Golden Mask Festival, Moscow – review

The Golden Mask is Russia’s equivalent of the Olivier Award, but as befits a country where the performing arts are revered and are a matter of impassioned debate, the celebration isn’t a one-night-only affair – building up to it is a festival gathering all the nominated productions on the Moscow stage. And while the usual suspects from St Petersburg and Moscow were present in the ballet category, the most original offerings came from beyond the Urals.

At the helm of the Ekaterinburg Ballet is Viacheslav Samodurov, a former Londoner and principal with the Royal Ballet until 2010. His gift for choreography was first noted there, and since his appointment three years ago, he has proceeded to slowly rejuvenate the Ekaterinburg repertoire, mostly composed of narrative warhorses. Both his Variations Salieri and Cantus Arcticus, shown at the Stanislavsky Theatre, have picked up nominations, and rightly so: their manner is wittily neoclassical, if not always perfectly attuned to the music, and they show Samodurov as a new, individual voice in Russian ballet.

Cantus, set to Einojuhani Rautavaara’s eponymous concerto for orchestra and arctic birds (recordings are played alongside the score), is the more imaginative work. It gives us its cast as a garden of quirky feathered creatures, both graceful and unpredictable; the company will be one to watch as Samodurov explores its possibilities.

Siberia’s Novosibirsk Ballet had an even longer journey to the Bolshoi stage, and packed an eclectic mix. Patrick de Bana’s Rite of Spring was no doubt scheduled to celebrate last year’s centenary, but it is a dubious anniversary gift. Sets in the form of a neat crater and folk-like costumes seem to imply that in this version, two aliens in white are abducted by a tribe after their spaceship crashes to Earth. Golden Mask-nominated Anna Odintsova manages an affecting performance, but the choreography’s lack of musical insight is a disappointment.

Pulcinella is a less popular Stravinsky score, and Kirill Simonov brings out its light-hearted charm with a bright, charmingly designed production. While the choreography is pedestrian, its slapstick, modern energy allows the dancers to entertain.

The highlight of the night wasn’t eligible for this year’s Golden Mask: director Igor Zelensky’s production of the Grand Pas from Paquita, new this season. Choreographed by Marius Petipa, it may be the ultimate divertissement, a parade of chiselled, luminous classical variations, and Zelensky’s is a Fabergé egg of a staging, with dazzling costumes by Yana Serebriakova and a backdrop inspired by the Palais Garnier’s famous curtain.

The exacting choreography stretched the Novosibirsk dancers, but the lead role was taken by Sergei Polunin, the self-appointed bad boy who quit the Royal Ballet amid much commotion. Back in princely attire, he was superb but detached; Ivan Kuznetsov was more rewardingly committed in the pas de trois.

The Novosibirsk company also combined its opera and dance forces for a heavy-going staging of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, one of a select few nominees in the less popular musical category. Dmitry Suslov led the proceedings with authority as the Celebrant, but the static direction and lack of significant choreography proved dispiriting.

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