St Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake a Fairy Tale Romp

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Irina Kolesnikova London Season –  Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake: Soloists, corps de ballet, The St Petersburg Ballet Theatre and Orchestra / Timor Gorkovenko (conductor). London Coliseum, 13.8.2015. (JPr)

Irina Kolesnikova as Odette c The St Petersburg Ballet Theatre (580x387)
Irina Kolesnikova as Odette (c) The St Petersburg Ballet Theatre


Odette/Odile: Irina Kolesnikova
Prince Siegfried: Denis Rodkin
Rothbart: Dmitry Akulinin
Jester: Sergei Fedorkov
The Queen: Natalia Smirnova


Choreography: Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa
Libretto: Vladimir Begichev & Vasily Geltser
Staging (1996): Yuri Gumba
Scenery: Semyen Pastukh
Costumes: Galina Solovieva

The steps have come down the generations from the ballet’s 1895 première and so has the outline of the story we see unfolding which has basically remained the same. A Prince is coming of age and is being forced to choose a bride, whilst out hunting he meets the enchanted princess, Odette, who is under the spell of the evil Sorcerer Rothbart who has turned her into a swan. This spell can only be broken by true love and faithfulness. Siegfried is tricked into swearing this to Odile, a carbon-copy of Odette. Siegfried begs her forgiveness and tells of his undying love before evil is vanquished and Odette and Siegfried often die in the cause or sometimes – as here – live happily ever after. Within that framework there are many things that can happen with this story; Nureyev for instance brought psychological reality to his characters, others have Siegfried as a morose solitary figure maybe with a drink problem or someone having so much fun with his best friend, Benno, and his tutor, that he has no interest in marriage. Here in the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s staging which dates from 1996 it is basically a jolly fairy tale romp with only a few brief moments of darkness.

This is not the place to dwell on how much Swan Lake owes to Tchaikovsky’s admiration of Wagner – whose works include those involving the redemptive power of love, Siegfried and swans! Semyen Pastukh’s sumptuous sets – which are so much better than you would expect from a company on tour – appears to make this connection in Act I Scene One where in the background there was a lake and a castle up on a hill that looked like Neuschwanstein the fantastical castle of King Ludwig II of Bavaria who was Wagner’s benefactor and styled as the ‘Swan King’!

Yuri Gumba’s production plays down the role of the tutor, seems to eliminate Benno and has the Soviet-friendly happy ending. On the plus side, it is also relatively mime-free but on the minus-side there too much applause-seeking bowing between variations. Also being a Russian Swan Lake means there is an all-too-present hyperactive Jester flirting with – or poking fun at – others and intruding too often where he isn’t needed such as the pas de trois. He reminded me of a Russian circus clown particularly in the way he wanted to dispense flowers to all and sundry. I could not be as angry as I wanted to be about this rather unnecessary character because Sergei Fedorkov was such a charismatic performer, bounding energetically and twirling mightily impressively.

The St Petersburg Ballet Theatre is not Russia’s premier troupe by any means and must rank after the Bolshoi, Mariinsky and Mikhailovsky. The lake appeared a little underpopulated with swans and although the women were mostly fine it would often be difficult – I suspect – to identify some of men as ballet dancers if dressed normally and out in the street. Nevertheless, the swans moved with a near-perfect unison that was impressive, the famous Cygnets’ dance was delightfully quick-footed and the national dances had a spirited sophistication and did not drag as they sometimes can. With some ostentatious costumes – often glittering with gold and sparkling with crystals – for the castle scenes and the familiar image of ranks of elegantly white tutu-ed swans for the lake scenes, it allows the romantic sweep of Tchaikovsky’s music – finely played The St Petersburg Ballet Orchestra under Timur Gorkovenko – and the poetry of the Ivanov-Petipa choreography to be the showcase it is so clearly designed to be for the prima ballerina as Odette/Odile.

Irina Kolesnikova was doing a ‘London Season’ and I do not remember too many of these at the London Coliseum from a ballet dancer since the days of Rudolf Nureyev where I spent many happy evenings in the 1970s and 80s. He danced every night but Kolesnikova will not appear in the matinees. I have had the opportunity to see two great ballerinas in close up this year in Swan Lake, Natalia Osipova in the Royal Ballet’s cinema broadcast (review) and now Irina Kolesnikova. Sadly I was underwhelmed by Osipova but was enthralled by Kolesnikova. When she dances Odette time often seems to stand still, all the steps are carried out with deliberation and perfect phrasing and she is all eloquent arms and high leg extensions. Odile is faster and flashier with those infamous fouettés faultless and spot-on. For me what was particularly impressive was Kolesnikova’s dramatic interpretation and I was won over by her eyes that revealed the horror of Odette’s plight when she encountered Siegfried for the very first time. From that moment I immediately knew she believed she was Odette and so from then on did I. Her Odile was equalling convincing being beguilingly sexy, thoroughly ruthless and with a maniacal (silent) laugh.

Sadly by comparison in this version of Swan Lake both Rothbart and Prince Siegfried are given little to work with. Dmitry Akulinin just stomps and rushes around the stage in the lake scenes as some indeterminate black bird flapping his wings, one of which will be used to beat him to death in Act III. Denis Rodkin (guesting from the Bolshoi) has just to look content or distraught and has none of moodiness of the more developed Siegfrieds. His job is to partner Kolesnikova securely – which he does – and dance his solos competently – which he also does – displaying a good leap and ballon, as well as, fine soft landings.

After a week of Swan Lakes Irina Kolesnikova will conclude this London Season with two performance as Nikiya in La Bayadère which like her Odette/Odile should be something not to miss.

Jim Pritchard

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