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Lost Illusions by Barbara Newman

Posted on June 12, 2018

The Royal Ballet and the Maly Drama Theatre make an unlikely couple. One concerns itself with dance, the other with theatre. At capacity, the Royal Opera House accommodates 2,256 people, and the Maly’s home – “maly” means small in Russian – seats only 400, which means the buildings themselves impose different demands on performers. Luke Scarlett’s new production of Swan Lake returns it to the imperial opulence most viewers associate with its overwrought narrative, while the Maly’s staging of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya sets the cast in period costumes on a nearly empty wooden stage.

The two productions arrived in London at roughly the same time. Both sold out their respective theatres (the Maly occupied the Theatre Royal Haymarket) and earned rave reviews but offered fundamentally different experiences, and I’m not talking about speech as opposed to movement. Though resplendent in John Macfarlane’s lavish designs, Swan Lake looked decidedly pedestrian, a familiar text danced with matter-of-fact deliberation, untouched by magic or mystery. On opening night, only Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov as the leads and Alexander Campbell in the extended role of Benno provided detailed interpretations, brilliant in technical panache and emotionally coherent. Nearly everyone else delivered the choreography, old and new, as classroom exercises, neatly executed and safe as houses, without a flicker of physical daring or dramatic purpose.

At the first interval, my guest demanded, “What happened to the story? Isn’t it important? How can anyone create an illusion with the audience applauding every few minutes and the dancers taking all those bows? This isn’t a narrative ballet, it’s a pantomime.”

I couldn’t disagree, though for me the most significant fault lay with Koen Kessels’ energy-draining tempi. The “Black Swan” pas de deux lost its passionate excitement with the lights lowered and the tempo at a crawl. The waltzes for the swans and courtiers never broke from the oom-pah-pah rhythm a marching band might assign them, and even Nuñez, who’s both musical and strong, couldn’t sustain the continuity of her variations with Kessels slowing her momentum.

Above: The Royal Ballet in Act IV of Swan Lake. Top: Marianela Nuñez as Odette in Swan Lake. Photographs by Bill Cooper, courtesy of the Royal Opera House.

Following his lead, the ensemble and soloists maintained a low profile and let the costumes sparkle for them, as if they could fulfill the ballet by simply showing us the steps. I thought of Philip Roth’s recent obituaries, one of which quoted the novelist as saying, “Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest. Its power arises from the authority and audacity with which the impersonation is pulled off; the belief it inspires is what counts.” The same goes for dancing. All the chandeliers and brocade gowns in the world can’t pull off Swan Lake if the performers lack the authority and audacity to make us believe their impersonations.

The Maly Theatre’s actors seem to express these qualities by second nature. Extending Chekhov’s romantic comedy to us like an invitation into their home, they effectively erased the distance between make-believe and life. In Uncle Vanya, a young woman and her stepmother sat side by side on wooden chairs, facing front. We might have been eavesdropping on a shared conversation or their private brooding. They might have been speaking to each other or directly to us. I couldn’t tell and the distinction didn’t matter, because their eyes, posture, gestures and phrasing drew me into their situation and made it real.

The Maly Drama Theatre in Uncle Vanya. Photograph courtesy of The Maly Drama Theatre.

A long way from Vanya’s melancholy domesticity, the company’s second London production, Life and Fate, derives from a monumental novel by Vasily Grossman, a Russian Jew and a war correspondent who took as his subjects nothing less than warfare, persecution, and life in a totalitarian regime. Written in the 1950s and banned in the Soviet Union for decades, the book was adapted for the theatre and directed by the Maly’s artistic director, Lev Dodin, who discovered it by chance in 1985. “Thanks to the wise decision not to smuggle the book in [to Russia], some 20 years later I was not in prison and so physically able to do it on stage,” he has said.

How do you translate more than 850 pages, bursting with the horrors of the 20th century, into a three-hour play? Through study, reflection, selection and, most important in this staggering production, concision. Dress the stage with a table, an upright piano, a folding bed, not much more, and bisect it diagonally with a volleyball net. Deploy 27 actors as soldiers, lovers, prisoners, families, business associates, and then layer their acts of affection, dread, courage and humour so the discrete layers become enmeshed.

The Maly Drama Theatre in Life and Fate. Photograph courtesy of The Maly Drama Theatre.

There’s no reason ballet can’t accomplish this too. For many years, Swan Lake illuminated timeless truths that justified returning to see it, year after year, cast after cast. The feathers and courtly manners framed something greater than themselves, and no one needed surtitles to understand the content.

Barbara Newman is dance critic for Country Life, a frequent contributor to numerous periodicals and reference works, and the author of a number of books about ballet which include a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance; a children’s book, The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories; and Grace Under Pressure.

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