Lost Illusions

Bolshoi Ballet 'evoke the flourish and romanticism of the Belle Époque' at Queen's Film Theatre

Balzac and the Bolshoi. Artistic pairings do not come much headier or more thrilling.

When, back in the 1930s, the idea surfaced of creating a new ballet based on Les Illusions Perdues, Honoré de Balzac's classic novel of ambition and thwarted love, there was considerable excitement amongst the chattering classes of the former Soviet Union.

In 1936, Rostislav Zakharov's extravagant and much heralded adaptation was premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg by the Kirov Ballet, with the celebrated ballerina Galina Oulanova in the lead role.

The only problem was the ideological conflict between the USSR and the whole concept of modernity. The ruling dispensation strongly disapproved of what it interpreted as subversive French influence on art and culture, believing it to be the preserve of the despised bourgeoisie.

So after a few performances, Lost Illusions was quietly set aside. It lay dormant for some 75 years until the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre of Russia took it out of cold storage, gave it a complete facelift and premiered it in its magnificently refurbished auditorium on April 24, 2011.

Perhaps it is the unfamiliar title – suggesting a radical departure from the Bolshoi's famously strict adherence to Russian ballet tradition – that kept many of the normally packed Queen's Film Theatre audience at bay. But not one of those who settled in for this Sunday afternoon Bolshoi Live transmission direct from Moscow asks for his or her money back.

Au contraire. Belfast ballet fans are among the privileged few to be next in line to see this visually stunning production straight after its New Year run at the Garnier Opera in Paris, the gorgeous fictional setting for Balzac's story of Lucien, an ambitious young composer, who allows celebrity status and money to wreck the passion he briefly shares with the ballerina Coralie, his muse and true love.

Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, artist in residence at American Ballet Theater since 2009, has achieved a long and distinguished list of credits during his illustrious career. In the years that he was artistic director at the Bolshoi Ballet, he became famous for resurrecting forgotten or discarded ballets from the Soviet era. It is clear that this textbook example of French Romanticism has inspired him to new creative heights.

To ensure that the intensely French spirit of the original remained intact, Ratmansky invited the Comédie Française actor and director Guillaume Gallienne to take up the reins as dramaturg, while the Parisian designer Jérôme Kaplan was put in charge of sets and costumes, in the process winning the Golden Mask 2012 for Best Costume Designer. And completing this vastly gifted and experienced creative team is composer Leonid Desyatnikov.

His brand new score, performed by the Bolshoi Orchestra under Alexander Vedernikov and inspired as much by Romantic composers like Chopin and Debussy as by the later jazz era, springs a surprise from the start. Never did one think to hear the human voice resounding in a Bolshoi production, but this ballet opens with a haunting aria sung by a mezzo soprano, one of several poignant vocal interventions as the tragic tale unfolds.

In emerging directly from a famous literary source, Ratmansky's narrative ballet evolves as a fascinating ensemble drama, framing a number of intriguing ballet-within-a-ballet scenarios.

There is no room here for solo virtuosity. Rather, the emphasis throughout is on collective storytelling, with the three leads – Vladislav Lantratov (Lucien), guest artiste Diana Vishneva (Coralie) from the Kirov and Bolshoi principal Ekaterina Shipulina (Florine) – tasked with the responsibility for anchoring the plot with a challenging combination of dance and acting.

Together, Ratmansky and Desyatnikov cleverly set up the character of Lucien as composer and musician. In the first scene in which he sits at the piano to play his new composition to Coralie and her patron Camusot (the nicely sardonic Yegor Simachev), a few bars of solo piano sound before Lantratov moves seamlessly into dance mode, allowing the instrument to take over and develop its own character role within the score.

With Coralie as his inspiration, Lucien's first creation is a huge success: a variation on August Bournonville's La Sylphide. The climax sees him and fellow principal Artem Ovcharenko in a tantalising all-male pas de deux, locking horns like two handsome young stags in a battle for centre stage supremacy and the love of Coralie's Sylphe. But before too long success starts to go to his head.

Gambling and womanising take him over and at a particularly raucous, gaudy night, he loses both self control and perspective. He can have his pick of any available pretty girl, the prettiest and most beguiling of whom is Shipulina's pert Florine, Coralie's arch rival. She and her paymasters persuade Lucien to create a truly dreadful but commercially successful ballet at whose finale he suddenly – but all too late – sees the error of his ways.

Kaplan's sets wonderfully evoke the flourish and romanticism of the Belle Époque. He whisks us not only into the famous public spaces but also the rehearsal rooms of the Paris Opéra. Frozen in time, they could have leapt straight off the walls of the Impressionist collection of the Musée d'Orsay.

His floaty, pastel-shaded costumes are pure Dégas, while the posturing, top-hatted patrons and aristocratic hangers-on, who adore fraternising with dancers, are the living incarnation of those vibrant Toulouse Lautrec cartoons, festooning the little bouquinistes' stalls along the quays of the Seine.

The delicately beautiful Vishneva is the undisputed star of the show. Her girlish Coralie is both exquisitely danced and expressively acted, though Ratmansky rather overdoes her emotional disintegration in the final scene. Before he moves a muscle, her partner Lantratov is a thing of fine-boned beauty and, boy, can he dance.

His acting, however, lacks a little maturity and it is difficult to reconcile his appealing physical presence with the thoroughly unlikeable creature whom Lucien becomes. But these are fairly minor quibbles in this fresh, enervating ballet, which shows off the brilliant but sometimes stiff-backed Bolshoi company in a welcome new light.

Visit the Queen's Film Theatre website for information on forthcoming screenings.