If beauty is all we want of a ballet, then the Bolshoi Ballet's production of The Pharaoh's Daughter surpassed all expectations Sunday afternoon. In a production filmed live at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and show on movie screens via the Ballet in Cinema series, the scale and magnitude of this three-act ballet could only generate awe. How many ballet companies can boast a cast of 250 dancers, backed up with dozens of students from its academies? And how many companies could deploy these students in such a winning fashion that by their very presence they added more depth to the already elaborate show?
It is hard to imagine a more sumptuous and elegant ballet, delicate and Romantic, moving deftly from one delightful scene to the next. Somewhat in the realm of another Marius Petipa classic, La Bayadère, it was not quite as fantastic and over-the-top (although a fateful cobra hidden in a basket plays a part), but still pretty fanciful.
The story that is based on a tale by Théophile Gautier goes like this: an English lord touring Egypt gets caught in a sandstorm and takes shelter in a pyramid. As he sleeps in an opium dream, the long dead Aspicia comes out of her coffin and touches him. He is instantly transformed into Ta-Hor and falls in love.
Nothing can go smoothly, however, and since Aspicia is betrothed to the King of Nubia, the challenge is on. It involves Ta-Hor saving her from a lion, the snake, her falling into the Nile, her brief visit underwater with the Spirit of the Nile, and a last-minute reprieve by her angry father.
To portray all this action, slaves, bayadère, water nymphs, pages, merchants, kings, and who knows what else, appear in wave upon wave of carefully delineated sequences. Although this oversized ballet created by Petipa in 1862 for the Imperial Ballet featured a cast of almost 400 and lasted four hours, it pretty much fell into oblivion until the French choreographer Pierre Lacotte restaged parts of it for the Bolshoi in 2000. Too expensive then to revive in its entirety, it had to wait until this year for Lacotte to complete the job, and a fine job he did indeed. The crystalline elegance of Petipa as well as his clever amassing of large ensembles into geometric patterns feels just right.
As for the dancing itself, from the principals down to the smallest Nubian page, it was exquisite. Svetlana Zakharova as Aspicia and Rustan Skvortsov as Lord Wilson/Ta-Hor are a handsome couple whose elongated lines and filigree footwork kept our eyes glued on them.
And yet, and yet…
It never made lift-off. For all the lovely warm sets of blue, gold and amber, and costumes of Egyptian flavor, as well as fine dancing, something was missing, and what was missing was the dramatic interplay between the main characters. They were too perfect, like characters from animation that are both larger than life and also not quite human.
Filmed at the Bolshoi Theater with a live audience, the camera pans in too close to capture some of the sweep and flow of the ensemble pieces, and is sometimes too close to the principals when we would like it to have a larger view, but for the most part makes us almost feel we have prime seats in the theater. And for a fraction of the cost.
◊ 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.
◊ The Pharaoh's Daughter repeats 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4 at the following area theaters:
- Cinemark 17 with IMAX, 11819 Webb Chapel Rd, Dallas, TX 75234
- Cinemark West Plano, 3800 Dallas Pkwy, Plano, TX 75093
- Cinemark Allen 16, 921 State Highway 121, Allen, TX 75013
- Cinemark Alliance Town Center, 9228 Sage Meadow Trail, Fort Worth, TX 76177
- Carmike Tyler 14, 7415 South Broadway, Tyler, TX 75703
◊ The next local showing in the Ballet in Cinema from Emerging Pictures is the Royal Ballet's Nutcracker, Dec. 23 at noon at the theaters listed above.