Fun, Frolics and Fireworks from Mikhailovsky Ballet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ludwig Minkus, Don Quixote: Dancers and Orchestra of The Mikhailovsky Ballet / Pavel Bubelnikov (conductor), London Coliseum, London, 30.3.2013. (JPr)

Kitri: Natalia Osipova
Basilio: Ivan Vasiliev
Dancers of The Mikhailovsky Ballet

Libretto: Marius Petipa
Choreography by Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky (the performance also featured choreography by Nina Anisimova, Igor Belsky, Robert Gerbek, Kasian Goleizovsky, and Fyodor Lopukhov)
Staging by Mikhail Messerer

Don Quixote Osipova  Photo by Damir Yusupov
Don Quixote: Osipova
Photo by Damir Yusupov

We have all read how things have not been good at the Bolshoi for some time and this led to two of the Moscow company’s brightest – and youngest – talents to move on to St Petersburg. You would expect it to have been to the Bolshoi’s big rival, the Mariinsky, but no; they joined that city’s second-tier ballet company, the Mikhailovsky, run by tycoon Vladimir Kekhman who welcomes us on the third page of the informative programme. Suddenly The Mikhailovsky Ballet, who have only been to London twice before, suddenly gain must-see status. Now this starry couple, Osipova and Vasiliev, are headlining many of the performances during the short season. I missed them in what would have something rather more substantial, Giselle, and here made their acquaintance in the fun, frolics and fireworks of Don Quixote.

I doubt anyone goes to Don Quixote for the story, as it is a nineteenth-century Marius Petipa-Ludwig Minkus war horse that has accreted choreography over the decades from five other Russians. The ballet as we have it now takes its cue(!) from a 1869 Bolshoi play staged by Petipa that concentrated on a minor incident from Cervantes original novel, so we have the story of a young girl Kitri’s, love for a poor man, Basilio a barber, and her rejection of a forced marriage to a rich nobleman. Every so often the Don and his comic sidekick, Sancho Panza, wander into the story mainly for Quixote to confuse Kitri with Dulcinea, his dream lady ‘of his heart’. It just becomes a showcase for the company’s ensemble virtuosity with the demandingly famous Act III pas de deux just being the final show-stopper in an evening of show-stoppers.

Actually, I am not certain what audience had been attracted to this show because every time anyone seemed to make two steps across the stage someone wanted to applaud or whoop and holler. This reached its zenith (or nadir if you will) with every solo or duet from Osipova and Vasiliev. Even when Don Quixote and Sancho Panza arrived astride, respectively, a sturdy white horse and a donkey, the animals nearly had their own standing ovation. I exaggerate somewhat but you will get the idea if you were not there. Don’t get me wrong, it was a jaw-droppingly entertaining evening but I was never sure how far we were away from the circus with all the dazzling acrobatics – and, especially since, Sancho Panza seemed a traditional Russian clown.

Mikhail Messerer, the company’s principal guest ballet master, revived this Don Quixote less than a year ago and in a suitably colourful, sun-drenched, Spanish setting and fabulous ornate costumes it is a feast – even a fiesta – for the senses. However, the pyrotechnics seem so relentless during Act I and most of Act II that the quieter, immensely lyrical, repose of the subsequent forest scene with the dryads and fairies was an enormous relief from all the otherwise frantic movement. Even then I was a little irritated by the jangling of the Don’s spurs, as he strode across the magical glade of his dreams. Here Veronica Ignatyeva’s Cupid was a petite delight and Irina Kosheleva as the Dryads’ Queen, was never overshadowed by sharing the spotlight with Osipova, showing that this was far from a two-person show. That was the distaff side; however, most of the men given solos opportunities did occasionally appear a little stiff and upright in comparison to the very lithe and hyperactive Vasiliev. I would excuse Evgeny Deryabin’s cape-swirling Toreador for this and he stood out. Nevertheless together the company performed with wonderful practised ease – often with big smiles – and I never noticed anyone who ‘switched off’ on stage; everyone remained in character … such it was.

Minkus’s score hardly lets up either, and truthfully it is not very memorable, but The Mikhailovsky Ballet Orchestra showed through their committed performance that recent notable improvements in the musical accompaniment to ballet extends to foreign touring musicians, as well as, home-grown ones. Particularly admirable were the contributions of Alexander Shmelyov (violin), Elena Arkhipova (harp) and Evgeny Ulianov (cello), especially during the Act II vision scene.

As for Vasiliev, I saw Nureyev many times and of course there can never be another but the longer the evening went on and the more tired he became the more he came to resemble him. He is not the perfect package, neither was his predecessor; he has thick thighs which power immensely impressive leaps and like Nureyev, he has immense charisma and is a very potent stage animal. Most importantly, he is also a sensitive partner and always presented his ballerina, Osipova, in the best possible way. He is a crowd-pleaser and there is nothing wrong in that. I would like to see his acting skills given more of a test before I commit myself further as to how good he might become. I am not sure the forthcoming Laurencia will tell me anything this Basilio hasn’t.

What word comes to mind about Osipova … astonishing is one to begin with. She is so good that I can imagine those ballerinas of lesser abilities thinking ‘Why do I bother because I can never become as good as that?’ The good news is that dancers like Natalia Osipova often only occur once in a generation and there are more than enough performances to go round for every one of slightly lesser skills. Here in her signature role as Kitri she has an appealing gamine quality, a real worldly-wise girl from the streets. Every facial gesture and movement is as a response to the music and she is another who is totally responsive to all that is going on around her. Osipova’s jumps in Act I were, time and again, astonishing. She is up in the air in the blink of an eye, and time seems to stand still as she stays there with split legs in profile, the front one points down and her head and raised arms extravagantly arch backwards towards the other foot – this is the ‘Maya Plisetskaya head-kick’ named after the Bolshoi ballerina who first made it famous. The huge London Coliseum stage often seemed much too small for Osipova. As well as these leaps there are her wonderful balances and turns; the Act III rock-solid fouettés, typically, had extra revolutions. The way she twice flew like an arrow into Vasiliev’s arms at the start of Act II will live long in my memory. You just had to be there, you really did.

But, was this really true ballet or elaborate theatrical physical jerks? I’m still wondering. Though having debated the issue above and because of a magical performance from Osipova, Vasiliev and The Mikhailovsky Ballet, I’m not sure I care for the answer.

Jim Pritchard

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