tue 28/06/2022

Gala programme, Mikhailovsky Ballet, London Coliseum | reviews, news & interviews

Gala programme, Mikhailovsky Ballet, London Coliseum

Gala programme, Mikhailovsky Ballet, London Coliseum

Rareties, new work, thongs and glitter - a fun Russian mish-mash

The Mikhailovsky Ballet is full of surprises. Predictably for a Russian company it brought a gala programme yesterday - unpredictably, it brought a rare example of St Petersburg 19th-century ballet comedy and a new commission of contemporary ballet. Neither of these is box office, so how refreshing is that? Then there were the thongs-and-glitter pas de deux of the strenuous 20th-century Soviet athletic style, and a classical jewel from Sleeping Beauty, and a wholly delightful court polonaise from a Glinka opera.

The combination generally made this show an eye-opener about the sheer babel of ballet styles and tastes now available to Russian dancers - even before they start pushing a bit at the envelope of contemporary style. Much is being made on this trip by the company of their “restorations” and “reconstructions” - the choice one is to come, the Chabukiani Laurencia later this week - but the oddest by far is what is billed as a careful restoration of a “jest” by Petipa, the genius of St Petersburg classical dance, Le Halte de cavalerie (When the Cavalry stopped). This is purest balletic operetta, with an Austrian village going about its flirtatious business when the Austro-Hungarian cavalry stop to dally with the girls.

Tea-dance waltzes and oompah marches by Armsheimer - yes, Ivan Ivanovich himself (listed helpfully on the Dolmetsch composer index as “Russian composer, trumpeter, military conductor and pedagogue”) - create something of an equivalent atmosphere to Balanchine’s Western Symphony, ie, expect larger-than-lifesize overacting and plenty of star-name fun. As in 1896 the ballerinas in the two competing ladies’ roles were no less than the famous Italian star Pierina Legnani, fresh from premiering Swan Lake and first inventor of the 32 fouettés, and Petipa’s daughter, Marie Petipa, the original Lilac Fairy, one is expecting something pretty good here, full of Petipan diamonds and technical fizz.

Well, it wasn’t, and obviously the words "after Petipa" cover a multitude of alterations and helpful improvements (it's Pyotr Gusev who patched it all up in 1975). If Petipa wrote any of it then I'm a genius choreographer. I forecast every single step in the corps de ballet and the second pas de deux. The rival divas cavort in precisely predictable fashion, one a gentle wifey with two simplistic pas de deux with the two-timing Pierre, the other flouncing about in her killer red boots and not doing much else. The company did field a splendidly Clouseau-like character actor, Andrei Bregvadze, in the role of the priapic and incompetent Colonel in charge of the hussars, whose knees tremble just to look at the fresh young Tyrolean misses, while the company’s men swaggered about in moustaches and hussar uniforms with attractive pizazz.

However, even with the masterly Pavel Bubelnikov whipping up froth with the orchestra, this feels hollow, a surely distorted cry from an era when Petipa was churning out one-act entertainments like a pastry chef. There was some more genuine Petipa later on the bill, the Sleeping Beauty pas de deux, to compare it with, where you really are constantly being led by the man’s innovative and creative urges. But perhaps just as important, this kind of ballet is lifeless if all it is is a reproduction of expected archetypes - it demands much immediate character playing and zest from the ballerinas to bring it off.

The same timidity infected the impact of Slava Samodurov’s new contemporary ballet for the company, wanting to achieve style and attack but suffering evidently partly from under-rehearsal and also from what seems to be quite a gap of comprehension between the dancers and the idiom of the choreography.

In a Minor Key (what a hostage to fortune that sort of title is) has fine production values, with Alexander Pirozhenko on stage playing Scarlatti keyboard sonatas through some intriguing amplifications, smart if familiar industrial effects of blazing lights and dark shadows, and sexy red corselettes for girls, while the boys, less predictably, wear natty street gear with orange beanies atop black cycling shorts. It looks and sounds grand.

The choreography launches confidently with the six dancers lined formally around the very large stage, adopting the remote, chilly attitude and extreme-split legs that identify the post-Forsythe ballet world, but softer, more fluid, and kinder to dancers unfamiliar with the style. But this is a learning curve, clearly, as with the exception of Antonina Chapkina (the smallest), the long-legged girls appeared uncomfortable with going off-balance. The boys did better, with some Puckish solos, but it's easier for them. There's musical interest in the piece, a liaison between modern pugnacity and keyboard attack, and hopefully this stylish piece will develop as the dancers themselves do.

The diverts in the third part of the show found them back in their comfort zones. Classicism - the Sleeping Beauty nicely done (Andrei Yakhnuyk cutting a princely figure, though he tired too quickly). Charm - the Polonaise and Cracovienne made by Rostislav Zakharov for Glinka’s opera Ivan Susanin. Sugar - Legat's Fairy Doll trio, with an edibly pretty Sabina Yapparova in pink dangling two Pierrots from her pretty fingers. Madame Jo-Jo's - a hilarious Spartacus pas de deux, with Marat Shemiunov, who had been so lamentable in white tights in Swan Lake, seeming reborn in dangerously short black Roman-emperor sequins, doing full splits while toting his acrobatic ballerina like an upside-down starfish overhead. These are the trivial rareties that make ballet such a fun area of theatre.

  • The Mikhailovsky Ballet performs Chabukiani's Laurencia (20 & 21 July), Swan Lake (22-25 July) and Cipollino, a children's ballet (24) at the London Coliseum

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