★★★ SWAN LAKE, MARIINSKY BALLET Heritage company fail to set stage alight in good, but not great, performance at the Royal Opera House
It's a Cinderella story: Xander Parish was plucked from obscurity in the Royal Ballet corps and trained by the Mariinsky to dance the greatest roles in the repertoire. Now, not only is he the first Briton to join the historic Russian company, he has also just been promoted to Principal after last night's performance of Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House.
To make the move on his home turf like this seems like the crowning move in a canny publicity campaign that has seen Parish in newspaper interviews and on the Today Programme in recent weeks. The hype around him has been carefully built over a longer period, with a guest appearance at English National Ballet in January occasioning cries for him to be brought back to London and properly recognised as the "finest British-born danseur noble on the world stage".
Now I like a good rags-to-riches trajectory as much as the next person, and I would love to be able to rave about Parish now and say it's all true. But the performance I saw on stage last night simply does not warrant it. Parish has a splendid figure, yes. He holds himself well, and he partners extremely well. He can jump high and big with those long, slender, oh-so-elegant legs. He has clearly worked like crazy during his six years of intensive Mariinsky training. But these things alone do not a principal make, or at least not a world-class one. It has to come from inside: without that spark of wildfire at the heart, you are only ever a good dancer, not a great one. Parish (pictured right with Viktoria Tereshkina and Andrei Yermakov; photo by Jennie Walton) may yet prove to have it - for a few moments right at the end, when Siegfried thinks Odette is dying and faces up boldly to Rothbart, there was a sudden intensity of commitment in his expression and his movement that had been lacking in the rest of the performance. But it was too little, too late to redeem what had been up till then only a good, and not a great Swan Lake.
Parish is not solely responsible for that. The whole company seemed to be cooking only on medium, not high (with a few exceptions). Their Sergeyev production boasts beautiful, if slightly faded designs, and the same mood seemed to pervade the dancing: the character dances in Act III (here called Act II), which other companies present with such fizz, were unremarkable. Even the jester (Yaroslav Baibodin) looked like a danseur noble uncomfortably shoehorned into a soubrette role, inviting unsympathetic comparison with the fizzing performance of Vyacheslav Lopatin in last summer's Bolshoi tour.
Tereshkina really shines as OdileViktoria Tereshkina, a late substitute for the scheduled Odette/Odile, Oxana Skorik, brought some welcome charisma to the stage. Animated from the inside the way Parish is not (or not yet), she is fundamentally, metabolically a principal. Even subdued, her naturally imperious quality makes her Odette less fragile than some. There is a reservoir of mistrust in this swan-woman that doesn't let her succumb fully to Siegfried's love, and Parish is not the Siegfried to overcome that: during the White Swan pas de deux, he looks at her like a partner watching for his next hand-hold, not a lover giving of his heart. As Odile, though, Tereshkina really shines: the meaning of that seductive, knowing choreography is quite obvious. Each flash of a leg up into attitude derrière is a flagrant provocation, both shocking and mesmerising, and her brief gesture at imitating Odette's vulnerability is evilly, satisfyingly manipulative.
Andrei Yermakov as Rothbart is a dancer to do justice to the role's excellent costumes, some of the best in a production blessed with many splendid outfits. The lakeside Rothbart is a sort of disco-goth Hermes, in a black catsuit with painted silver feathers and a little pointed helmet; wearing it, the lithe Yermakov leaps and twists like a demented crow tumbling on the breeze, otherworldly. His court appearance, in black and gold doublet with a black lion mane and a headdress like Sauron's, is no less satisfying. Nadezhda Batoeva, a first soloist who danced Kitri on Tuesday and appears as Gamzatti on 10 August, impressed me in the pas de trois with her willowy elegance and stunningly arched feet, but not with her musical interpretation, which was a curious blend of the langurous and the clipped, such that she always seemed to arrive rushed at the end of a phrase.
The corps de ballet performed their exhausting role in the white acts with the discipline and grace one would expect. There is always a frisson of delight in seeing the exquisite Mariinsky corps do Ivanov's choreography, fielding so many swans (32!) with that curious regularity of height that one seldom sees outside Russian companies. But I missed the intensity of emotional involvement that other companies manage to get out of their swans, who after all are not just background ("surplus girls in the moonlight", as South African choreographer Dada Masilo so memorably puts it), but Odette's friends, women sharing her terrible fate, and - as their choreography conveys - both protective of her and suspicious of Siegfried. They were not aided, it is true, by either the Drigo arrangement of the last act or Boris Gruzin's heavy conducting throughout; the funereal pace at which he took the oveture had me squirming in my seat, thinking wistfully of what Koen Kessels can do with the same score.
A Mariinsky Swan Lake should be, can be, such a wonderful thing. One wants so much for it to be the best that there is. But the best Swan Lakes I have seen in the last two years were both by British companies, Birmingham Royal Ballet and English National Ballet, who may lack the Russian company's stunning pedigree, but who invest heart and soul in what they do. It may indeed be time for Xander Parish to come back to Britain, but he might just learn a thing or two here that he hasn't picked up in Russia.
- The Mariinsky Ballet are in residence at the Royal Opera House until 12 August, performing Swan Lake and other pieces in repertory.
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