We all know the tradition of Russian ballet – you don’t have to be a fan to have heard of the Bolshoi, the Mariinsky, Nijinsky, Nureyev and so on. About eleven years ago, Mrs Chrisparkle and I found ourselves in St. Petersburg, as you do, and spent an evening watching a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at the – if I remember correctly – Mikhailovsky Theatre. It was to be our first attendance at a genuine Russian Classical ballet performance. Boy, was it poor. The dancers were bored, danced boringly, the orchestra played boringly, and the whole evening was primarily set up so that Japanese tourists could take a constant stream of flash photography throughout. If it hadn’t been for the Russian champagne at the interval, we might well have thrown ourselves into the orchestra pit without a parachute.
So it was with some trepidation but still some hopefulness that we booked to see the Moscow City Ballet’s production of Swan Lake. For extra ballast, we took our nieces, Special Agent N (laid back and taking it all in her stride) and Special Agent S (slightly younger, still agog with excitement.) I’m delighted to say this is a whole different ball game; top notch dancing with commitment and elegance, fantastic attention to detail, stirringly skilful and, above all, simply beautiful to watch.
We’ve only once before seen a “traditional” performance of Swan Lake, and that was by Birmingham Royal Ballet some years ago, which I chiefly remember for the powerfully atmospheric way in which the swans appeared from a misty nowhere in Act Two. Apart from that, it’s just the Trocks’ famous Act One version (which is brilliant) and Matthew Bourne’s male swan version (also brilliant.) I think this is probably then the most faithful we have seen to the Petipa/Ivanov 1895 staging. And it’s no surprise that their choreography remains so popular – it’s just so enjoyable to watch.
Production values are appropriately high – the set, though simple, is attractive and evocative – especially the big stained window for Act Three. The costumes are superb – sufficiently lavish to look spectacular, but not so that they draw you away from the dancers themselves. Similarly the orchestra is nicely in control of its music – you’d find it a bit of a flat performance if it was a concert, but as a framework for the dance it was perfect.
At the performance we saw, Odette-Odile was played by Alevtina Lapshina. She was magnificent. A mysteriously beautiful Odette, outstanding whether fronting the corps, in pas de deux with the Prince or as a soloist. She is remarkably graceful and faultless in her fluidity. Even some rather irritating off-stage door-banging could not affect the beauty of her scene with the Prince, shortly before the dance of the little swans. As Odile, she adopts a half-coquette, half-harlot smile and there is no way any of the other brides were going to get a look-in with the Prince. Special Agent S was particularly amazed at her wonderful turning fouettés during the grand pas de six. It’s a stunning performance – and we loved the white and black costume she briefly wore, excellent detail from the costume department there.
The Prince was Kanat Nadyrbek. He too gave a very good performance, strong and graceful in support of Odette and suitably beguiled by Odile. His dance was superbly controlled and perfectly placed throughout. For me the role gets overshadowed if you have a really great Odette though. But Mr Nadyrbek was excellent nevertheless.
Possibly more entertaining to watch, however, was Daniil Orlov’s Von Rothbart, whose appearances were a constant joy. He seems to cover huge areas of stage with the lightest of leaps, and created a genuinely menacing figure. I hadn’t noticed before – maybe it is new? – his brief, simple appearance at the back of the stage in Act three where he dances across the stage in a mirror image of the Prince, blinded by Odile’s attractions, doing the same movements front stage, suggesting von Rothbart is mocking and controlling him. Very effective. I really enjoyed his performance.
The whole company are on top form, but I would also like to mention a couple of other performers; you either love the role or you hate it, but I thought Valeriy Kravtsov’s Jester was fantastic – dancing superbly, eyes and face full of expression, astonishing with his acrobatic split leaps, commenting wryly on the court activities through the medium of movement alone. Wonderful; he’s listed as a member of the corps de ballet in the programme, surely he must be promoted to soloist soon.
I also thought that, as one of the Polish brides, Anna Nunes really got into the spirit of the dance and was grace and elegance personified; another stunning performance.
Perhaps occasionally a couple of the male corps de ballet seemed slightly under-rehearsed in Act Three, and once or twice Mrs C felt the dancers in the Act One pas de trois were a little out of place; but, in all honesty, who cares, it was gorgeous throughout. Having seen those grumpy ballerinas in St Petersburg it was a true delight to see this company wearing their “happy to be dancing” smiles – when it was appropriate to do so. The acting and characterisation were as good as you could possibly have hoped them to be.
Special Agent S thought it was unfair that the male corps de ballet didn’t get a curtain call at the end. Just goes to show that life can sometimes be sexist, kid. We all loved it though – and it’s a real treat to welcome a dance company of this quality from Russia. If you’re a fan of classical ballet you will really enjoy this. Touring till the end of March, don’t miss it.