By Norm Robins
The Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1998. Shortly thereafter in 2001, the Soviet Union was dismantled. This posed a problem for the Bolshoi Ballet. What to do with the ballet The Golden Age? Should it be dismantled along with the civil engineered wall and its political counterpart the Soviet Politburo? Not to worry. The Bolshoi figured it out. They were around before the battleship Aurora sailed up to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in 1917 and told everyone, Tsar and all, to get out or get blown up. As a matter of fact, they have been around since 1768 when the Empress Catherine the Great established the Bolshoi Academy as a school for talented orphans. They are still around after the Bolsheviks have packed up and gone. The Russian people consider the Bolshoi to be a national treasure. Not so the Bolshevik Revolution. The Bolsheviks could just walk away. The Bolshoi was meant to last forever.
The perplexing problem with this Ballet was the Ballet’s composer Dimitri Shostakovich. He was always trying to please the dictator, Josef Stalin, always trying to ingratiate himself. On the rare occasion he did, but generally, he did not. His music was too Western, too bourgeois. Even worse, in this Ballet, he incorporated jazz and ragtime themes. How at odds with Marxism/Leninism could this retrograde Shostakovich get? Shostakovich had to be humiliated and punished, and he was.
But Shostakovich still tried mightily to please. Composed in 1923, this Ballet is about a Soviet soccer team in the 1920s that goes into a western city and encounters a lot of bad actors. These include an agent provocateur, a diva, and a Fascist among others. The team suffers all sorts of horrors rife in the capitalist world outside the Soviet Union including police brutality and unjust imprisonment. But the team is freed from prison when the workers overthrow their capitalist masters and break the team out of jail. The ballet ends with the team and the workers, now comrades, dancing together in solidarity.
In 2001 the plot went into the dustbin along with the Politburo. But what to do with the music? The music was brilliant. The music stood on its own. It didn’t need to be the handmaid of ideology. Shostakovich was a treasure of Western music. He will be for a long time to come. The Bolshoi solved this problem by rewriting the plot. They turned it into a spoof of the original. Out went the overseas tour of the soccer team. The venue changed to a seaside town in the south of Russia. Out went the soccer team. They replaced it with Boris, a local fisherman, and his young fishermen friends. Out went the capitalists and their fellow travelers. The new antagonists were NEPmen, people who were profiting from the New Economic Policy (NEP) that was ushered in when communism was shown the door. These were shady characters and petty criminals.
Now the plot has Boris, the local fisherman, falling in love with Rita, a dancer at a local cabaret named The Golden Age. But Rita’s partner is Jacques who is, in fact, Yashka, the leader of a local gang of thugs and ne’er-do-wells, NEPmen one and all. Boris’s fishermen friends start a brawl with the NEPmen over Rita’s affections. Yashka tries to make a run for it but is caught. This frees Rita to go off with Boris and start a new life.
Think of this as a cross between West Side Story and Cabaret. The fight between the fishermen and the NEPmen is the same as the fight between the Anglos and the Puerto Ricans over the affections of Maria in West Side Story. It’s Cabaret in that it takes place in a supper club with lots of music and dancing. And what magnificent music and dancing they are!
It is obviously impossible to critique a ballet that has not yet been performed. But the Bolshoi did perform it in 2007, and that performance is available on YouTube now. This critique is drawn from that performance in the hope that the upcoming one will be similar.
They incorporated more music into the modern version than in 1923 both from Shostakovich and others. One highly entertaining scene is a slow waltz to the music of “Tea for Two”. It is reminiscent of the “running of the Ascot” scene in My Fair Lady.Shostakovich’s music can be dissonant and atonal where the script calls for it and sublimely melodic, even rhapsodic, in intimate scenes. Script and music match–always.
The Ballet is a joyful romp. The scenery is straight out of the cubism tradition. It has a few circles here and there, but mostly it is all straight lines and sharp angles. The costumes are lots of fun, black alongside white in surreal patterns. And the dancing has in it incredible beauty and astonishing athleticism all rolled into one.
Will the new performance of The Golden Age be like the 2007 performance? Will it be up to that standard? It’s too soon to tell. But one thing is for certain. The Bolshoi never disappoints. Never.
The Bolshoi performance will be telecast live from Moscow on Sunday, April 7, 2019. It will be shown at the Century Riverside 12, 11 N. Sierra St., Reno and the Summit Sierra, 13965 S. Virginia, Reno. The curtain is at 12:55 PM. The run time is 2 hours 20 minutes.