The UK’s relationship with Russia may be in the doldrums, but Russian ballet companies have taken the current UK-Russia Year of Culture to heart. Just a week after La Fille mal gardée at the Mikhailovsky, another ballet by Frederick Ashton had an invigorating St Petersburg debut: Sylvia, which opened this year’s Mariinsky International Ballet Festival.
Unlike the ever-popular Fille, history hasn’t been particularly kind to Sylvia. Reconstructed in 2004 after decades in mothballs, this frothy mythological tale involving nymphs, a clueless shepherd and one too many dei ex machina looked rather quaint in recent London revivals. Not so on the Mariinsky stage, where classical artifice reigns supreme and flimsy plots require no apologies; the Russian dancers uphold an unflagging belief in these Arcadian adventures, in the kidnapping of nymph-huntress Sylvia by the evil Orion, her subsequent release at the hands of Eros, and a love story owed entirely to his arrows.
And they illuminate the relationship between Ashton’s delicate realisation of Léo Delibes’ radiant score and the Russian ballet tradition. The opening scene for Sylvia and her huntresses acts as a bravura pas d’action, while the dancers’ character training rescues Act 2, traditionally the weakest with its faux-oriental dances. The final act’s divertissement, meanwhile, is lifted by the grand manner of the corps and soloists to the level of Petipa’s finest creations, its quirks that of a slightly eccentric cousin.
The style remains a challenge: with Ashton the devil is in the witty, minute details, while Mariinsky dancers tend to sail through the music on a legato wave. The choreographer’s swooping upper-body curves (his studio catchphrase was “bend!”) haven’t fully registered yet, but the first cast wove the English and Russian traditions into a triumphant rendition. As Sylvia, a role created to show off facets of Margot Fonteyn’s talent, Viktoria Tereshkina was gloriously versatile, her entrance commanding, the famous pizzicati variation a marvel. Vladimir Shklyarov (Aminta, the shepherd) recovered from an early stumble to deliver an explosive grand pas. Ashton-esque wit came from the goats (Oksana Marchuk and Yaroslav Baibordin), while Yuri Smelakov (Orion) and Tatiana Tkachenko (Diana) lent their characters crucial weight.
The story of the second night was Xander Parish, the British dancer who was plucked by director Yuri Fateyev from the Royal Ballet corps to join the Mariinsky in 2010 and has since progressed in leaps and bounds. Making his debut in the role of Aminta, Parish cut an elegant danseur noble figure, fully justifying his promotion to soloist at the end of the performance.
Another British ballet made an appearance the next day as part of a triple bill: Wayne McGregor’s 2008 Infra, which made its Mariinsky premiere in February and was performed alongside Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH and Sasha Waltz’s Sacre. Infra remains McGregor’s finest work for the Royal Ballet to date, channelling as it did his classically trained dancers’ gift for human drama as well as their ability to stretch, twist and duck every which way.
It is a solid acquisition for the Mariinsky, but Infra has only been given two performances in as many months, with evidently limited rehearsals ahead of the fast-paced festival. Some dancers reverted to their classical habits, although Nadezhda Batoeva, Alexander Sergeyev and Ekaterina Kondaurova stood out. Both Infra and Sylvia will require extensive upkeep if they are to stay in the repertoire – let’s hope time, that rarest of commodities at the Mariinsky, will be found.