatest dancer of our time. When Struchkova danced, it was still a better Giselle than we had ever seen before but there was no longer stardust in our eyes. Because of Ulanova I can now believe in Nijinsky and Pavlova, whom I never saw. It isn’t what she does on stage, although everything she does has beauty; it is simply what she is.”

Not only was it possible to admire the Bolshoi dancers on stage in London in 1956, some even found they could make friends with them. “It was hard to talk to the dancers because they were kept heavily guarded,” says Peter Wright, “but there was great rapport between Margot and Ulanova.” Beryl Grey remembers, “They were lovely people to meet, but of course at that time there were all these KGB men keeping an eye on them.” Alex Bisset was bolder. “I made friends with some of the company’s dancers. You met them at the stage door after the performance and you could walk along with them back to the their hotel in Seven Dials. That season absolutely inflamed my passion for Russian ballet and inspired me to learn to speak Russian in the late 1950s, and then travel to Russia in 1962 – you had to go by boat in those days.”

Bisset has visited Russia many times since, where he has kept in contact with his friends from the ballet. That first Bolshoi season would also have consequences for both Beryl Grey and Peter Wright, and also for British ballet. “One of the effects the Bolshoi’s visit had was very evident on the men in our company,” says Anya Linden. “They were amazed by the prodigious strength of the Soviet men, particularly in pas de deux work and the fantastic array of lifts, many of which we had never seen. As a consequence, our men, particularly the younger ones, started practising more and more daring lifts, gaining strength, which in turn encouraged our choreographers, like Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, to later incorporate some of them into their own works… Colas’ one-arm lift in La Fille mal gardée, for one! I think one of the effects it had on us women was trying to emulate their expressive use of arms and body, and learning to be more fearless, as we were the ones the men were lifting!”

“I got to work with Nicolai Fadeyechev at the BBC when Margaret Dale managed to get him to appear in the TV production of Giselle with Nadia Nerina,” says Sir Peter. “I was appearing as Wilfred, and Fadeyechev taught me a lot about the timing and the weight behind the movements in the mime scenes.” It was an experience he would later use in his own stagings of the classics.

In 1957, Dame Beryl became the first British ballerina to be invited to perform at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. “I was surprised and thrilled,” she says now. “President Khruschev had seen me in The Lady and the Fool at Covent Garden, and I think it was through him I was invited to dance Swan Lake. Maya Plisetskaya [who had not been allowed to come to London in 1956 by the Soviet authorities] watched my performance from the wings, and she encouraged me all the time, as the theatre was so huge. I felt I was being lifted up by the orchestra, and the corps de ballet; they lived the ballet so completely. The Bolshoi search for perfection, and on that night I felt I was in tune with everyone and everything on stage.”

 

The Bolshoi Ballet’s 2016 season at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, opens on July 25. Visit roh.org.uk/about/Bolshoi for further information and ticket prices.

Jonathan Gray is editor of Dancing Times. He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. For 16 years he was a member of the curatorial department of the Theatre Museum, London, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet’s productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.

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