Carolina Performing Arts has achieved a dream so far beyond ordinary imagining that, even having experienced the reality, one can hardly believe it. The Bolshoi Ballet is performing in Memorial Hall! The fabled Russian company, source and defender of so much in classical ballet, launched its four-performance run with its revised version of Marius Petipa’s Don Quixote, the original of which it premiered in Moscow in 1869. The evening-long, three-act ballet is set to a beautiful score composed for the dance by Ludwig Minkus. Conducted by Pavel Sorokin from the Bolshoi, 60 members of the North Carolina Symphony filled the hall with the delightful music while, above them, on the stage, the dozens of dancers exhibited the grand and gorgeous dancing that has made the company’s name, which means “big” or “grand,” synonymous with greatness in this greatest of performing arts.

Although the company received mixed reviews from the first stop on its current three-city US tour, everything about this production is marvelous. If it were danced on a bare stage in workout clothes, even by lesser dancers, it would be thrilling in its mix of bold charging action and rich detailed steps that are like embroidery over embroidery. But the dancers are some of the best on this planet, and it is not performed on a bare stage but in a fantastically realized world behind the proscenium arch. None of that stuff about breaking the fourth wall here: we have the exquisite pleasure of looking through to a parallel world which we cannot touch, only devour with our eyes. The elaborate sets, the richly-colored costuming, the excellent lighting, and the full, smooth music all combine with the kinetic sculpturing of the dancers for a sublimely aesthetic experience.

Principal dancer Maria Alexandrova as Kitri intoxicated the audience with the beauty of her lines, her adroit precision, her lovely jumps, and the joyous sass of her characterization. She has you captivated from her entrance, but once you’ve seen her whip along a sharp diagonal in a long series of travelling fouettés, or bourée backwards in and out of a slalom course of knives upright on the stage, or launch herself through the air, flying into the arms of Basilio, you’d do anything to see more. (The highest priced tickets for this performance ran $160, and after two minutes of this dancing, that seemed like the bargain of the century.) Her Basilio on Thursday was danced by the “young firebrand” Ivan Vasilev, who did things I had never seen and wouldn’t have thought physically possible. He is like a spectacular swallow, scissoring his legs through the long beats while he holds himself aloft before homing in on the precise spot to land on one knee before Kitri and then rise like a geyser and lift her overhead — with one hand. What makes ballet so wonderful is its ability to express psychological truth physically, undeterred by the ambiguity of words. Here was the truth of a young man in love, its incandescent beauty explanation enough for why humans ceaselessly repeat our search for its real-life manifestation.

Also particularly notable were the weightless Chinara Alizade, who danced one of Kitri’s friends, and in the second variation of the grand final dance; Anna Antropova as the preternaturally flexible gypsy dancer; and Ekaterina Shipulina, dancing the Queen of the Dryads who appear in Don Quixote’s second-act dream. Shipulina is extremely elegant, and it was immensely satisfying to see her (and two dozen others) in classical tights and tutus after the previous scene danced in long skirts. Shipulina will perform as Kitri on the 11th, and as Odette-Odile in Swan Lake on the 13th.

Bolshoi Ballet performances continue through Sunday, June 14. See our calendar for details. At the time of this posting, there were a few seats left for some performances. Memorial Hall Box Office: 919/843-3333.

But what do these old 19th century ballets have to do with anything in the 21st century, you may ask? Where is the art of our time? You may as well ask why we read history, or literature, or listen to music made before yesterday. Every art flows out of the art that came before, and we cannot understand the new without knowing the old. Just as every portrait painted in America subsequently shows the influence of those made by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) in the 19th century, so contemporary ballet, no matter how punk, shows traces of the masters like Petipa.

