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Positive Feedback ISSUE 32
july/august 2007


A Ballet Feast
by Karl Lozier


Swan Lake (Various Artists) Region 2 DVD

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker. Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, The Bolshoi Ballet. The Bolshoi Theater Orchestra, Conductors: Aleksandr Kopilov and Algis Zhuraitis Arthaus Musik Special 4-DVD Set; 100 713, 101 113, 101 119 & 100 711 (separately)

These four ballets are usually mentioned in either or both of the group listings of the ten best ballets or the ten most popular ballets. In any event, the music for every one of them is melodically beautiful, usually almost universally appealing and stands the test of time. The ballet companies that produce performances are pretty much in competition with each other desiring to be thought of as the world's best. To be thought of as the best means having a fine orchestra/conductor combination to soothe the ears' desire for appealing sound. The choreographer plus the producer's efforts are also critical and to many people, so are the costumes. As the list lengthens we certainly cannot forget about the dancers and the necessary appropriate lighting for them and the scenery. A great many things have to come together at the same time to create an outstanding ballet performance. Reputations and nationalism can be a significant part of the mix. All of the above means that anyone's evaluation of a ballet performance is ultimately a very personal things and dependent on so many variables each of which may be of differing importance to different people. 

Here I can pretty much think about and evaluate three of these discs as if they were essentially equals. They even share the same composer, Tchaikovsky. The fourth recording with composer Prokofiev obviously has "different" music. It can be considered a bit more modern or almost contemporary. The main dancers in the Prokofiev are only partially shared in the Tchaikosky ballets. Due to the many infamous attempts by the Russian government to control "the arts" and artistic and individual thinking, Prokefiev's composition after innumerable political roadblocks was completed in 1935. As late as 1938 only a short version of Romeo and Juliet based on two suites had been performed in Russia, Prokofiev's homeland. Even then the Bolshoi Theater, perhaps under the same sort of pressures claimed "there was not enough music in the ballet and that the dancers could not dance to some of the irregular rhythms." Finally, after more than thirty years, this version appeared in 1989 and this recording was done that year. 

As expected there is a great deal shared by all four ballets. Except for the slightly shorter Nutcracker, the others are closer to two hours long. The conducting plus orchestral playing combination is outstanding as it should be for a dedicated ballet orchestra. The costumes are as beautiful as could ever be hoped for with a corps de ballet. A possible exception to that costuming comment would be the sometimes outrageously extravagant and unusual costumes seen at holiday season for Nutcracker performances. Here I am simply thinking about the toys and objects that "come to life". Sets were fine and appropriate lighting was very good and not overly bright with distracting highlighting. A caveat for the lighting for Romeo and Juliet. The backdrop there was pretty much nonexistent and the lighting was often subdued perhaps to not let the backdrop or lack thereof to be apparent. 

Picture format here is 4:3, region coding is O (worldwide) and three of the recordings are PCM stereo. The Nutcracker, evidently has other or added producing efforts as evidenced by also listing Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 in addition to PCM Stereo. I am not alone in having a bit of trouble paying exacting attention to the audio qualities while being very interested in what the video is showing me. While not the equal of the finest recent audio efforts, I describe the sound as being definitely good. It will be a rare person to complain about the audio quality of this nearly twenty year old recording. The inherent sound quality of the Bolshoi Orchestra is a positive factor here. Basic to ballet is dancing. My brief thoughts are that I was not aware of significant apparent performance difference by the leading dancers, female or male, compared to some of the current best from around the world including right here in some USA cities. Has performance pretty well evened out around the world in the past decade? I have asked for some help by requesting brief comments from a friend who is far more knowledgeable than I in the field of dancing. 

In addition to teaching all types of dance and doing choreography, Virginia Thomas had long owned and directed the Thomas Dance Studio, well known in South Florida. Now an honorary member of Dance Masters of America, Inc., she claims to only assisting and consulting in the world of dance. Still too busy to give truly sufficient time to in depth study of these four ballet recordings, what follows is her brief comments. Add them to mine or replace mine with hers as you choose: 

Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake: I enjoyed these DVDs very much—the videographer did a particularly good job as did the lighting technician. The scenery and costumes were beautiful. These ballets were well staged and the dancers were technically excellent. Their symphony orchestra was another big plus. "Well done to all the many people involved in these productions".

Romeo and Juliet: There was hardly any background visible and the stage was too dark. One of the soloists was all in black against the black drop on the dark stage—that did not help his performance. The photographer seemed to keep showing different parts of the stage and I felt it was disjointed. The dancers were good and the costumes nice. I especially liked the pas de deux, however I did not enjoy all of the production. As with the other three DVDs, the orchestra was excellent. 

The Nutcracker: I have seen this full length so very many times; it is one of my favorites. Here the stage setting was well done, as was the lighting. The costumes were all right although I think they should have been a bit more elegant. Instead of the adult appearing performers in the children's parts, I definitely prefer children. I also like to see "snow falling" at appropriate times and it was missed during this performance. The Bolshoi Orchestra was excellent as usual. The dancers were very well trained. A fine performance—visually and technically. Thanks "Gin" (Virginia Thomas) for your insight and comments.