The Moscow City Ballet regularly tour in the UK – in fact I don’t think they ever go anywhere near Mother Russia – and this is the third time we’ve seen them at the Royal and Derngate. They normally perform two ballets in the same week – this week they’re doing Swan Lake and Giselle. Having seen some pretty ropey classical ballet here in Northampton on occasions, the Moscow City Ballet is more or less the only company currently touring where you can have absolute confidence that they will do justice to a big show with technical excellence. It’s entertainment on a grand scale. Whilst the sets are more practical than elaborate (to be honest the Big Bad Wolf could blow them down with a small sneeze), and the props have an element of fancy-dress shop about them, no expense is spared on the lavish costumes, so it all looks lush and plush. It’s a large company, so a big stage like the Derngate is a good match for a corps de ballet of 18 ballerinas, let alone their male suitors; and the performances benefit from a gutsy live performance by a full orchestra, under the baton of Igor Shavruk.
Few things are more elegant, refined, and, let’s face it, anachronistic, than the whole culture of Russian Classical Ballet. Don’t get me wrong – I love it. I love everything about it; may it never cease. The skill, the artistry, the music, the Petipa-style choreography; but above all, the amusing little conventions. Ever since we first saw the Trocks, I cannot help but smile at all the tell-tale rituals that form part of a classical ballet performance. I love how a dancer will do a solo and then stop the flow of the performance to come back on for a round of applause. I love how the story-telling aspects of any ballet will inevitably include asking whether someone is married by pointing at their ring finger. I love how a “no” is indicated by a frown and two arms crossing each other outwards. And I love how the guys hanging around the edges of the stage floatily wave their arms in recognition and admiration whenever a more senior dancer gets anywhere near them. Wouldn’t it be great to adopt that practice in the office? Stand by the photocopier and whenever anyone wants to use it, wave magnanimously at them. When you’re asked if you want sugar in your coffee, frown and cross your arms outwards. I think this could have legs.
Mrs Chrisparkle and I have seen Giselle once before, performed by the Birmingham Royal Ballet, probably at least ten years ago, but I’d forgotten the story and structure. It’s definitely a game of two halves, with the first act being the story of how innocent, delicate, feeble of health Giselle is wooed by Duke Albrecht, thinking he is but a mere peasant boy; but also pursued by a gamekeeper called Hilarion. She falls for Albrecht but when she discovers He Is Not Who He Appears To Be, she loses her mind, has a heart-attack and dies. Limited scope for humour here. In the second act, we visit Giselle’s grave, where Hilarion mourns her death but he gets a dose of the Wilis (that’s the spirits of women jilted at the altar, if you were in doubt), who have a tendency to dance men to death in an act of choreographic revenge. That’s precisely what happens to the hapless Hilarion, but when they turn on Albrecht, also mourning at the grave, he gets an inner strength because the spirit of Giselle forgives him; thus he dances his way out of danger, and her spirit is released from the hold of the Wilis. And they all die happily ever after, you might say.
In the same way that you don’t go to Shakespeare for the madrigals, you don’t really go to the ballet for the story. You go to admire the beautiful dancing, the emotions, the pointe work, the angles, the stamina, the precision, the speed, the stillness, the balance… you get the picture. I really enjoyed their Don Quixote last year, but I would say the overall quality of the performance in this year’s Giselle is even better.
Any production of Giselle relies heavily on an excellent performance from the dancer playing that lead role, and on Monday night’s performance, Liliya Orekhova was outstanding. Innocence personified, incredibly elegant, she created beautiful clear lines, performed remarkable solos and made it all look effortless. But Mrs C and I were both also really impressed with Ekaterina Tokareva as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, who absolutely commanded the entire second act with her amazing pointe work, and incredible stage presence.
Talgat Kozhabaev gave a really top quality performance as Albrecht, full of power and accuracy, tempered with grace and personality. He and Miss Orekhova are perfectly matched and their pas de deux were always impressively controlled whilst still full of life and emotion. I was also impressed with Artem Minakov’s performance as Hilarion, especially in the second act when his “death dance” was really stunning. In the first act pas de deux we thought Andrei Zhuravlev gave a great performance, even if his white tights made it look as though his legs had been tippexed all over. However, we did feel that Miss Yuliya Zhuravleva was perhaps a little under-warmed-up; not quite a pas de don’t, but rather tentative at times. Nevertheless, when she returned as one of the Wilis, she performed with incredible grace, strength and elegance. The corps de ballet were on great form throughout, and the overall effect of their work together and the images they created in the second act were magnificent.
PS. Stop Press – Coming Very Soon – The Fifth Annual Chrisparkle Awards!