With the advent of glasnost and finally the opportunity to travel, small Russian ballet groups poured out of the former Soviet Union to perform in one-night stands around the theatres of Europe. Under-rehearsed, often tired and without giving much thought to programming, (but plenty to the foreign currency they would be earning), they wooed their gullible audiences into theatres with those magic words, ‘Russian Ballet’, while too often giving their classical heritage a bad name..
Thankfully those days are passed as the Russian State Ballet and Opera Theatre of Astrakhan is proving. The company, based on the shores of the Caspian Sea, successfully toured the UK in 2013 and has returned again with 37 (from its full company of 65) dancers, offering the popular favourites – Swan Lake and The Nutcracker – and also its latest colourful and energetic production, Don Quixote, which made for a most enjoyable evening.
The performance I saw was at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford – the 13th of 33 venues on the six week tour which ends on November 30th, and has taken the company from Chatham to Swansea, and many towns north and south, where ballet is not often seen. Based on Petipa’s original libretto and the Bolshoi version by Gorsky, this Don Quixote has been re-choreographed by the company’s director, Konstantin Uralsky, a former dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, choreographer for over 20 years and director of the New York Ballet Company, and the Glinka State Opera and Ballet Theatre in Chelyabinsk, before taking over the reins in Astrakhan. For this UK tour, Uralsky has had to cut his Don Quixote from three acts to two, due to timings – and no doubt, the travelling on to the next venue. (Soon after their Guildford performance, the company was seen piling onto their buses to set off for Llandudno via Birmingham).
This Don Quixote moves along with gusto, thanks to the brisk playing by the small collection of musicians from the Russian State Symphony Orchestra of Astrakhan, under the baton of Sergey Grinev. Despite fewer instruments, both strings and brass made the music come alive. The spirited dancers, all very young and enthusiastic, are technically assured and well disciplined, and each took the challenges that many of the UK regional theatres present regarding the size of their stages, and toned down his or her movements accordingly. For the men in Guildford, this meant pulling back on their leaping across and around it, while the ballerinas were not able to fly across in multiple grands jetes as they do on their huge home stage in Astrakhan. The corps danced in unison and it was evident that they had devised a scenario of realistic actions and relationships in their depictions of townsfolk life, which added to the ambience of the production.
Dancing Kitri was nineteen-year old Anastasia Turchina, newly graduated from the Moscow State Academy. A confident young dancer, she demonstrated clean technical skills with good epaulment and high, but not over-extended, legs. She offered good balances and pirouettes, and her jetes were swift and light, though obviously hampered by the lack of space. Her Grand Pas solos were danced well, but throughout the ballet, while she constantly smiled sweetly, there was no fire in her acting, no flashing eyes, little flirtation or radiance – unlike her two friends, whose eyes sparkled and faces exuded happiness every time they performed.
Danil Sokolov, also a Moscow graduate and member of the company since 2011, danced Basilio. While he has all the physical attributes for a male dancer – long slim legs, nice feet, and is tall with a handsome face – he was either thwarted by the lack of opportunity to show off his skills or was over-eager to impress. Though he partnered well, and was powerful and upright in most of his solos, there was sometimes a tension to his dancing, and it would seem that he would do better by relaxing and enjoying his role more. This was something that the Toreador/Espada did. In this role, Artem Pugachev, another tall slim young man, showed actions that were taut and controlled, offering good fluid arm and body movements. His actions and demeanour were natural and he obviously relished the swaggering bravura of his role, especially when showing off his tricks with the cape.
Other dancers worthy of a mention were: Vera Kharchenko, a flirtatious Street Dancer; Anna Nikonova as Mercedes, sensually and gracefully moving around the tavern and showing off her suppleness in deep backbends; the pert and frisky dancing of Karina Mannapova as Amor. And there was good characterisation from Alexander Zverev as Gamache and Maksim Melnikov’s Lorenzo. Uralsky is determined that certain elements of Russian Ballet heritage do not get lost, and in this Don Quixote, he has reinstated the ‘drunk sailors’ routine that Rostislav Zakharov created for the Bolshoi in 1940 which appears in the Tavern scene. Reminiscent of a Moiseyev folk dance, the three sailors show off deep knee bends and high jinks as a tiny young girl in a sailor suit rattles in and out of them at lightning speed. However the whole company is to be congratulated for its versatility in performing both classical and robust character dances with vigour and enjoyment.
Packing up nightly means that sets have to be at a minimum and so, without space for decorations, only backcloths showed the change of scenes. This meant that in the gypsy episode, there were only painted windmills and so Don Quixote had to run on and off the stage in the pretext of challenging his ‘enemy’, and was not lifted up on a sail as is normal – and which is printed in the programme’s synopsis. The ‘blot on the production’s landscape’ was the front scrim, which has obviously seen better days. It has many black mildew or rust spots on it, and detracted from the opening scenes before being lifted. (Maybe the fault of our English rainy weather?)