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A New Calling Card for the Bolshoi Ballet

“The Taming of the Shrew” made far fewer waves, but it, too, aimed for modern dramaturgy. To sidestep the problematic gender dynamics of Shakespeare’s original plot, Mr. Maillot made Katharina, the Shrew, and Petruchio equals — equally rebellious, and equally unsuited to their milieu. “Everything was unusual, from the very beginning,” said the principal dancer Ekaterina Krysanova, who created the role of Katharina, in a Skype interview.

When the Bolshoi came calling, Mr. Maillot, 56, had not made a ballet for a company other than his own in more than 20 years. The man who convinced him to take a leap of faith was Sergei Y. Filin, the former Bolshoi principal who was appointed director of the company in 2011.

“I didn’t want to buy an existing Maillot ballet,” said Mr. Filin, who since the mid-1990s has followed the career of Mr. Maillot, whose work emphasizes vivid articulation in the neo-Classical vein and sleek visuals. “I knew that he would be able to work in dialogue with the Bolshoi’s artists, to multiply their talents. Jean-Christophe has a sense of humor. He is also able to show sex, but not in a vulgar sense.”

Mr. Filin requested a Shakespeare-inspired ballet in for the 450th anniversary of the playwright’s birth (2014), and offered to give Mr. Maillot time to get to know the Bolshoi’s artists. He invited Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo to perform in Moscow, and in return, a group of Russian dancers shared the stage with Mr. Maillot’s company for a special performance of “LAC,” his version of “Swan Lake.” Mr. Maillot said: “That’s Sergei’s intelligence: He built this close relationship for three years, before we even started the creation.”

But the project’s fate was almost derailed by an event that shocked the world: the acid attack on Mr. Filin in front of his home in January 2013, a little over a year before rehearsals were to begin. Another choreographer, Wayne McGregor, backed out of a scheduled commission, and Mr. Maillot seriously considered following suit. But Mr. Filin told Mr. Maillot that if he dropped out that the people responsible for the attack would take credit. “It’s so important to reply not through words,” Mr. Filin remembered saying, in a Skype interview, “but through actions.”


Sergei Y. Filin in 2014.

Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post, via Getty Images

“After Sergei’s accident,” Mr. Maillot said, “I think the Bolshoi really needed to come together around a project.” “The Taming of the Shrew,” a creation led by outsiders, was just the right fit.

Its creation, though, was far from easy. Mr. Maillot and his team ran into communication issues early on: The Bolshoi’s dancers spoke limited English, and a translator had to be brought in. Because of the Bolshoi’s busy repertory, it was also routine for a dancer to miss a rehearsal, to leave early or to save energy by marking the steps — that is, not dance full out in the studio — to the dismay of Mr. Maillot, who limits Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo’s performances to devote uninterrupted time to making new works.

Mr. Filin intervened to improve discipline, and the pieces began to fall into place for “The Taming of the Shrew.” Mr. Maillot said he believed his choice of a Russian composer — he put together a patchwork Shostakovich score, using pieces from his film and symphonic work — played a part in bridging the cultural gap. The chemistry between Mr. Maillot and the bright generation of soloists he found in Moscow did the rest.

“He was able to attract everybody to himself, and he took his inspiration from the artists,” Ms. Krysanova said. “He wasn’t pushing his own ideas on us.”

Besides the lead couple, “The Taming of the Shrew” includes significant roles — and moments of classical virtuosity — tailored to the talents of the refined and inquisitive Olga Smirnova (as Katherina’s sister, Bianca), as well as Semyon Chudin, Vyacheslav Lopatin and Igor Tsvirko (Bianca’s motley suitors), among others.

“The performers’ individuality is what guides me when I choreograph,” Mr. Maillot said. “Working with these dancers, who combined such technique, history and freshness, because they were all quite young, was an exceptional breath of fresh air for me. We fed off each other.”

Mr. Maillot and his assistant and longtime muse, Bernice Coppieters, worked to weave into the choreography believable reactions and a lively sense of back-and-forth between characters. Here, the “taming” Petruchio subjects Katharina to in Shakespeare’s play becomes a series of erotically charged games — around an imaginary fire, or a cup of tea — through which their intimacy blooms.

To achieve the naturalness he had in mind, Mr. Maillot also zeroed in on the dancers’ ingrained habits so he could peel them away. That includes the way that the Bolshoi’s men pace about the stage with a macho swagger shaped, in part, by the repertory of the company’s Soviet-era director Yuri Grigorovich. “I had to try every day to liberate myself,” Vladislav Lantratov, who created the role of Petruchio, said in a Skype interview. “And then, at a certain point, we all had a breakthrough.”

Both he and Ms. Krysanova said that they cherish roles they see as bearing their imprint — and that the production has changed the way they approach the rest of their repertory. Mr. Lantratov, who has plenty of space in the choreography to play with Petruchio’s boorish behavior, added with a laugh: “Where else can I allow myself to behave like that?”

Between Mr. Maillot and the Bolshoi, the dialogue has continued beyond “The Taming of the Shrew.” Several principals have performed with his company in Monaco, and Mr. Maillot is tentatively scheduled to stage another production in Moscow during the 2018-19 season.

For Mr. Filin, who was replaced as director by Makhar K. Vaziev in 2015 and is now responsible for nurturing young choreographers at the Bolshoi, the ballet he commissioned remains a source of pride — and proof that this Russian company is capable of renewal. “We accomplished many things, but I think that even if we had only been able to do ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ it would already have been good enough,” he said. “Jean-Christophe used the abilities of the dancers to the maximum.”

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