Shostakovich majors on nostalgia

The Mariinsky Theatre’s brief “Shostakovich on Stage” season ends this week with two programmes of ballets using the composer’s scores. An opening triple bill on Tuesday night had a curious air of time travel about it, bringing revivals of works staged in the early 1960s. Leningrad Symphony, set by Igor Belsky to the first movement of the Seventh Symphony, we have known since the (then) Kirov Ballet’s second visit to London, when the miracul-ous Yury Solovyov was the young hero – an incarnation of Soviet heroic ideals – and Kaleriya Fedicheva the grieving Girl.

The two other pieces, The Lady and the Hooligan and The Bedbug, are new to us and have that remote air of works that once meant something in a different culture but now seem quaint and, to be frank, tiresome. (Valery Panov, having quit Russia in 1972, performed part of Hooligan in London, and won few admirers.)

Both ballets are inspired by Mayakovsky plays. For The Bedbug, which Shostakovich called “a fairly lousy play”, the composer produced a score that includes part of his first symphony and other quotations. For The Lady and the Hooligan the music is an adaptation of a score for a film of the piece.

We are faced, in both, with works by Russian choreo-graphers of the 1960s (Leonid Jakobson for The Bedbug, Konstantin Boyarsky for Hooligan) who look back to earlier Soviet times. We gaze at a past that is itself a restrospective view: the image in the looking-glass is doubled. Belsky’s 1961 Leningrad Symphony is a special case, torn from the psyche of Leningrad itself and, whatever the historical distance, still resonant of the appalling sufferings of a city where the columns of St Isaac’s Cathedral still bear the scars of German shells.

The desire to resuscitate this music in a celebratory season is honourable enough. The realisation, in the two ballet scores culled from his work for stage and screen, is less so. The Lady and the Hooligan is a prime example of doctrinaire Sov-iet art of the 1960s, not unlike the postcards now on sale in Russia that reprint admonitory posters from the 1930s onwards concerning the joy of work or the dangers of drink.

The Hooligan (Igor Zelensky: stunning) deserts his gang when he falls for Young Teacher (charming Svetlana Ivan-ova), and is killed for his pains – in a death worthy of an operatic tenor for its extended fiorituri of leaps and anguished gesture. The setting is the 1920s, and the stage is intermittently populated by saucy characters from a nightclub and a group of balletic maidens in white. A curiously predictable vocabulary of dance and gesture, insufferably dated.

About The Bedbug, total incomprehension for anyone who does not know the play. Jolly Monty-Python-esque design (early 1900s fashion plate cutouts) and costuming that manages too many different patterns in the same outfit; Mayakovsky as ringmaster to his creations; unendurable vitality from the cast, who scamper with manic energy. Prisypkin, the leading figure, is brilliantly taken by Andrey Ivanov, a fireball of energy. There is no programme synopsis to guide a viewer who bothers to wonder why the dancers are careering about as if with St Vitus’s dance.

Leonid Jakobsen was a notable choreographer, but he and the Mariinsky Ballet are badly served by this desperate revival. About Leningrad Symphony it ill becomes anyone to comment who has not seen a beloved city martyred. It is of its time, which was less than 20 years after the 900-day seige, and the spirit it evokes – Soviet poster-fashion, but how effective those posters were! – is to be honoured still. Igor Kolb as the Boy cut swaths of heroic dance. Uliana Lopatkina was all sorrow and impeccable line as the Girl. Valery Gergiev drew a thrilling account of the score from his orchestra. The Mariinsky Ballet danced all evening with a grand devotion.

This brief dance outing for Shostakovich is, I feel, mistaken. Whatever the merits of the scores, the ballets (even with Leningrad Symphony as focus) are choreographic revenants rather than flesh-and-blood dance.

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