To Lose and Find One’s Bearings


The Bolshoi Theatre continues to present one-off productions, while at the same time replenishing and lending variety to world ballet Shakespeariana. The end of the last season saw the world première of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s ballet, The Taming of the Shrew, and at the height of the present season, we have another world ballet première — Hamlet. Following hot on the heels of the famous choreographer from Monte-Carlo, comes the Radu Poklitaru-Declan Donnellan tandem: a choreographer well-known throughout virtually the whole of the former USSR and an English director with a world reputation, much respected and loved in Russia.

This union came into being back in 2003, when Poklitaru and Donnellan produced their sensational version of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet at the Bolshoi. It is not surprising that their second ballet for the Bolshoi Theatre is likewise linked to a Shakespeare subject. Donnellan has been studying and producing the Shakespeare plays all his life, and he has directed Shakespeare in Russia too. His production of Measure for Measure at the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre has been nominated in five categories for the Golden Mask (2013-2014 season), Russia’s most prestigious theatre prize.

Radu Poklitaru, Declan Donnellan.Photo by Mikhail Logvinov.
But far more surprising is the fact that, in selecting a Shakespeare play for a full-length ballet, the Frenchman Maillot and the Englishman Donnellan should both turn to the music of Shostakovich. Moreover, they were guided in their choice by approximately the same ‘motives’ or, to be more precise, each demonstrated their approach to a phenomenon which they understood in the same way. For Maillot, who produced a comedy, Shostakovich’s cinema music came as a real eye-opener in which the latter, like Katerina, the heroine of The Taming of the Shrew, “suddenly opens up and makes a powerful statement about his inner world”. Donnellan maintains that he has always felt a link between the figure of Hamlet and Shostakovich, in so far as the composer lived in an age in which the definitive factor was non-stop, colossal pressure on the human personality: “In Shostakovich’s music one always discovers some profound meaning which he could not voice publicly”. For their ballet version of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Donnellan and Poklitaru chose two symphonies — the fifth and the fifteenth (only the first movement is missing from the latter).

The composer wrote his fifth symphony soon after a ‘vilification’ campaign was launched against him in the press. The disgraced Shostakovich was urged in no uncertain terms (it was 1937) to demonstrate his ‘trustworthiness’ - overcome his horrifying ‘remoteness’ from the people and his pernicious ‘formalism’ and take on board the methods of socialist realism. Shostakovich was forced to find ways of ‘adopting a semblance of simplicity’, without compromising the gist of his philosophical outlook and his art. That there was more in this symphony than met the eye, follows from the composer’s own statements: “The theme of my symphony is the formation of the personality. It is the human being with all his trials and tribulations whom I see as being central to the concept of this work, which in terms of its mood is lyrical from start to finish. The finale of the symphony winds up the tragically tense moments of the initial movements in a joyful, optimistic vein. With us, sometimes, the validity of the very genre of tragedy in Soviet art is put in question. Having said which genuine tragedy is often confused with a sense of doom, pessimism. I believe that Soviet tragedy as a genre has every right to exist...”

The fifteenth symphony (1971) represents a summing up of the composer’s symphonic music — both because it was his last symphony and because it expressed very clearly the bedrock of his formal and philosophical quest. “...It is as profoundly penetrating, as it is elevated and perfect. Such is my view of Symphony No. 15. <...> And the conception is extraordinary: ranging all the way from mischievousness in the music, jokes — to comprehension of the most hallowed secrets of the universe. All Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich’s last compositions form a special tone, if you like, in his collected works. Added to his superb skill, extraordinary depth, perspicacity, is the attainment, I would say, of an otherworldly spirit of being.” This is how Shostakovich’s pupil, the composer Boris Tishchenko, perceived the music of this symphony.

And it ties in with the thoughts and feelings that occurred to the producers of the ballet Hamlet on reading the play. Donnellan does not intend to “interfere in the play in any way”, as he himself puts it, or update it in so far as what is going on around him, has the habit of independently percolating into his work. All the more so since the subject under discussion is Hamlet, in which so much is said about man that the play is always relevant.

But the ‘throes’ of interpretation have not been canceled. The main motif running through the ballet is the shock of loss and the experience of coming to terms with it. The starting point is as follows: bowled over by the death of his father, Hamlet loses faith in his own immortality. He understands, though he cannot accept, that he too is mortal. Next we get an ongoing chain of loss — of people, emotions, precious memories; the meaning of life, one’s points of reference, the ground under one’s feet, one’s sanity are all undermined...

Denis Savin as Hamlet. Anastasia Stashkevich as Ophelia. Photo by Elena Fetisova.
It is said that ballet people have difficulty in finding common language with directors of dramatic theatre. But — through thorns to the stars! — Donnellan’s acquaintance with Bolshoi ballet dancers in 2003 resulted in a most interesting work of which many retain the finest memories. And this is borne out by the fact that a lot of the dancers who took part in the 2003 Romeo and Juliet were eager to participate in the present production. One of the Hamlets (the first) will be Denis Savin in whom — he was only eighteen at the time — Messrs Donnellan and Poklitaru detected a marvelous — sincere and impulsive Romeo. Denis Medvedev who made a great Tybalt, will now be Yorick. The role of Mercutio in the Poklitaru-Donnellan Romeo and Juliet was one of the most outstanding achievements in the career of Yuri Klevtsov, the celebrated former Bolshoi premier, today chief ballet-master at the Chelyabinsk Theatre of Opera and Ballet. In the new production, Klevtsov returns to the Bolshoi Theatre as Claudius. (A curious fact: his first attempt at Claudius was in Alexei Fadeyechev’s ballet at the Rostov Music Theatre, but that, of course, is quite a different story). Alexander Petukhov who made successful appearances in Romeo and Juliet in two roles simultaneously (as Tybalt and Friar Lawrence) has been given the part of Polonius — just as has another Friar Lawrence — Andrei Melanyin. Viktor Barykin — formerly Capulet — will appear in the role of Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark.

Also featuring in the first night performances are Vladislav Lantratov and Artem Ovcharenko (Hamlet), Anastasia Stashkevich, Darya Khokhlova and Diana Kosyreva (Ophelia), Anna Balukova, Kristina Karaseva, Vera Borisenkova (Gertrude), Mikhail Lobukhin (Claudius), Alexei Loparevich (King of Denmark), Vyacheslav Lopatin, Georgy Gusev (Yorick), Igor Tsvirko, Dmitri Dorokhov and Alexander Smolyaninov (Laertes).

Sets and costumes are by Declan Donnellan’s permanent co-author — the theatre designer Nick Ormerod. Maestro Igor Dronov conducts.

The première series of performances will be on 11,12,13,14 (morning and evening) and 15 March.