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Tchaikovsky Ballets in St Petersburg

Posted on February 18, 2011

St Petersburg in winter is truly magnificent – crystal-clear days (if you are lucky), frozen canals and plenty of snow, which means near-empty museums and restaurants – all made for an unstressful life. In contrast, the cultural life of this great city continues unabated, theatres full of eager audiences.

Three days afforded the opportunity to hear two of Tchaikovsky’s great ballet scores played in authentic style – Swan Lake as presented by the Mikhailovsky Ballet in their theatre a stone’s throw from Nevsky Prospect, and The Nutcracker by the Maryinsky Ballet in their eponymous home. It was truly a joy to hear Tchaikovsky played so theatrically, as opposed to the somewhat more symphonic and polite style we are used to in the UK – Mikhail Sinkevich at the Maryinsky and Valentin Bogdanov and Peter Feranec at the Mikhailovsky are to be congratulated.

On stage, things were rather more mixed. St Petersburg was agog when Leonid Sarafanov, star principal at the Maryinsky announced his departure for the Mikhailovsky. He was attracted, apparently, by the arrival of the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato as the new artistic director, and therefore made the jump. However, the Mikhailovsky’s present repertoire is resolutely classical, Duato presents two of his existing works and one new creation in mid-March, and Mikhail Messerer, legendary teacher and coach and, until the end of 2010, the company’s director (he remains as ballet master-in-chief), has done much to strengthen the company’s credentials in classical dance. Given the situation, Sarafanov is appearing in existing repertoire, and I managed to catch his debut in Messerer’s hugely successful and warmly received revival production of the old Bolshoi staging of Swan Lake. The period style that Messerer has tried to imbue into the company as yet escapes Sarafanov, who danced a portmanteau Prince Siegfried, mightily impressive in technical terms, even if he does sometimes “push” for effect, but stylistically at odds with the more careful placement of the company around him. Sarafanov’s relationship with his Swan Queen tended to the cool. Irina Perren, whose Giselle in London last year was simply sublime, makes a better Odile than Odette; her Ann Miller period look suits the black costume well and she is technically strong – the white acts saw her less at ease, the requisite pliancy of her upper torso absent and arms somewhat stiff. I like this production very much, even if my western eyes crave for a little more mime; but this is a dancing Swan Lake, a rich cascade of dances suffused with a gentle lyricism. It tells the story with true simplicity and eschews the unnecessary naturalistic accretions that mar many a “western” production – the Prince’s tutor doesn’t get blind drunk, the Act III ball is not peopled by grotesques, and the period is as it should be: late medieval.

The second night was even stronger, with a well-matched central pair. Ekaterina Borchenko makes for a touching and aristocratic Odette, large, sad eyes clearly used to disappointment and betrayal.  She is a tall dancer, and performs the choreography in large, carefully hewn movements; her Odile flashes malevolently. Her Prince, Marat Shemiunov, has matured in the role considerably since I saw him in London. Tall, with extremely long legs, he has now mastered the period “feyness” – heeled shoes, gloves, a hat all contribute to a rather unmanly appearance, as do the gentle hand gestures.  But Shemiunov now has found a way with all of this – he convinces, and, moreover, fits into the style of the production in a way not even attempted by Sarafanov. Technically fallible, Shemiunov’s is, however, the Siegfried I preferred – he was clearly and demonstrably besotted with the supernatural creature, his Swan Queen. Elsewhere, Andrey Yakhnyuk in the second night just pipped the immensely likeable first night Anton Ploom in the pas de trois, and I admired Mikhail Venshchikov’s dastardly Evil Genius with Borchenko, although Perren’s sorcerer, Vladimir Tsal, gave a cracking Act IV, flailing impressively after Siegfried has torn off one of his wings. Tsal was, for Borchenko, an ideal lead in the Act III Hungarian Dance, matched in Magyar haughtiness by Anna Novosyolova.

The sets look even more impressive than at the London Coliseum – the Mikhailovsky stage is deeper and narrower, the depth greatly enhancing the stage picture.  Costumes remain as sumptuous as before – Breughel with a touch of 1950s chic.

So down the Moyka River (frozen solid as the temperature fell to -20°C at night) to the Maryinsky for the tenth anniversary performance of their production of The Nutcracker. Alarm bells were ringing from the start: the production is by Mikhail Shemyakin, painter, stage designer, sculptor and publisher, and representative of the nonconformist art tradition of St Petersburg. To observe that the stage picture dominates would be an understatement – rarely have I seen a stage so cluttered with sets – think Willy Wonka’s factory and you’ll start to get the idea. Massive sets, costumes, bizarre stage pictures all serve to reduce the performers to mere extras – the real performance is Shemyakin’s design. He also re-wrote the libretto, which is rarely a good idea for the designer to do, and, sure enough, for anyone who had not read the story beforehand, it was quite unintelligible – he introduces a sinister rat dressed as a cardinal who seems to try to block Masha (Clara to you and me) from doing whatever it is she is trying to do. On her side, I think, is the weirdest Drosselmeyer – if I were Shemyakin, I would hope that Richard O’Brien doesn’t see the ballet, as he might wish to speak to his lawyers about the apparent rip-off of his own character Riff-Raff in The Rocky Horror Show, bald pate, costume, mannerisms, the lot. For this delight Anton Adasinsky, an actor from the Derevo Theatre, was brought in to scuttle and twitch.

Credited far down the list is Kirill Simonov. He is, apparently, a choreographer, although “movement consultant” may be closer to the truth. Simonov was a soloist in the company, but he certainly does not do his alma mater proud with this Nutcracker. There is almost no dancing whatever in Act I, except for the awful black snowflakes, the sublime ladies of the Maryinsky corps de ballet at one point asked to lie on their backs and paddle their feet in the air – so that’s what all those years of training were for. Act II has more movement, but Simonov never offers anything more than unrelenting mediocrity. His style takes a smidgen of Balanchine with a large scoop of Mats Ek, all mixed in with heaps of dull classroom moves. His movements are unmusical – he determinedly ignores nearly every musical climax – and perverse in its “take” on classicism. I pitied poor Natalia Sologub, now with Ballett Dresden, who returned to St Petersburg to dance in this performance – a delightful dancer with a smile large enough to fill the stage, she threw herself heart and soul into this tosh, as did the impressively proportioned classicist, second soloist Alexander Sergeyev as her Nutcracker. You don’t need to know about the “dancer as a snake” for the Arabian Dance, the “dancers as bees” for the Mirlitons (they waggled their bottoms a lot), the trio of Petrushkas for the Russian Dance or the deeply dull Waltz of the Flowers, which saw the aristocratic corps de ballet almost yawning with the tedium of it all. How this has survived ten years is anybody’s guess, except that the sets and costumes must have cost more than an oligarch’s football club, and they haven’t yet had a return on their investment.

Gerald Dowler

Gerald Dowler writes for the Financial Times, Ballet 2000 and several dance publications and websites. His articles have included appreciations of both Bronislava Nijinska and Antony Tudor and he has interviewed extensively for Dancing Times. He teaches at the City of London School.

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