It is 50 years since what was formerly known as the Kirov Ballet — now Mariinsky Ballet — paid its first, legendary visit to London. Thanks to the commendable efforts of Viktor Hochhauser, the impresario who made that first visit possible, the company has become a familiar focal point of the London summer dance season. This year is no exception, with a rich programme of both classical and modern ballets. For its opening last week, the celebrated Russian company chose the work it is traditionally associated with: Swan Lake.
Konstantin Sergeyev’s 1950 production might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it remains a classic in the ballet’s performance history. Pleasantly dated, it highlights with its simplicity the sheer beauty of the choreography and the magnificence of the corps de ballet’s work. The performance I saw stood out because of the elegant symmetries, perfect unison and stylistic unity. The entrance of the swans and the choral numbers that followed were everything a serious balletomane dreams of, and a far cry from those Western productions in which the swans are all different heights, shapes and...weights.
I only wish I could show similar enthusiasm for the higher ranks of the company, though, as the performance I attended presented several problems as far as soloists and principals were concerned. Although the third-act national dances were neatly executed, none of the dancers possessed that majestic charisma that character dancers from the Mariinsky/Kirov always had. Similarly, the soloists engaging in the first-act pas de trois looked competent but nothing more.
As both the Swan Princess and her wicked double, Alina Somova was also a disappointment. Her striking looks and exceptionally controlled hyperextension were not sufficient to convey the full drama of a woman under an evil spell. As Odile, the Black Swan, her performance was a compendium of escalating vulgarities, which culminated in triple and double fouettées ridiculously performed, against the tenets of the classical idiom, with little or no en dehors or ‘turn out’. Still, she dazzled those who haven’t a clue and love to cheer a display of nonsensical spinning. Next to her, Evgeny Ivanchenko’s Prince Siegfried came across as merely a good partner.
A number of problems also affected the Homage to Fokine programme later in the week. This is not the appropriate context in which to question how much the Russian ever managed to absorb of the artistic creed promoted by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which never performed in Russia. What is certain is that Isabelle Fokine’s and Andris Liepa’s alleged reconstructions of the ballets created by Diaghilev’s first dance-maker, Michel Fokine, do not seem to tie in with the wealth of historical information that was passed on by the Ballets Russes’ protagonists as well as by generations of eminent dance scholars.
Of the three ballets in the programme, only Chopiniana — known in the West as Les Sylphides — seemed to have preserved some stylistic accuracy, even though on the opening night it lacked magic. This was a pity, for it starred Xander Parish, a superbly promising English dancer who was invited to join the Russian company in 2010.
The other two items on the programme, The Firebird and Schéhérazade, came across as music-hall revue turns. Strobe lights, fluorescent effects and a good deal of salsa-like hip gyrations for the evil sorcerer have been added to the former, with dire results in terms of unity between Stravinsky’s music and the danced action. As for Schéhérazade, what was once an intoxicating example of orientalist choreography has now been turned into a camp hotchpotch of balletic feats, midriff display and risible pseudo-eroticism. Not the best way to start such an important anniversary celebration.