The term ‘circus’ is used in the ballet world with disparaging intentions to criticise any excessive display of technical bravura.
The term ‘circus’ is used in the ballet world with disparaging intentions to criticise any excessive display of technical bravura. Yet in the appropriate context, dazzling acrobatics can be high art, as the Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe of China demonstrated last week. I would never have thought that I would have raved about a version of the immortal Swan Lake in which the ballerina swivels on point while balancing either on her partner’s bicep or on his head. But there I was, gasping with surprise like a six-year-old.
The Guangdong’s is a very free take on Tchaikovsky’s ballet, the narrative of which is manipulated to accommodate the constant outpouring of phenomenal stunts performed by jugglers, acrobats, contortionists and dancers. And despite the numerous liberties, the magic of the old fairy tale comes fully to the fore, at times more than in any of those dramatically flat contemporary productions seen in more culturally elitist contexts and environments.
Set to a much adapted and not always so well recorded track of Tchaikovsky’s score, the Guangdong’s Swan Lake is an intoxicating explosion of colour and sheer fun. The turns follow each other with incredible swiftness, and by the time the curtain comes down one finds it difficult to believe that two hours and 15 minutes have passed. Indeed, the show is splendidly over the top and camp beyond any possible expectation. But beyond the naive campness is a superb expression of artistic commitment. I only wish many of the so-called artists in the western ballet world had the same sense of togetherness, and could communicate the same belief in what they are doing as the Guangdong’s artists do. It is the perfect combination of such qualities that turns this Swan Lake into something odd, unique and utterly memorable; a performance brimming with theatre magic.
Excitement for the Guangdong’s Swan Lake counteracted the disappointment experienced the previous night when I had to endure the Mariinsky Ballet’s British premiere of Alexei Ratmanski’s Anna Karenina. Ratmanski, one of today’s finest dance makers, has rapidly become known as a choreographer who knows how to revive and revisit classics of the Soviet era for contemporary audiences. It is a pity that Anna Karenina is not on a par with his successful readings of The Bolt, The Bright Stream or The Flames of Paris. While the original 1971 work was a dramaturgically vibrant showcase for the charismatic talent of Russian superstar Maya Plisetskaya, this new version seems to have no narrative drive and comes across as a series of repetitive choreographic numbers. The dance vocabulary is truly unimpressive, for it tends to overuse predictable formulae that ill-fit both the narration and the development of the drama.
All sorts of pseudo sensational stage-craft ideas, including a great many projections and the often risible presence of trains on stage, are strategically placed to elicit a few gasps of admiration from those who want only visual thrills. In my view, all they did was to highlight the numerous gaps and flaws of the danced action. In addition, the train that spins endlessly to Rodion Shchedrin’s music before revealing its interior reminded me of similar stunts used in the ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo’ number from 42nd Street. In this context, even the performances of artists such as Diana Vishneva, as the eponymous heroine, and Evgenia Obraztsova, as Kitty, made little or no impact.
It was fortunate, therefore, that such a choreographic faux pas was not the concluding item in this year’s Mariinsky season in London, and that the company said its farewell with the old 1877 classic La Bayadère. The performance I saw, on the opening night, starred Victoria Tereshkina, arguably one of the most sensational dancers the company has at the moment. As the unhappy temple dancer who has to perform for the wedding of her beloved to the evil Princess Gamzatti, Tereshkina electrified the audience with her splendidly held balances, the purity of her lines and a powerfully strong reading of the role. I only wish she had not opted to forsake any interpretation in the final act — universally known as the Kingdom of the Shades — for there is more to it than just displaying technical bravura, or the ‘circus’ mentioned above. Next to her, a very young looking Vladimir Shklyarov stunned everyone with his athletic prowess. As for the rest, the entire company looked good, even though not exactly splendid.