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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 August 2006, 08:57 GMT 09:57 UK
Ballet samples heady Russian mix
By Paula Kennedy and Patrick Jackson
BBC News

This summer's twin Russian ballet and opera seasons in London are drawing to a close: the Bolshoi has barely a week to go at Covent Garden and the Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov) has already left the Coliseum.

Leningrad Symphony (photo by Natasha Razina c/o Mariinsky Theatre)
Nazis descend on Russia in the Mariinsky's Leningrad ballet

Both companies have enjoyed packed houses, winning new fans and rewarding old ones.

Critical opinion has largely favoured Moscow's Bolshoi while devotees of St Petersburg's Mariinsky may feel bewildered by some of the comment in the British press.

"The reviews didn't represent what the audiences saw," says Paul Cardwell, from the UK-based Mariinsky Theatre Trust's board of directors.

He admits a season devoted to Dmitri Shostakovich - a Soviet composer not known for his ballet music - was always going to be difficult but he feels the critics could have been fairer.

"Look at The Bedbug ballet, for instance - this was very anarchic, satirical stuff with some real Little Britain-style humour and political criticism," he says.

Nazis and opium

Some people may have been as baffled by the plot as much as the satirical intent of The Bedbug, based on a 1929 play, though the bawdy humour and futuristic costumes were enjoyable.

Igor Zelensky dances the Hooligan (photo by Natasha Razina c/o Mariinsky Theatre)
Zelensky is due to partner Darcy Bussell in London later this year

However, the two other pieces on the same triple bill made it a unique evening in London.

The Young Lady And The Hooligan evokes a time and place unfamiliar to Western audiences, the criminal underworld of pre-war Leningrad (as St Petersburg was then known).

Every step and gesture of Igor Zelensky as the Hooligan conveyed passion, from bravado to enraptured surrender before the delicacy of Svetlana Ivanova's Young Lady.

Leningrad Symphony, the triple bill's closing ballet, portrayed the war against Hitler, complete with a brown-clad Nazi corps de ballet swaggering and saluting.

The Bolshoi rescued the "opium dream" ballet The Pharaoh's Daughter - one of the 19th Century's most spectacular and sensational ballets - from obscurity.

Marius Petipa's 1862 original played on Europeans' fascination with oriental exotica while experimenting with every trick of stage mechanics offered by the Industrial Revolution.

Tortured soul

Though scaled down and rechoreographed, the new Bolshoi production is crammed full of costumes, dance movements and scene changes.

Maria Alexandrova, dancing the role of Ramze with astonishing lightness, literally took the Covent Garden audience's breath away.

The Mariinsky's operas revealed that Shostakovich was more than just a tortured soul on a political tightrope.

The Mariinsky's Nose (photo c/o Barbican press office)
Shostakovich has fun in The Nose

His first opera, The Nose, is a no-holds-barred adaptation of Gogol's satirical tale of lost social status.

Composed when Shostakovich was just 22, it is a testosterone-driven madcap gallop, compared at its 1930 premiere to "an anarchist's hand grenade".

The Mariinsky's current production went off like an artillery barrage, with a huge battery of percussion instruments.

The Bolshoi began its opera offering with The Fiery Angel, one of Prokofiev's most problematical works.

The heroine Renata is in a perpetual state of hysteria and the rare scenes without her come almost as a relief.

Fresh interest

Still, it was fascinating to be able to see within the space of only a few days what the exiled Prokofiev was working on at almost exactly the same time as his compatriot Shostakovich was occupied with The Nose.

The Bolshoi has been doing exceptionally well at the box office this mid-summer, according to its London press officer, Faith Wilson.

The Fiery Angel (photo c/o Bolshoi)
Hysteria in The Fiery Angel

She says The Pharaoh's Daughter received almost unanimously good reviews and even its familiar production of Swan Lake seems to have been welcomed back by the critics.

With all performances sold out, it certainly seems to have cast its old spell on the public again.

Lovers of the Mariinsky may smart at critics who found "sentimental guff" in its Hooligan (The Observer) or "risible staging" in The Nose (The Independent) but the season actually did "really well", according to Mr Cardwell.

He is confident it has attracted fresh interest in the company's work.

"Interest hopefully followed by dinners and cheques!" says Mr Cardwell.

The Mariinsky's London season has ended but the Bolshoi continues at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden until 19 August.

Ballet veteran displays modern touch
31 Dec 01 |  Entertainment

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