A modern ballet with music by cult US rock band The White Stripes has wowed Bolshoi Theatre audiences, helping the company shake off a conservative image as it plans a return to its historic home.
"Chroma," British choreographer Wayne McGregor’s 2006 exploration of the influence of psychology on movement, is a sharp contrast to the 19th-century narrative ballets that have been the staple of the Bolshoi repertoire.
Set to a pulsating, dissonant score of orchestrations of White Stripes songs as well as original music by British composer Joby Talbot, "Chroma" demands from its 10 performers a whole new vocabulary of dance.
Legs are flung out in extensions at all angles, arms whirled through the air and dancers intertwined in intricate couplings. The set resembles a gigantic white box with an open back whose color changes throughout the show.
With no tutu or pair of tights in sight, the dancers wear thin drapes that merge with their own bodies in a world that inhabits a different universe to the ritual formality of "The Sleeping Beauty" or "Don Quixote."
But the Moscow dancers and audiences have embraced the work’s stark modernity, earning the ballet’s creative team a rousing reception at the July 21 premiere.
"For the Bolshoi Ballet, ‘Chroma’ is a breakthrough into a new era," wrote the ballet critic of the Kommersant newspaper Tatyana Kuznetsova. "The troupe has jumped into the 21st century."
McGregor, who came to Moscow to rehearse the dancers, expressed amazement at their abilities and is now set to choreograph a new version of Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring" especially for the Bolshoi in 2013.
"It’s a fantastic time for the Bolshoi to be experimenting with very modern choreography," said McGregor. "They have these incredible dancers who can really do anything, so why not explore it."
"The dancers have great proportions, amazing limbs and they can do extraordinary things with their bodies — they have a real kind of elasticity which is something that I really love."
Artem Ovcharenko, one of the soloists in Chroma, said: "You hear the first chords of that music standing in the wings. You start to burn, you want to get on stage and to dance to this."
The success of "Chroma" has come at a crucial time for the Bolshoi Company which has in recent years been accused of being held back by its own traditions and being afraid of experimentation.
It is on October 28 finally to resume performances in its historic theatre which closed in July 2005 for urgent restoration whose completion was embarrassingly put back year after year.
In the interim, the company has performed on its New Stage theatre nearby, whose smaller proportions have frustrated some of its stars.
Tradition not dead
The Bolshoi Ballet — run for three decades from its Soviet heyday until 1995 by the authoritarian Yuri Grigorovich — has endured a rocky time since the 2008 departure of modernizing director Alexei Ratmansky.
Ratmansky left allegedly because he fell out with the pro-Grigorovich old guard and the company appeared to tread water after his departure. This year a top candidate to become the new artistic director became embroiled in a dark campaign to smear him using pornographic images.
But the Bolshoi then scored a coup by appointing as ballet director ex-dancer Sergei Filin, who had turned Moscow’s Stanislavsky Musical Theatre into a rival of its more famous counterpart by promoting innovative dance.
Along with "Chroma," there is a new freshness in the repertoire of the Bolshoi, which has also taken on its first ballet by iconic US choreographer William Forsythe.
The one-act "Chroma" is coupled in a thrilling evening of dance with the 1978 "Symphony of Psalms" by Jiri Kylian, another new Bolshoi acquisition, and "Rubies" by George Balanchine, the Russian-born US dancemaker who is only now being re-discovered in his homeland after his death in 1983.
"Five years ago it was hard to imagine that the Bolshoi would ever present Forsythe, Kylian or McGregor," wrote critic Anna Galaida in the daily Vedomosti.
"Now we have had premieres by all of these stars at the Bolshoi in one season."
Meanwhile, the Bolshoi boasts possibly the most sought-after young dancers in ballet in Ivan Vasiliev and Natalya Osipova, a real-life couple who have dazzled the world with their heart-stopping jumps and dizzying spins.
Filin said the dancers had initially been nervous of the difficulties of McGregor’s choreography but said he had now given the company whole new possibilities.
"We got even more than a McGregor ballet. We got artists who are capable of working and delivering a very great result."
Traditions, however, are not entirely dead at the Bolshoi.
According to the theatre’s general director Anatoly Iksanov, the first full-length ballet to go on show at the reopened theatre is to be "The Sleeping Beauty" in an updated production of Grigorovich’s Soviet-era version.