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Last Updated: Monday, 17 July 2006, 07:12 GMT 08:12 UK
Ballet ready for Russian invasion
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

The UK is running a nationwide Big Dance festival this month but the dance hardly gets much bigger than Moscow's Bolshoi theatre, which is coming to London in its own right.

Dancers Nikolai Tsiskaridze (Bolshoi) and Yekaterina Kondaurova (Mariinsky) pose with London Mayor Ken Livingstone
Mayor Ken Livingstone has been welcoming the Russians to London

Unless, that is, you prefer its old Russian rival, the Mariinsky theatre of St Petersburg - or Kirov as it is still commonly known - which is also coming to town.

The two are performing a few streets from each other, offering a unique chance to sample the best of Russian ballet and opera in one place.

Is that too much ballet? Each theatre has picked a programme reflecting its own character and strengths, minimising the risk of repetition.

Could we not have more football instead? Men in shorts - as opposed to men in tights - feature in one of the Mariinsky's ballets.

The Golden Age concerns a football match between Soviet and "capitalist" teams.

Everyone subsidises stuff they don't ever use but other people benefit from, and vice versa. It's called civilisation.

For the Mariinsky, competing for a fat profit does not appear to be the aim of this July visit.

But the fact it will be playing the Coliseum while the Bolshoi does Covent Garden, invites match comparisons.

So how are the team selections looking?

Proud heritage

If you decided to see just one of the performances, "you should definitely opt for the Bolshoi", says its director Alexei Ratmansky.

The Bolshoi's Pharaoh's Daughter (photo: Damir Yusupov)
Not a pair of shorts in sight in the Bolshoi's Pharaoh's Daughter...

"Our troupe is in fine form and the repertoire we are bringing is full of variety, including three which are completely new for the city.

"Covent Garden's stage, the wings, everything is good for staging a ballet."

He says that the Bolshoi season is meant to mark 50 years since its first tour of London, and is showcasing the best of its work with such classics as Swan Lake and Don Quixote.

While any great theatre must act as a museum to some extent, it must keep staging new work, adds Mr Ratmansky.

His top tip for the London season are some of the Bolshoi's youngest ballet stars, like Natalia Osipova and Denis Matvienko.

Something different

If one theatre is celebrating a 50th anniversary, the Mariinsky is marking a 100th one - Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich's birth.

The Mariinsky's Golden Age (photo: Barbican press office)
... and not a tutu to be seen in the Mariinsky's Golden Age

The Bolshoi also has Shostakovich centenary productions in Moscow, and is premiering his ballet The Bright Stream in London.

But the Mariinsky's repertoire at the Coliseum consists solely of the work of St Petersburg's native son, much of it barely known outside Russia.

Footballing ballet-dancers? Maybe... But what about The Bedbug? The Nose? Cheryomushki?

Paul Cardwell, a director of the UK-based Mariinsky Theatre Trust, says the focus of this tour is not to achieve the kind of commercial success seen in well-known ballets like the Nutcracker.

"This is a much more interesting tour because the work is unknown," he says.

"But I think that audiences now know Russian companies, and they would be interested to see the other stuff they do."

He suggests UK sponsorship is allowing the Mariinsky to take a certain amount of risk at the box office.

The charity set up to promote the Mariinsky shows the loyalty it inspires in the UK.

The work of chief conductor Valery Gergiev to keep it thriving through years of economic turmoil enjoys wide respect.

He is conducting the Mariinsky through the entire Wagner Ring Cycle in Baden Baden, Germany, before raising his baton for Shostakovich.

Two greats

Asked to identify a Mariinsky highlight, Mr Cardwell mentions a ballet set to the Leningrad Symphony - music traditionally associated with the wartime siege of the city.

But he adds that he is looking forward to seeing the Bolshoi in London, too.

Alexei Ratmansky is similarly respectful towards "the opposition".

"It would be wrong to speculate about which theatre is better because the Kirov and the Bolshoi are both very important theatres," he says.

"It is just a question of what you prefer."

The Mariinsky performs at English National Opera Coliseum 20-29 July, and the Bolshoi at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden 25 July-19 August. Big Dance week runs from 15-23 July.

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