As if the lacklustre British summer wasn’t enough, this year London audiences also had to contend with a limited dance menu. In the absence of the Mariinsky and Bolshoi – neither of which has visited this year – it has been left to smaller touring companies to fill the gap. One of these is another Russian company, St Petersburg Ballet Theatre, whose recent “Irina Kolesnikova season” at the Coliseum offered 11 performances of Swan Lake and two of La Bayadère.
This sort of repertory is typical for touring troupes. And indeed, most of them live on a diet of “big classics”, given that this corresponds well to audience expectations (and to many people’s idea of what ballet is all about). In his review of the opening night of the company’s Swan Lake, Mr. Clement Crisp refers to St Petersburg Ballet Theatre proposing ‘to its audiences the ballets that they expect’, and of all ballets, Swan Lake is the one that most obviously falls into this category.
At the launch of her excellent new book The Ballet Lover’s Companion, Zoë Anderson made particular mention of Swan Lake as the work most readily associated with the art form (besides The Nutcracker), and of its numerous different productions: happy and tragic finales; versions with mime and without; those with a Freudian subtext; and even one about King Ludwig of Bavaria. Anderson pointed out that no two performances of Swan Lake are ever the same, and spoke about the poetry the audience is sure to encounter during Lev Ivanov’s lakeside scenes. But one remark that stayed with me was that because it is so often performed, Swan Lake is bound to be many people’s first experience of live ballet.
This was still in my mind when I took a couple of ballet newbies to see St Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s production. I’m usually wary of suggesting Swan Lake as a first ballet. After all, one of the motivations behind The Ballet Bag has always been to show that ballet can be fresh, diverse and relevant, and that it goes beyond the idea of a ballerina in a tutu. I also believe that it takes a good corps de ballet and a ballerina at the height of her powers to convey why the work is a masterpiece. But, as I mentioned above, the season has not given us much variety.
As the title of the tour suggests, SPBT is clearly built around its prima Kolesnikova, so I was keen to see if she could justify this billing. Overall, she delivered a strong performance, with technical assurance and some beautiful moments as Odette during the lakeside scenes, though I expected her characterisation to be more nuanced (I thought she leaned towards overly melodramatic at times). But the biggest issue for me was the lack of chemistry with Denis Rodkin (guesting from the Bolshoi), who only seemed to come alive as Siegfried during Act III, where his beautiful jetés en manège stood out.
Company-wise, things were patchy at times: the corps went through the motions, with determination but often lack of confidence in execution. In fact, other than Irina herself, the clear highlight was the court’s jester (Sergei Fedorov, who acquitted himself nicely), and when that happens in Swan Lake, one starts to question the performance as a whole. But what of the newbies? They both admired Kolesnikova and thought she was on a different level from the rest of the company: “they were a bit uneven” one of my friends noted. They were quite intrigued by the traditional Russian happy ending (as shown here), and were interested when I mentioned the alternate tragic ending from other productions: “Oh, we want to see that!” So the question remains, for them and other ballet newbies out there: will this performance be a stepping stone to more ballet? Or just to yet another production of Swan Lake?