The Mariinsky Ballet at London’s Royal Opera House

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mariinsky Ballet (50th Anniversary Season) – Scotch Symphony, In the Night, Ballet Imperial : Dancers and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre. Conductor: Boris Gruzin. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 4.8.2011. (JPr)

Picture © Natasha Razina and Mariinsky Ballet

The Mariinsky Ballet was once known as the Kirov and under that name came to London 50 years ago for the first time after Nureyev defected in Paris. It has been based at St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre since 1886 and perhaps is the most revered ballet company in the world. During a three-week season it has showcased venerable nineteenth-century classics that have often seemed to be restored – like an old master painting – a bit too brightly, with two intriguing mixed programmes of more modern short ballets.

Wherever this seemingly peripatetic company dance, their distinctive purity of style and the well-drilled technique is self-evident and never more so than when they are dancing in pairs or small groups on a relatively bare stage as in this triple bill. Intriguingly they were shown here at their best in choreography that was not Russian but American; not quite true of course because George Balanchine, founder of the New York City Ballet, was a Russian émigré and a mentor to Jerome Robbins, a brilliant ballet choreographer but probably remembered more for his work on Broadway and for films. It has only been during the last 20 years that Balanchine’s works have been reclaimed by his hometown company; two of his important classically-inspired works (Scotch Symphony and Ballet Imperial) bracketed a compelling romantic trifle from Robbins ( In the Night) in an outstanding evening of choreography.

Balanchine staged Scotch Symphony to the last three movements of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony and his inspiration was a visit in 1952 to the Edinburgh Festival. This is a quaint kilts and bonnets homage to Bournonville’s La Sylphide, the painted Highland backdrop came straight out of a Sir Walter Scott novel and I was thinking more about Brigadoon. Although thoughtfully partnered by Alexander Sergeyev, Anastasia Matvienko’s dancing lacked the fluidity required with her extensions seeming something gymnastic. Though most of the ensemble danced with great high spirits – and Yana Selina was especially dazzling in her featured moments – together their footwork perhaps might have been a little sharper at times. Mendelsohn’s music often seems a pastiche of Scottish folk tunes and was played with strong Russian inflections by Boris Gruzin and his orchestra.

Robbins’ In the Night came next and is danced by three couples under a starry-sky or the hint of three chandeliers to a piano accompaniment of Chopin nocturnes. It deals with the fickleness of women in their relationships with their men. Yevgenia Obraztsova and Filipp Stepin are blissfully in the throes of young love; for Alina Somova and Yevgeny Ivanchenko everything is more intense, formal and courtly; and finally star dancers, Uliana Lopatkina and Daniil Korsuntsev are a warring couple who cannot stand the sight of each other but cannot bear to be apart. The pairs of lovers appear separately and only dance together near the end before parting. The men are mere cyphers and so all the emotion must be expressed by the women; however here as elsewhere during the evening I was impressed by how much more naturally musical the Mariinsky men were compared with most of the leading women dancers whose regimental schooling is often too much in evidence. Of course this never occurred to me with Lopatkina who danced with great nuance and long-limbed sensitivity; she was cleanly partnered by Korsuntsev and I totally believed the romantic sparks between them. The performance’s emotional appeal was underpinned by a vibrant performance of the nocturnes by Ludmila Sveshnikova, a small, elderly woman with the appearance of a Russian matriarch.

She returned to have a valiant stab at the demanding solo part of Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto for Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial, which concluded the programme. It was created at the start of World War II for a tour of South America and his ‘contemporary tribute to Petipa’ has subsequently entered the repertory of many companies. This work owes a lot to the classical period of pre-revolution St Petersburg and involves a large corps de ballet and as the male dancer (Vladimir Shklyarov) appears to pursue the ballerina I was reminded strongly of Act II of Giselle when Albrecht encounters the Wilis, or even of Act II of Swan Lake. There is even a hint of a traditional pas de deux, and Balanchine concludes it all with his signature exuberant mass finale. The fleet-footed Tereshkina was hypnotic and mesmerising in her solos and Shklyarov had that time-stopping quality to his jumps that only the greatest of male dancers achieve.

Without being dismissive of this joyous exploration of the Mariinsky dancers’ impeccable technique I would love to have seen this couple, as well as Lopatkina and Korsuntsev, in something more substantial; they never appeared to ‘break sweat’ at any time. Perhaps that’s just the point and again a tribute to the excellence of this Mariinsky troupe who all seems to make it seem so easy … and we do not need to have seen Black Swan to know that it isn’t!

Jim Pritchard