The Stanislavsky Ballet’s return to London last summer was a mixed affair, overshadowed by the presence on stage of former Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin and with only Roland Petit’s Coppelia as a dubious claim to artistic greatness. The company deserves better: after a decade of quiet growth under Sergei Filin (who left in 2011) and Igor Zelensky, the word on the street in Moscow is that its performances now routinely rival the Bolshoi’s.
Indeed, its royal blue auditorium, tucked away in one of the elegant streets behind the Bolshoi, is home to some of the finest classical productions in Russia. While the Bolshoi insists on Yuri Grigorovich’s maddening versions of the great 19th-century ballets, the Stanislavsky boasts Vladimir Bourmeister’s wonderfully dramatic Swan Lake, a tasteful Nutcracker and a Giselle lovingly restored by Tatiana Legat.
On Sunday, the great and good of Moscow convened for a superlative performance of this Giselle, led by guest artist Diana Vishneva and Polunin. Vishneva is a dance actress of simmering power, almost gothic in her struggle against her ghostly state in Act II; Polunin couldn’t quite match her intensity, but his soaring series of entrechats showed him yet again as the rarest natural talent. Oxana Kardash contributed a haunting Myrtha, her stylistic authority imbued with sadness.
Meanwhile, recent additions to the repertoire have been selected with an eye to originality in the crowded Russian ballet market. Rather than the Bournonville Sylphide performed by every other major company, in 2011 the Stanislavsky acquired Pierre Lacotte’s French version. For Russian-trained dancers, its intricate footwork is an acquired style, but on Monday, the company acquitted itself impressively in one of a handful of performances scattered over the season.
Principal Anna Ol was ravishing in her Sylphide debut; her delicate lines and beautifully quiet upper body seldom betrayed the extreme effort required. She was partnered by Semyon Velichko, who possesses all the ballon required as James. Anton Domashev offered a vivid portrayal of the Witch, and, as in Giselle, the corps de ballet’s careful work in the Romantic style deserved every praise.
John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid, also new to Moscow three years ago, is more disconcerting. This dark take on the story, to a new score by Lera Auerbach, is a poetic, intellectual construct rather than a traditional narration. The Mermaid is a fragment of the imagination of a Poet, heartbroken over the wedding of his great love, Edvard; as the ballet unfolds, he relives his pain through the sea creature’s doomed love for a human Prince, Edvard’s alter ego.
In the Russian context, the Poet’s is truly a love that dare not speak its name: the English and Russian-language synopses differ in the programme, with Edvard coyly referred to as “dear to him” in Russian. Whether or not the timing was deliberate, this tale of alienation (the eerily strange, gawky Mermaid is forever an outsider on land) finds new echoes after the Kremlin’s recent anti-gay propaganda laws.
The choreography doesn’t fully sustain the ballet, but the production is visually striking, and the Mermaid is a unique role for a ballerina with its outlandish make-up and long, Japanese-style trousers that transform into a tail. Guest performer Silvia Azzoni, of Hamburg Ballet, was suitably otherworldly, though the rest of the cast proved uneven. Even so, this Mermaid remains a fascinating maverick on the Moscow stage.