White Nights Festival, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg – review

As London rekindles its love affair with the Bolshoi Ballet, the Mariinsky is nearing the conclusion of a busy season in St Petersburg. In May, the Mariinsky II, a modern second stage whose construction ran 10 times over budget, opened for business a short hop away from the historical stage across the Kryukov Canal. Its anodyne limestone-and-glass exterior is unlikely to turn heads, but director Valery Gergiev has lost no time in putting it to use with near-daily performances.

For the Mariinsky Ballet, however, it’s not all good news. Gergiev has pledged a dramatic increase in the theatre’s tally of performances, up to 1,000 a year (twice the Bolshoi’s output, the boasting goes), and plans to hire 60 extra dancers. Top-drawer Vaganova-trained performers don’t grow on trees, however, and the final week of this year’s Stars of the White Nights Festival brought worrying signs that quantity is in danger of overshadowing quality.

As festivals go, this one is a strange beast. Spread over two months, it is composed mostly of regular repertoire performances interspersed with a few premieres. The pace is intense, however: over seven days last week, the troupe presented no fewer than two mixed bills and four different full-length ballets. In the event, the performances were consistent with the dancers’ complaint last year, in an open letter signed by their union, of poor working conditions.

The corps de ballet, the pride of the Mariinsky and a historical benchmark of its greatness, looked particularly morose and in sore need of more rehearsal time. Sullen faces and spacing and timing issues were the norm in classical set pieces. Le Jardin Animé, that imaginary garden of ballerinas, brought visibly wilting flowers, and the Dryads in Don Quixote or Le Corsaire’s Odalisques were pale imitations of what the company has historically produced.

The mixed bills performed at the Mariinsky II raised further questions. The new venue’s public spaces, all blonde wood, honey onyx and curving lines, are beautifully airy and Scandinavian in feel, and the auditorium offers 21st-century comfort. Its cavernous stage isn’t necessarily ideal for ballet, however, and ready-made programmes performed with uneven style and an air of carelessness point to a far-reaching change in company culture. (That a Corsaire mash-up composed of Le Jardin Animé and a pas de trois from another act inserted in the middle was allowed on stage is proof enough.) It’s as if the Mariinsky has assimilated its identity as a growing tourist attraction, taking its cue from the audience’s behaviour: circus-like applause for high-flying lifts, smartphones and cameras out at all times to document performances as you would a trip to Disneyland.

It is a puzzling turn of events because the company isn’t short of talent. Each performance brought tantalising glimpses of excellence, particularly on the main stage. The Mariinsky’s Don Quixote is particularly fine, and Elena Evseeva proved a spirited Kitri, all temperament and speed in Act One. Kim Kimin, a recent recruit from Korea, similarly impressed as Basilio, with panther-like jumps and genuine elegance of means.

He returned for the final performance of the festival to complete a superb line-up of male dancers in Le Corsaire. Veteran Danila Korsuntsev was a good-humoured Conrad with a moustache to remember, while Islom Baimuradov (Birbanto) and Alexei Tomofeyev (Lankedem) played the villains with cartoonish delectation.

Leonid Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet provided a welcome break from the bravura turns, and looked much better in St Petersburg than it has on tour in recent years. It remains an old-fashioned take on the play, but its character dances are better understood in a Russian context, and the ravishing Ekaterina Osmolkina put any doubts to rest as Juliet. The purity of her style has always been a wonder, but in Act Three she imbued it with new-found abandon, rebelling against her fate to the very last second.

Promising young dancers are waiting in the wings, too, as Ernest Latypov’s stylish debut as Ali in the Corsaire pas de trois indicated. But ballet cannot withstand a factory-like approach, and the company needs more effective management and attention to detail to uphold what used to be gold standards. How this will be possible under Gergiev, whose allegiance clearly lies with opera and music, and “acting head” of the ballet Yuri Fateyev, is difficult to fathom.


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