The Mihailovsky Ballet
15, 18, 20 July, 2010
by Judith Cruickshank
copyright 2010 by Judith Cruickshank
Of the five programmes the Mihailovsky Ballet brought to London for their second visit only two had been shown in the 2008 season; Nikita Dolgushin’s production of “Giselle” and Pyotr Gusev’s staging of the Petipa rarity, Le Halte du Cavalerie. Both the revivals of the Gorsky version of “Swan Lake” and Vakhtang Chabukiani’s “Laurencia” were added to the repertory only this season. Also new to London was the ‘ballet for children’, “Cipollino.”
Lucky company to be able to afford two such major productions in a single season and in such luxurious stagings, and that is not to mention the new one act piece choreographed for the Mihailovsky by former Kirov and Royal Ballet principal Slava Samodurov. And the company was doubly lucky in being able to enjoy superb musical accompaniment throughout the season with its own orchestra.
The Maecenas behind all this is Vladimir Kekhman, General Director of the Mihailovsky Theatre, who not only paid for the restoration of the building but presumably underwrites both the ballet and opera companies. It’s just a pity that he wasn’t rewarded with larger audiences, because both dancers and productions deserved full houses.
Dolgushin’s staging staging of “Giselle” was much admired when it was shown in London in 2008. It’s a pretty straightforward Russian version with one or two original touches, as for instance, when at the beginning of Act I, Wilfred reminds Albrecht that he has a fiancée waiting back at the impressive castle shown on the backcloth. This establishes Albrecht immediately as a philandering cad, and certainly accords with Denis Matvienko’s interpretation. It’s certainly the first “Giselle” I’ve seen where the gamekeeper has more polished manners than the aristocrat.
Irina Perrin was a charming Giselle. If she found any technical challenges in the role, they certainly weren’t apparent and in Act II especially her dancing was pure, musical and fluent. Her mad scene though, I found sweetly touching rather than moving, but this may be because Dolgushin has structured the action so that there is little build up of emotion to the fatal moment when Giselle discovers Albrecht’s betrayal.
The excellence of the Mihailovsky’s female corps de ballet was clearly displayed in Act II and Irina Kosheleva was an impressive Myrtha with a high, light jumps and steely pointes. I was a touch disconcerted though by the moving foliage which serves to hide or reveal Giselle’s elaborate tomb (more like a War Memorial than a peasant girl’s grave) or the sudden appearance of the Queen of the Wilis.
Matvienko danced strongly, though it seemed he was more concerned to demonstrate the brilliance of his technique than the emotion of the role. Much the same could be said of his appearance in the season’s novelty, the revival of Chabukiani’s “Laurencia”, a big hit for both the Kirov and Bolshoi companies in the forties and fifties and the first leading role danced by the young Rudolf Nureyev.
Based on the play by Lope de Vega, the plot concerns the villagers of Fuente Ovejuna who rise up and kill the local Commander who not only oppresses the local peasantry but also makes free with their daughters, including an attempt on the heroine Laurencia. When, in the original play, the King’s representative demands to know who was responsible for the murder, even under torture the villagers will reply only “Fuente Ovejuna did it”.
The subject matter was clearly acceptable to the Communist state; collective action eliminates tyranny and Chabukiani, the greatest dancer of his day (some would say among the very greatest of the twentieth century) devised a stream of Spanish influenced dances and virtuoso numbers, as well as strong opportunities for characterization.
The ballet was never shown in the West, except for the pas de six danced by the heroine, her bridegroom Frondoso and two other couples. There are also a few film clips in existence of Chabukiani himself as the hero Frondoso which give a glimpse of the power, virtuosity and virility of his dancing.
The ballet had fallen out of the Russian repertory until the Mihailovsky’s principal ballet master, Mikhail Messerer, decided to revive it to mark the centenary of Chabukiani’s birth. Working with as many former performers as he could find, he has produced a streamlined version of the original, in two acts rather than three, but still telling the story clearly and providing the dancers with opportunities to display style, virtuosity and drama.
Perrin and Matvienko were the first night heroine and hero and she especially, seized the opportunities for drama and ran with them. One of the attractions for the ballerina is that Chabukiani created such a rounded character for his heroine. A lively, feisty girl, at first she rejects Frondoso, splashes him with water when he surprises her washing linen in the local spring and then rouses the villagers to terrible action after her abduction from her own wedding feast.
Matvienko was a rather pallid Frondoso and there was little feeling for the character which is clear from the clips of Chabukiani in the role and even the photographs of the young Nureyev. But that charge could be leveled at much of the company’s dancing in this; light, clean, accurate as it was, I would have liked to see more weight and feeling for Spanish flavoured style.
Sabina Yapparova shone in her variation as the peasant girl Pascuala and Oksana Bondareva was outstanding as her friend Jacinta who has the misfortune to fall into the clutches of the wicked Commander’s equally villainous soldiers. I hope that Mikhail Venshchikov appreciated that the hisses that greeted his curtain call were a tribute to his playing of that role. Denis Morozov was the peasant violinist Mengo, who receives a beating from the soldiers in return for his unsuccessful attempt to rescue Jacinta from a fate worse than death. More than just a historic curiosity or a pious homage, Laurencia shows itself to be an interesting and well structured piece which certainly deserved this revival. I hope it retains its place in the company’s repertory.
Sets and costumes were based on those of Vadim Ryndin, reproduced by Oleg Molchanov and Vyacheslav Okunev. The Mihailovsky’s orchestra, under conductor Valery Ovsyanikov, lavished Alexander Krein’s jolly tunes with perhaps more love and care than they merit. They also shone, especially the trumpets, in Armsheimer’s score for “Le Halte de Cavalerie”, music which could hardly demonstrate more clearly his background in military bands.
A light hearted romp about a regiment of Hussars stopping in a small village, it formed part of the Mihailovsky repertoire in their previous London season and is full of charming period details. As before, it was excellently danced and boasted a larger than life performance by Andrei Bregavadze as the Colonel who lingers a little too long and too closely with the village’s femme fatale.
I believe that “In a minor key” is Samodurov’s first professional commission as choreographer, and it’s a promising start. Danced to sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, played by an on-stage pianist, it features three couples, each of which has a substantial duet. The style is very much early Forsythe, but less hard and polished, allowing the differing styles and personalities of the dancers to shine through the athletics of the choreography.
I liked the way Samodurov has structured the piece interspersing the duets with solos, pas de trois and group entries and I also like the brief classical moments, such as a formal reverence at the end of one pas de deux or the moment when the three men seem to be signaling the start of a duel, saluting the audience with imaginary foils.
The final part of the mixed bill consisted of divertissements culminating in that splendid warhorse by Asaf Messerer, “Spring Waters”. But as the climax to a gala programme it’s rather brief and certainly needs to be done with more daring and panache that Perrin and her partner, the long legged Marat Shemiunov, could muster. Far more satisfying was the opening number, the polonaise and cracovienne from “Ivan Susanin” danced with splendid style and dash.
Also notable was Maria Kotchetkova who made a welcome return to the Coliseum where she last appeared as a hugely promising soloist with English National Ballet. Handsomely partnered by Andrei Yakhnuyk in the Act III pas de deux from “The Sleeping Beauty”, she demonstrated that she has developed into a truly delicious little ballerina: England’s loss - San Francisco’s gain.Both photos are courtesy and copyright Mikhailovsky Theatre. Neither dancers nor photographer were identified.
Top: "Spring Waters."