Dance has its brands, and “Russian ballet” may be the most ubiquitous of them all. Pick-up troupes performing dumbed-down versions of the classics under that banner have become a familiar sight in medium-sized European cities, with dubious effects on the reputation of the genre. The Perm Ballet, which was at Lyon’s Maison de la Danse last week, is nothing of the sort: this top-tier Russian company has its own illustrious history and school, and yet for a few years now it has been touring France in much the same way as its less renowned counterparts, cringe-inducing sets and taped music included. Suspend disbelief, however, and the dancing can redeem everything.
Serenade opened the troupe’s Tchaikovsky/Minkus triple bill on the wrong foot. This 1934 ballet is the first glimpse Balanchine gave New York of the journey he was about to take American ballet on, and while he himself was trained in the St Petersburg tradition, his works stretched technique in directions Russian training still doesn’t prepare dancers for. With the Perm Ballet, it makes for a stiff rendition: the emphasis is so firmly on leg and arm positions that the bigger picture, the boldness and kinetic flow Balanchine favoured, simply fades away.
Only Albina Rangulova, a stylish corps dancer with old-fashioned strength, seemed to capture the necessary allure as the aptly named Russian Girl. The lack of eye connection between the dancers or with the audience was noticeable throughout: without it, the choreography unfolds in an emotional vacuum, and for all its formal beauty, Serenade only starts to matter when its corps of women becomes a sorority.
The company that came back after the first interval could hardly have been more different. The 19th-century Petipa classics remain the Perm’s bread and butter, and awkwardness gave way to a sparkling demonstration of Russian style in Act 3 of Sleeping Beauty. The women’s musicality and upper-body work, in particular, had a consistency the Mariinsky hasn’t always shown lately. Natalia Domracheva was a delight as Florine, corps de ballet member Anna Terentieva proved an irresistibly witty Diamond Fairy and Aurora was danced by Maria Menshikova, a young Principal sporting an endearing expression of constant wonder. By the end the puzzling orange backcloth and sparseness of the staging were almost forgotten.
The company rounded off the evening with the third act from La Bayadère. It takes spirit to perform the entrance of the Shades in a small theatre, where every wobble can be seen in excruciating detail. The usual 32-strong ensemble had to be downsized to 24 dancers to fit the stage, but the company was unflappable and, as Solor, Sergey Mershin provided the male virtuosity that had been missing until then. The company’s aloof, majestic style in this work is eerily similar to the Mariinsky’s and there is no better masterclass in classical choreography – but better production values could go a long way towards helping a largely inexperienced audience connect with ballet.