Mikhailovsky Ballet – Without Words, Nunc Dimittis, Prelude – London

Mikhailovsky Ballet in Nacho Duato's <I>Prelude</I>.<br />© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)
Mikhailovsky Ballet in Nacho Duato’s Prelude.
© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)

Mikhailovsky Ballet
Nacho Duato triple bill: Without Words, Nunc Dimittis, Prelude

London, Coliseum London
7 April 2013
Gallery of 36 Without Words and Prelude pictures by Dave Morgan

The Mikhailovsky Ballet has a split personality. In this run at the Coliseum, on the one hand are revivals of Soviet era dramballets such as Laurencia, and very traditional accounts of Giselle and Don Q with starry names. And on the other, their current Artistic Director presents something quite unusual for a Russian company, a bill of contemporary works in a very European vein. The tension between these appears unresolved. Nacho Duato, the AD, formerly Director of National Ballet of Spain (which he turned into a vehicle for his own works) is moving on to direct the Staatsballett Berlin, though intending to remain as resident choreographer for the Mikhailovsky.

The bill reads oddly in this venue in the UK. The Coliseum is huge and most contemporary dance is presented in smaller, more intimate surroundings and employs modest resources in terms of numbers of dancers and musicians. And audiences may expect tickets to be substantially cheaper than for large ballet productions which is not the case here. All of these works are billed as “ballet in one act” but though some ballet vocabulary is used, they look much more like the sort of work Rambert Dance Company was presenting at the turn of the century.

Mikhailovsky Ballet in Nacho Duato's <I>Prelude</I>.<br />© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)
Mikhailovsky Ballet in Nacho Duato’s Prelude.
© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)

Duato is in an unusual position: he is making new dance works with substantial resources at his disposal. There are more than 100 dancers in the company, which has its own orchestra, to support realising a vision of how a ballet company could move on towards a more contemporary aesthetic. However only in the final work of the programme, Prelude, does he create a genuinely large-scale work using those resources and here the results are curiously mixed.

Prelude has a cast of 34 including a large corps de ballet. It is set to music from Handel , Beethoven and Britten. This is the only work which benefited from a full orchestra. The cast is led by Leonid Sarafanov, in commanding form. There are some arresting moments in this but as a whole it feels uneven, disjointed and less than the sum of its parts.  The curtain rises on a completely bare stage for an opening section for the men. Then scenery for a forest descends and we have a corps of women in flowing white skirts like some post-modern wilis. The scenery changes again at intervals for no particular discernable reason: variously, we have a chandelier, a red curtain, a winter landscape.

Mikhailovsky Ballet in Nacho Duato's Prelude.© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)
Mikhailovsky Ballet in Nacho Duato’s Prelude.
© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)

There is no narrative: there is a couple seemingly caught in some fractious relationship who appear and reappear at intervals. There is even a section where Duato puts some of the women in pointe shoes, the only time these are used in the programme.  The movement for the men is in general rather more interesting than for the women, and some of the lifts are enterprising. There are some fine solos for Sarafanov who one longs to see more of. The work stops rather than concludes.

Duato seldom uses all his cast together but offers up segments of differently costumed dancers. Some of the men look odd in rather classical ballet tops but with bare legs. If this is a statement about the mixing of ballet and contemporary dance then it is not putting over that message very clearly.

Mikhailovsky Ballet perform Nacho Duato's Without Words.© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)
Mikhailovsky Ballet perform Nacho Duato’s Without Words.
© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)

The opening work, Without Words, was made for American Ballet Theatre in 1998, and was restaged by Duato for the company in 2011. It is set to a piano and cello score by Schubert and features four couples, minimally dressed in nude-effect tights and leotards. This did indeed feel like a trip back in time to the 1990s. It was strongly reminiscent of all the works by Kylian and other choreographers associated with the NDT companies in that decade. (Duato was a resident choreographer there at one time).  At the time these works seemed quite cutting edge, but rather less so now.

The work is set on an almost bare stage, as a series of duets and trios. It seems to assert an emotionally charged air rather than actually earn it. Duato’s women are rather passive creatures, lifted and manipulated by men and melting slowly and elegantly over them. All the works at some point seemed to involve a lift where the woman spreads her legs wide towards the audience. There were a disconcerting number of crotches on view.

Mikhailovsky Ballet in Nacho Duato's <I>Without Words</I>.<br />© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)
Mikhailovsky Ballet in Nacho Duato’s Without Words.
© Dave Morgan. (Click image for larger version)

Nunc Dimittis, set to the Arvo Pärt score of the same name, was probably the most successful work of the programme, and the most enthusiastically received by the audience. The score was recorded. This showcases Ekaterina Borchenko, and was made specifically for her in 2011.  Duato is greatly enamoured of her long, long legs and elegant arms which are slowly and dreamily unfurled time and time again.  Borchenko is lifted and manipulated by two partners who have a rather more interesting duet for themselves set to an interpolated score of bells ringing. There is a supporting cast of six couples. The costume design is by Duato himself and the women’s long red velvet dresses are attractive.  This was the shortest work on the programme at 25 minutes and it felt the most concentrated and focussed.

This programme allowed us a better look at some of the Mikhailovsky’s own dancers who had not featured so strongly in the earlier programmes. Then men in particular impressed with their willingness to grasp the more contemporary idiom. There were wonderful performances by Ekaterina Borchenko (in Nunc Dimittis) and Leonid Sarafanov (in both Prelude and Without Words) – dancers you would like to see a lot more of.  But three works by the same choreographer was too much of the same dish on the menu.

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