Recently, I participated in a very animated discussion with two close friends about buying cereal. Our deeply intellectual debate pitted name brand against the generic with the former emerging victorious, 2:1. I voted with the winning group because most of the time, I am partial to name brand products. Like many, I believe that the name brand is better. It is safe; it provides what consumers expect; little risk and few surprises. However, last week, I began to question my loyalty to name brands while watching the Bolshoi Ballet’s La Bayadère at Zellerbach Hall. Early on in the performance, I realized two things. First, brand names may appear to be superior, but at the same time, their perfection can be disappointing. Second, the culture surrounding this particular performance was not the culture of art or even the culture of ballet, it was the culture of branding.
The artists of the Bolshoi Ballet are phenomenal dancers, plain and simple. But, the regimented perfection of the company is problematic and frankly, boring. From the beginning of the ballet, the corps looked sanitized, far from the colorful and vivacious characters from La Bayadère. This was most apparent in the core or torso because their upper bodies were deathly silent and still. Arms are connected in the back; therefore, when arms move, the back and torso must respond in kind. Limbs are not just attached appendages; they reflect the amazing construction of the human body. That is one of the most exciting things about dance, seeing the connection between the hips/legs, and arms/back. If there isn’t a commitment to whole body movement, the dancers look like marionettes. It makes me incredibly sad to see dancers of such high technical quality so restrained in their movement. And the artistic staff does not realize that by creating a strict regiment of dancers, mistakes in rhythm or choreography actually stand out more. The eye is immediately drawn to any movement that looks even slightly out of place. If there was more individuality in the corps de ballet, no one would even notice these very minor differences.
To be fair, San Francisco audiences are a unique bunch. My experience is that they are somewhat cynical and not easily impressed. There has to be a whole lot more than 32 consecutive fouettés to garner excited applause from them. And, as a typical San Francisco audience member, I was shocked by my fellow patrons during the Bolshoi’s performance. The theater hall immediately exploded in cheers when the two main characters stepped onstage. They had yet to do anything, but were met with thunderous applause simply for showing up. This greeting was nothing more than the expectation of their brand name, the Bolshoi Ballet. What was discovered in the three hours that followed was that the ‘brand’ only partly lived to its reputation. As the two principal dancers did begin dancing, it was obvious that Svetlana Zakharova as Nikiya deserved all of the audience’s early acclaim. She delved into her character, took physical and emotional risks, resulting in a performance steeped with abandon. Her first variation was full of sinuous upper torso movement and I was absolutely mesmerized by the incredible arch of her feet. Unfortunately, Nikolay Tsiskaridze’s Solor did not meet the expectation of the Bolshoi name. His opening diagonal jétès were technically beautiful, but he was not commanding at all in his role. He displayed absolutely no authority. His turning variation in Act II was again technically brilliant, but had no character depth. And, it did not help that the costumer decided to dress him in a ridiculous puffy-sleeved lavender outfit. This strange choice did not assist the audience in seeing a strong, masculine persona. The primary male role in a narrative ballet like La Bayadère is driven by character, not technique. I would have much rather seen a dancer who provided insight into Solor’s soul, instead of one who the directors think is the best turner and jumper. The audience was so intoxicated and captivated with the Bolshoi as an entity, but as the ballet came to a close, it was clear that the brand name was not everything I expected it to be.
During the original cereal debate, I should have remembered that the wisest of the three participants was the one who extolled the virtues of the no-name brand. She believed that it was just as good if not better than its fancy competitor. I think when it comes to ballet, the same is true.