“At the present time we possess enormous choreographic capital, inherited by us from ballet masters of old. This capital forms the historical fund of balletic art…, so it is natural that the task of the ballet master should break down into two parts: he must preserve and cultivate the old ballets, and he must be the initiator and continuer of new creations in this area.”* The prolific Russian critic Akim Volynsky wrote this in 1925, but Bolshoi artistic director Yuri Burlaka made an almost identical statement this week in an interview. Speaking through an interpreter, he said that the major ballets of the 19th century are “the basis that allowed dance to develop into the future, and that allows in the 21st century so many styles and movements.” There was some trepidation on the part of international ballet-watchers when Burlaka, who is a specialist in 19th century works, was named last year to replace the more modern Alexei Ratmansky, who many believed had revived the post-Soviet Bolshoi during his tenure as artistic director. In regard to balancing the old and new in the company, Burlaka says, “I think this is the most difficult question for any artistic director of a major theater. This was always a theater that showed big productions…; it is a large part of what we do. But this doesn’t mean we only have three-act ballets — we also have new work.”

When asked what significant new choreographers he works with, Burlaka drew himself up like the Russian dancer he is, flaring his chest and unsheathing the steel spine. “We are the Bolshoi,” he said. “We don’t work with any insignificant choreographers.” And so greatness continues to exalt itself, and us.

*Akim Volynsky: Ballet’s Magic Kingdom, Selected Writings on Dance in Russia, 1911-1925, p. 232. Translated, edited and with an introduction and notes by Stanley J. Rabinowitz. New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2008. The quote is from “The Ballet Master” chapter of Volynsky’s 1925 The Book of Exaltations: The ABCs of Classical Dance.

*First published by CVNC on June 11, 2009.

The Bolshoi Ballet presented its version of the world’s most famous ballet, Swan Lake, to a packed house in UNC’s Memorial Hall on June 13, the first of two performances crowning Carolina Performing Arts’ achievement in luring the grand Russian company to Chapel Hill. The Bolshoi was accompanied by the North Carolina Symphony under the baton of Bolshoi conductor Pavel Sorokin, and the orchestra performed the lush music with verve. It was an unforgettable evening, but not exactly in the way I had thought it would be.

Maybe I brought too many expectations with me. I fell in love with ballet as a 5-year-old in northwest Arkansas when I saw a local recital and promptly began plaguing my parents for all things ballet. As it happened, my new obsession coincided with the Bolshoi’s first U.S. tour in 1959, and although the company came from Communist Russia, “behind the iron curtain,” it was universally lauded as it revived the passion for Russian classical dance among American culturati. So as I danced around the living room to a scratchy LP recording of Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music, it was the Bolshoi prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya I dreamed of seeing as the White Swan/Black Swan; more recently, I had hoped to see Nina Ananiashvili perform the role. Now, 50 years later, I have finally seen the Bolshoi perform Swan Lake, and — another personal joy — in the very theater where I first heard, as a grade-schooler, a live symphony orchestra.

So it is with sadness that I must report that even so great a company as the Bolshoi can have an off night. Oh, they were beautiful, stunningly skilled; and some of the lesser dances were excellent. But the big magic didn’t quite happen the way it had from the first instant of Don Quixote three days earlier, although Denis Medvedev as the delightful Fool did his best to conjure it. He was wonderful, as was Pavel Dmitrichenko as the Evil Genius, and Anna Leonova stood out as the Spanish Bride. Much of the other dancing was a little mechanical, rote, even that of the elegant Ekaterina Shipulina as Odette/Odile, and that of Alexander Volchkov as Prince Siegfried, who just didn’t seem like someone for her to break her heart over. It is not possible that every performance of a standard like Swan Lake should be inspired, so it is fortunate that its core imagery is so lovely.

The only time you are likely to see more swans in one place in North Carolina is down at Lake Mattamuskeet in December — and they won’t be nearly so well arranged for your viewing pleasure as the 32 sleek bird-women of this dance. I was a little disappointed by the muted emotionality of this performance, but the ineffable beauty of the large ensemble swan dances will grace my heart as long as memory serves.

**©2009, originally published at, and published here by special arrangement.