Thursday 21 September 2017

'Spellbinding' Russian ballet serves up a feast for the eyes

Classical

Signature sight: Bolshoi theatre
Signature sight: Bolshoi theatre

George Hamilton

One of the great delights of my sporting life is the opportunity it offers to get an inside track in areas beyond the obvious. Listening to some of the sweetest of ballet music the other day, I was brought back to the night I spent at the Bolshoi.

It was the summer of 1980, and I was covering my first Olympic Games. The small RTÉ crew was determined to make the most of Moscow. Among us, a gentleman by the name of Brendan Hehir - more culturally aware than the rest - decided that it would be remiss of us not to visit one of the planet's signature sights.

By dint of his diligence, we got ourselves a box at the Bolshoi, and the experience of a lifetime. We didn't actually need tickets for this arrangement. It was enough that we show our Olympic accreditation.

A generous goodwill gesture towards visitors from the West had unexpected consequences, for the notion of a night out at an iconic venue instantly appealed and virtually the whole crew of two dozen or so decided to go.

Now the word "bolshoi" in Russian may mean "big", but a box at the ballet isn't built for such a crowd, so we had to take it in turns to experience the magnificence on stage.

The famous old theatre offered a trip into another culture. This was the Olympics the Americans boycotted. The Cold War was at its height. Moscow was another world, dimly lit, short on basics. But behind the yellow, neoclassical façade, and beyond the queues for the most basic of refreshments, the spectacular stage was the centre of that evening's universe.

There was the visual spectacle of Romeo and Juliet. The original love story, danced to Sergei Prokofiev's dramatic and evocative score, is right up there with the great theatrical experiences.

The music is spellbinding. From the high drama of the emotionally charged Dance of the Knights - set against the background of the feud between the lovers' families - to the discreet charm of the Aubade, the dance for the morning of Juliet's wedding, Prokofiev hits the right note. But then, that's what the best of ballet tends to do - offer a feast for your eyes with the most beautiful soundtrack.

There's a whole catalogue of irresistible, sweeping melodies that stand alone as tunes which began life in the orchestra pit as the dancers took centre stage. Take Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, that Christmas special that sounds great all year through. It's a veritable repository of fabulous music, from the glamorous overture you'll hear as the sponsors get their acknowledgement when football's Champions League takes to the air, through the Waltz of the Flowers, to the Sugar Plum Fairy's pas de deux.

Another popular piece of ballet music is the adagio that's remembered as the theme to The Onedin Line, even though it was last a regular on TV when I was at the Bolshoi. It comes from Spartacus by Khachaturian.

As other examples, there are creations by Chopin (Les Sylphides), Delibes (Coppélia), and Offenbach (Gaîté Parisienne) that are musical proof the Russians didn't get all the best tunes.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ Lyric FM from 10am every Saturday morning.

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