A Festival of Russian Ballet

11 September, Municipal Theatre

The Imperial Russian Ballet Company played in Napier’s Municipal Theatre on Monday, 10 nights into its now regular migration to dance-hungry crowds Downunder.

Its pulling power is hardly surprising. When the Russians are coming there’s ever the promise of pageant and endless diversion; an effortless visual feast that boosts its catchment beyond just balletomanes. If it’s subtlety you want, then don’t come knocking.  Spectacle and variety guarantee absolution for any imperfection.

The dance card opened with “Don Quixote”, by IRB artistic director Gediminas Taranda, who sliced and diced Alexander Gorsky’s full length 1902 Bolshoi choreography.  With only the best bits on stage, it was a bit like sucking the icing off a cake, and such truncation robs a work of its context.  The scant notes in the souvenir programme wouldn’t have helped much in divining the back story for any stranger to Cervantes. No matter, it was dazzling fanfaronade of stunning colour and movement and exquisite costumery, with some arresting solo performances. And it was not even undermined by the tavern keeper’s heavy-handed comic routine or the clunky silences from queuing of the recorded music – a hazard of having a one’s band canned. The incongruous form of Yevhen Spiridonov’s Quixote shuffled through the grand pas, dragged along by his lance (oddly reminiscent of WC Fields in his famous pool cue routine) as if he had stumbled into the wrong show. It was a piece of comic genius, intentional or not. And you just cannot have too much of those swirling toreadors’ muletas, which proved a welcome distraction from Ludvig Minkus’ relentlessly uninteresting musical score.

If such confection risked the onset of hyperglycaemia, then Ravel’s primal Bolero stood by with the insulin.   Beginning in darkness with a germinating monsoon, the choreography made the most of the dancers’ striking pied capes as they flickered and soared to a throbbing saturnalian climax, with a star turn by principal Anna Pashkova as the Godhead.

After a gratuitous video advertising next year’s fare by the Russian tourists, the third act comprised a tray of balletic petit fours that showcased the corps’ versatility. It opened with Taranda’s droll “Dance of the Horses” to the music of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture”. It was inspired by the Melbourne Cup, Australasia’s fascination for which the Russians appear to find perplexing (not a fascinator in sight, incidentally).

There followed a cameo performance from Pashkova in an excerpt from “Swan Lake”, with a tastefully sylvan backdrop, and the scintillating and sinuous  pas de deux from Marius Petipa’s “Le Corsair”, which featured Armenian Irena Gharibeyan and Serghey Khelik. The urbane “Russian Waltz”, with Shostakovitch’s delectable score, was all tails and tulle as the corps demonstrated their precision in a high-society ball.

“Dying swan”, choreographed by Fokine in 1905 to Saint Saens’ “Le Cygne”, was Anna Pavlova’s signature piece. Danced here by Lina Seveliova it would have been affecting even to those familiar with the calendar death throes of water fowl. The smoke machine was cranked up for the swansong – a black powder shooter, perhaps, in a nod to historical authenticity.  A photo of swans as a backdrop put Seveliova’s weights up somewhat.

By contrast, the pas de deux “Runaway” featuring Khelik (who choreographed it to the electronic dance music of Swedish duo Galantis) and Gharibeyan provided a contemporary portrayal of solipsistic youthful passion.

No festival of “Russian” dance would be complete without (albeit Ukrainian) Cossack dancing, and there was no shortage of Kazotsky kicks when the virtuosic Denys Simon bounded all over the stage in the crowd-pleasing Gopak from the ballet “Taras Bulba”.  It was exhilarating but all tantalisingly brief.  Seveliova then returned with Nariman Bekzhanov to dance the famous pas de deux from “Giselle” in which the peasant girl posthumously defies the dark spirits’ plan to lure her nobleman lover to his death.

The evening closed with a knees-up in the “Can Can Surprize” – the surprises being that men in drag are still capable of inducing hilarity (hence the inexplicable success of Mrs Brown’s Boys) and the spectacular athleticism of Denys Simon, whose final leap closed the show with him wrapped around the neck of a towering, frilly, Vladimir Dorofeev. Clearly, that’s what Simon had been saving himself for.

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