The Bolshoi danced the first ballet version of "Don Quixote," which is based on the picaresque novel by Cervantes. That was in Moscow, in 1869.
The ballet was enough of a hit to stay on the list of the very few classical dance works to make it to the 20th, and now the 21st, centuries.
The Bolshoi performed "Don Q" at the Wang Theatre last night, as part of the first stop on an American tour, and the level of the dancing was so far above that of Wednesday's opening performance of "Raymonda," another 19th-century staple, that it seemed like a different company altogether. Last night the dancers were actually trying, as they hadn't been a couple of days ago.
"Don Q" is a bravura comic ballet, and the Bolshoi delivered in both departments. Maria Alexandrova, as Kitri, the spirited heroine, was a flame burning through the challenges of difficult choreography she seemed only to laugh at. Alexey Loparevich was an appropriately addled and idealistic Don. Yury Klevtsov was an unimpressive Basil, though, quite overwhelmed by Alexandrova, and technically disappointing.
Once known for its great male dancers, the current Bolshoi company is dominated by women. The shift in the balance of power is obvious to anyone who has seen Nureyev or Barishnikov in the male lead: They led. The opportunities the Bolshoi production gives to soloists means a fresh ballerina rushing onstage every few minutes. It scrambles the story, but it feeds the audience.
The frothy second act dream scene is a perfect opportunity for the female contingent to show what it can do: Alexandrova's astonishing leaps were equaled by those of Ekaterina Shipulina, as the Mistress of the Dryads, and the fluttering pointe work of Ksenia Pchelkina as a charming Cupid. Everything flowed: There was no sense of working up to an applause-generating stunt, something the company has been guilty of in the past.
After a drab opening scene, burdened by stale mime, the production goes in high gear. The Bolshoi doesn't tell the tale as well as Western companies do, and, ironically, it sets the triumphant last act in a noble court instead of a gritty street: The Russians concoct a far more class-oriented scenario than we do. But the story doesn't matter: Cervantes is just a point of departure.
For the Bolshoi to continue to tour internationally means adjusting to a climate it once ruled, and that means ignoring dancer seniority in order to present its greatest talent in the principal roles. Alexandrova is its latest goddess, and everyone should have a shot at seeing her.
The Bolshoi as it presents itself in Boston this week is following a 100-year-old recipe. It's the dancing, not the choreography, that determines whether the soufflé rises or falls.