Ballets do not give Quasimodo a starring role. He may be the center of the action in Victor Hugo's rambling, melodramatic The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, but for ballet purposes, it's the gypsy Esmeralda who is the star. Thirteen years after the publication of the novel in 1831, Jules Perrot created a ballet called Esmeralda in London and Marius Petipa revamped it for the Maryinsky Theatre in 1899. Cesar Pugni's music surges and pulls, with lovely melodic themes and poignant violin solos.
As ballets go, Esmeralda is just about as big and convoluted as a ballet can be in three and a half hours. But unlike another lengthy ballet created about the same time by Petipa, The Sleeping Beauty, Esmeralda has stayed mostly in mothballs. In fact, it has been over 60 years since it was performed even in Moscow, and the West knows about it only as Esmeralda's famous foot-kicking tambourine variation so popular with ballet galas.
So it was especially gratifying to see the full-length Esmeralda performed by the Bolshoi Ballet Wednesday night—if only from the cooler distance of a movie theater. Live is always better, but a simulcast has its advantages, especially in capturing close-ups of facial expressions. And the Bolshoi's fame for providing great acting as well as terrific dancing made its mark on this production.
Buffeted on every side by cruelty and corruption in the tawdry, crowded and dirty streets of medieval Paris, Esmeralda (Maria Alexandrova) flits and skitters about, as delicate as a butterfly, intoxicated by dance. Early on in the action, Esmeralda saves the hapless poet Gringoire from hanging by agreeing to marry him, her manner both teasing and yet kind. The camera captures every flitting feeling that runs through the poet's mind, from alarm to giddy gratitude to lovelorn eagerness. As Gringoire, no one could be a better hapless poet than Denis Savin.
Even the small role of the evil archdeacon Frollon (Alexei Loparevich) gets a rich portrayal, expressed by nothing more than a jutting chin and glowering eyes.
Although lively with the antics of gypsies, soldiers and scoundrels, some scenes seem padded, and we welcome the drama in the second act. Anticipating seeing the aristocratic captain Phoebus again, Esmeralda is invited to dance at a bridal party only to discover that Phoebus is the groom. Once she catches on, she is all but paralyzed. Her eyes flicker, her body sags, and she wilts in the arms of Gringoire. He keeps her going only by sharing a tambourine.
The delicate, fast bourrées performed earlier that suggested endless youthful energy turn into something quite different in the crowded ballroom. She bourrées backward from side to side, trapped in a nightmarish prison.
More woes fall upon her. The brief, joyful reunion with Phoebus ends when Frollon stabs Phoebus, leaving Esmeralda to take the blame. But unlike Hugo's story, Phoebus revives, Quasimodo throws Frollon to his death, and Esmeralda avoids the gallows.
Just about everyone performs with gusto if not brio. Behind both the ominous dark and cramped quarters that give the oppressed the opportunity to let loose with jaunty dancing and the gilded expanse of the ballroom that provides for more elegant movement, there is a sense of impending doom. Yes, Perrot and Petipa took liberties with the ending, but most of us will welcome a little sunshine.
◊ Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.
There was only one showing of Esmeralda on movie screens. The next international showing of a major ballet is George Balanchine's The Nutcracker at New York City Ballet, on Dec. 13. Here's our listing with list of area theaters.