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Dance review

A dazzling display of Russian folk traditions

The Moiseyev Dance Company, seen here in New York, perform with technical excellence and high energy. The Moiseyev Dance Company, seen here in New York, perform with technical excellence and high energy. (julieta cervantes for the new york times)
Email|Print| Text size + By Karen Campbell
Globe Correspondent / January 21, 2008

If the excited overflow crowd heading into Symphony Hall was any indication, the hottest tickets in Boston yesterday afternoon weren't just for the Patriots' game, but for the Celebrity Series presentation of the Moiseyev Dance Company. It's no wonder. As folk dance companies go, this one is at the top of the ladder, and for the large contingent of Russians in the audience, it must have felt a little like going home.

Company founder/director Igor Moiseyev, who died just in November at the venerable age of 101, traveled throughout Russia as a young student, studying his country's rich folklore, the songs and dances, customs and traditions. Years later, as a Ballet master for the renowned Bolshoi Ballet, he was asked by the Soviet government to organize the country's first Festival of National Dance. The 1936 gathering was so successful, Moiseyev formed a company dedicated to not just preserve but reinvigorate Russian folk dance.

That he did. Moiseyev's choreography gives dramatic flair to traditional dances, pumping up familiar moves with flamboyant virtuosity and eye-popping theatrical staging. And his lithe, ballet-trained dancers (the full company numbers 200) have impeccable form, with long clean lines emanating from beautifully held torsos and brilliant articulation in the feet. Combine that technical facility with energy that soars over the footlights and colorful costumes, and you get a visual and visceral spectacle that's hard to beat.

The show's sensational opening number, "Summer," has it all in a microcosm. The large ensemble features dazzling line and circle patterns across the stage. Embedded are showcases for smaller groupings, highlighting the characteristic squat kicks, walks, and lunges along with dazzling straight-legged barrel turns and exuberant spins. The dancers make it look not only joyful, but effortless.

The most intriguing number is the "Kalmuk Dance," a trio recalling the nomadic shepherds of the Nogai Steppes. A deep connection to animals is reflected in the dancers' upper-body shivers, arms spread like wings, and a gallop-like pacing, with footwork characterized by ankles that swivel as if on ball bearings. Another standout is the adorable "Two Boys in a Fight," which depicts two Nanayan youths wrestling, the characters performed by one dancer bent double, shoes on hands and feet, doll heads on his back. The rousing finale "Yablotchko" features the good-natured escapades of Russian sailors.

Ever the showman, however, Moiseyev wasn't just content to present the national dances of his own country. As the company grew over the past 70 years, he incorporated dances from around the world, from Mexico to China. (Yesterday afternoon's concert even included a little American hoedown action to "Turkey in the Straw.")

One suspects Moiseyev took substantial liberties in some of the more far-flung dances, and while entertaining and competently performed, these offerings feel less vibrant, less authentic to the spirit of the company. With its undulating backbends and shawl flinging, "Gypsies" looks overly dramatic. And while the dancers pulled off the sinuous torsos and swiveling hips of "Egyptian Dance," the spangled costumes made the piece look downright gaudy.

Moiseyev Dance Company

At: Symphony Hall, yesterday

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