The Mariinsky Ballet (formerly known as the Kirov) has finally made it to Sadlers Wells! Why it took it 225 years is not a question that will be answered here. The important thing is that, in spite of some surprising programming choices, it was well worth the wait.
With two programmes of music performed over the week (with the first featuring William Forsythe ballets), the second programme featured three pieces choreographed by the prolific George Balanchine, and one by Alexei Ratmansky who reigns supreme today.
The evening started strongly with Stravinskys Apollo, choreographed by Balanchine in 1928. Under the baton of Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky Orchestras lower strings thundered through the Overture whilst the violins contrasted this with a comparatively light, but still foreboding, sound. Created not long after Balanchine left the Soviet Union, the choreography was clearly grounded in the Russian tradition, whilst taking established concepts several steps further.
So as Apollo (masterfully portrayed by Igor Zelensky) rotated his arm through 360 degrees at breakneck speed, the movements initially appeared anything but classical. They did not, however, lack the fundamental rhythmic qualities of classical ballet. They were simply much quicker. In the ballet, the Apollo of classical mythology appears almost as a modern man, overpowering the muses whose synchronised movements appear both graceful and mechanistic. Through use of a bare stage, however, man is also portrayed as a creature caught in an infinite cosmos over which he has no control. Paradoxically, we are now at the end of the future that Balanchine and Stravinsky foresaw, and yet, perhaps because of the credit crunch, the piece with its dual messages of power and uncertainty feels as relevant as ever.
Yury Khanons Middle Duet, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky in 1998 then provided an effective contrast. With the orchestra, now conducted by Tugan Sokhiev, remaining low key (the piano was the dominant instrument throughout), it saw a couple dance in woodland, and once again demonstrated mans insignificance, only this time caught within a battle between good and evil. The situation felt like an Edward Hopper painting, except that where that would typically capture a single moment in time, here we witnessed the entire demise of the lovers (Ekaterina Kondaurova and Islom Baimuradov). As the woman repeatedly fell and was caught by the man, signifying how they needed each others support, we also saw the pair at arms length pulling each other apart. Throughout a White and Dark Angel stood over them, and witnessed them falling prostrate to the ground, only to be replaced by new dancers whom we imagined would suffer the same fate.
After this, however, the programme took something of a nosedive. Balanchines choreography of the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux is a pastiche of the rivalry seen between Siegfried and Odile in Act III of Swan Lake, choreographed by Marius Petipa. Why Balanchine should have produced such a deliberately reactionary piece in 1960 is one thing, but why the Mariinsky should have chosen it for this programme is quite another. It may simply have been because it is a crowd pleaser, although, in fairness, the strength of performance from Vladimir Shklyarov and Olesya Novikova imbued this passage with a level of grace that I have seldom seen in performances of Swan Lake itself.
The final piece, Prokofievs The Prodigal Son, choreographed by Balanchine in 1929 and conducted by Gergiev, was another disappointing choice. Balanchine thought little of his own creation, and though the ballet is tantalisingly physical, by the same token it gives us few chances to feel much emotionally for the characters.
With the backdrops designed to emulate the ballet sets of the early twentieth century Russian primitivists, the highlight was the second act in which the Prodigal Son (Mikhail Lobukhin) lives the high life before being left naked and penniless. The physicality of the dancing was striking with the corps de ballet entering in a tight stampeding line, and the Siren (Ekaterina Kondaurova) imbuing the scene with sexual energy as she danced with the Son and was lifted onto his neck in a single stroke. In contrast, the final reconciliation with the father elicited a clichd and unmoving tableau as both stretched out their arms.
The first two pieces, though separated by seventy years, were ground breaking in different ways, but the subsequent more reactionary ballets meant that the evening then failed to live up to its early promise. Nevertheless, even if certain pieces prevented the dancers from demonstrating the full range of their talents, they always performed what was demanded of them to the highest standard. As a result, the memory of the first appearance of the Mariinsky Ballet, and indeed the world class Mariinsky Orchestra, at Sadlers Wells is one that I shall treasure for many years to come.
The Mariinsky Opera, conducted by Tugan Sokhiev, will be performing Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan at Sadler’s Wells, 17-18 October 2008.
For more information see SadlersWells.com.