The Bolshoi Ballet’s production of The Lady of the Camellias was transmitted live on Sunday 7th December at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford. At nearly three hours in length the ballet recounts Alexandre Dumas’ well known tale which forms the basis as well for Verdi’s La Traviata and Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand. The latter short ballet was created especially for Fonteyn and Nureyev and – when they performed it – gently reflected that late blooming relationship between the newly arrived Russian dancer and the more mature woman nearing the end of her sophisticated career. Sunday’s transmission of John Neumeier’s The Lady of the Camellias was startling in the scope of its dramatic enterprise. This was neither short, nor gentle, nor a mere showcase for two star dancers. It was a full-length novelistic narrative.

Beside the two principals, Marguerite Gauthier, danced by Svetlana Zakharova, and Armand Duval, danced by Edvin Revazov, there were at least six further principals and a full corps de ballet. The core of the dramatic action is framed by a prologue set after the death of Marguerite and punctuating the flow of narrative throughout. In this setting the furnishings in Marguerite’s apartment are carried off for auction as various characters – from Marguerite’s maid, to a variety of suitors, younger courtesans, Armand and his father – appear recalling their memories and interactions with the famous Parisian courtesan.

The Ukrainian born Edvin Revazov provided a dramatically riveting performance fully realized in his dancing, his facial expressions and nuanced body language. The sheer strength required by Neumeier’s intricate choreography seemed no effort at all despite the hugely demanding lifts, the pace of the pas de deux sequences and the uniquely choreographed pirouettes. In navigating his way through many of the modern expressions of classical forms, Revazov used his height, his long legs and his black against white attire to execute angular extensions, followed by rapid bodily collapses in his arabesques, his jetés and his floor work.   Through a kind of absolutism in his movement, he perfectly conveyed an evolving emotional intensity from winning and boyish naiveté, to strongly rooted mature passion, to heartbreak, desperate revenge and finally mature understanding. For me this was a definitive performance.

Zakharova’s character and its dramatic situation set the tone of the ballet. The choreography moves with her moods: we meet her as an assured ebullient hostess surrounded by the bon vivants of Paris. In her salon black suited men and vivacious friends to Marguerite fill the stage, then move to one side as they are seated and view a performance of Manon Lescaut. The figure of Manon is a constant shadow reminding Marguerite of who she is and how that can affect any man who falls in love with her. The device of the parallel Manon figure is wonderfully woven in and out of the ballet and Zakharova’s awareness of her is well portrayed. Hers are subtle, gliding movements: wonderful pas de basques beginning close to the ground, almost identifying with the lower element, then lifting in the exaltation of an unfurling développé, high arabesque or chaînés turns as she turns towards Armand.

The complex, unimaginable lifts of the pas de deux throughout are unmatched by anything I had ever seen on the ballet stage. Cranko’s influence could be seen in their often angular forms and sustained length, their twists, turns, landings and immediate re-configurings. flying in an upper element, then crashing, reaching heights again and falling before being caught up half way down – these emotional juggernauts are spelled out primarily through superhuman lifts and falls in the lovers’ entanglements.

Marguerite’s stripped diminishment becomes a raggedy doll in its loose surrender to death and the dragging effort to stop coughing so as to write her farewell to Armand. If there was any flaw in the choreography, I think it was that her movement towards death might have been briefer.

Earlier in Neumeier’s production there is a liltingly contrasting scene to the Parisian salon and Marguerite’s apartment. It is set in the countryside where Armand has followed Marguerite and her entourage. I thought this a totally enchanting episode: full of the fun of summer sunlight with the corps de ballet in pastel organza and Marguerite’s straw hat giving her features a lightness caught also by the Chopin waltzes used for most of the scene and then the soft largo from Chopin’s Sonata in B minor used for the pas de deux following Marguerite’s public choice of Armand over her former lover.

The figure of Armand’s father is danced by Andrei Merkuriev. Most of his choreography is like adamantine stone: upright, still, anchored, unbending angular movements. Dressed in black tails, and top hat, he wields his cane as a measure of his insistence that Marguerite leave his son alone.

Neumeier’s concept and choreography give full weight to the intensity of the dramatic narrative. The colour and zeal of passionate desire, its kaleidoscopic moods, its heart-breaking ending are expressed through dizzying relevés, jetés, pirouettes, lifts and tombés. In and out of the private pas de deux, the principals and the corps de ballet bring contrast and a reminder of context, of the world outside the closed swirl of the lovers. The ensemble dances, including one at a grand ball, are set to the livelier of Chopin’s piano music such as his polonaises.

The music requires comment. While the full orchestra plays the Chopin music during the first part of the ballet; a single pianist set on stage plays the music for most of the last half.

I found little to blame in this production of The Lady of the Camellias. Even the three hours seemed not too long, and I did not want it to end. I do not know if I would have felt the same way if another company or other dancers had performed it. I think the Ukrainian Revazov was perfection in the role of Armand and in partnership with Zakharova. They were totally wedded to the Neumeier choreography and Chopin’s music. I enjoyed the dancing of the Bolshoi corps de ballet and principals, especially the bright-as-a-button flirt and younger courtesan danced by Kristina Kretova and Manon danced by Anna Tikhomirova. Perhaps cutting the frame of the auctioned apartment might be possible if a shorter version were required, but I would be sad if that were necessary.

Please note: if you happen to watch a scene of this ballet on YouTube, the Bolshoi version shows Revazov with floppy hair obscuring his face and a less than satisfying performance; therefore, that cannot be considered an equivalent of what was transmitted this past week! The scene itself, near the beginning of the ballet, is ill chosen as representative of the ballet.

Susannah Harris-Wilson

9th December 2015