I was wondering whether to recommend the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s production of Swan Lake to friends, newcomers to ballet, given that it’s the ‘classic’ ballet everyone needs to have seen (if only to appreciate Matthew Bourne’s ever-popular take on it). The answer, alas, is no.
Although it’s a competent Soviet-type production, this take on Swan Lake (mounted by the company’s ballet master, Yuri Gumba, after Konstantin Sergeyev’s account) reinforces any preconceptions that ballet is a dated, mannered art form, interrupted by solicitations for applause after technical feats. The 60-strong company, led for the past 17 years by its principal ballerina, Irina Kolesnikova, has performed Swan Lake so often that it has forgotten the need to convey its magic – or indeed, its story.
The St Petersbug Ballet Theatre, founded in 1992 by Konstantin Tachkin, relies on touring to survive, since it has no state support. This calendar year alone, it has toured to Finland, France, Turkey, Asia and Australia before its London season. As in 2015, it has filled London’s summer void of visiting ballet companies. Meanwhile, back in St Petersburg, tourists are guaranteed to see a performance of Swan Lake every night of their stay at some theatre by some company: no cruise complete without a corps of swans.
St Petersburg Ballet’s swan-maidens, claimed to be mostly trained at the Vaganova Academy, are well-drilled and dutiful. The male corps, however, are a motley crew, whose inadequate technique is not helped by having to wear white tights as courtiers in the interminable Act I festivities. When guest artist Denis Rodkin, a Bolshoi principal, arrives as Siegfried, he is very evidently in a different league. It’s not his ballet, though: he has little to do until his Act III solo except look bemused.
Thank goodness – for once – for a pesky Jester to animate the otherwise tedious proceedings. Sergei Fedorkov flings himself into virtuoso leaps and spins in his efforts to cheer up Siegfried, the courtiers and the audience. He offers a flower to the best of the pas de trois dancers (a brunette who may have been Olga Pavlova), so he has sense as well as ability. There’s no mime, no explanation for Siegfried’s down-heartedness, no forewarning of the swans flying overhead.
After a brief scene change between Acts I and II, Kolsenikova arrives as Odette, a suffering Swan Queen in thrall to vampire bat Von Rothbart (Dmitriy Akulinin). Kolesnikova interprets her role as an extended sigh of despair and longing, a woman trapped for too long in a swan’s body. Her arms have become trailing pinions, extending way behind her shoulders; her head rests against Siegfried’s neck as she caresses him and then herself; she is his submissive fantasy, a victim in desperate need of rescue.
At 38, Kolesnikova still has a powerful technique and is never off-balance, thanks to Rodkin’s unobtrusive partnering. Her Odette hardly seems to soften towards him or to trust him as a potential saviour: he’s there simply as a prop for her sinuous unfoldings until Von Rothbart reclaims her.
Tchaikovsky’s music is distorted to suit her lamentation, making the English National Orchestra sound crudely manipulated by the company’s conductor, Timur Gorkovenko. Tempi were crass in Act III, with Kolesnikova whipping off even faster fouettés than the indefatigable Jester’s spins à la seconde. Her Odile is less seductive than her Odette, imperiously challenging Siegfried to come and get her. Rodkin remains elegantly bewildered, hardly rejoicing in his solo variation with pantherine leaps and well-judged pirouettes. He has little chance to prove his mettle as a dancer or lover before he’s tricked into betrayal and the act ends in a lurid red flash.
Back to the lakeside with its wrinkled painted moon for the last act. Six black swans join the white corps accompanying Kolesnikova’s anguish, which is unrelieved by Siegfried’s arrival. Rodkin transforms himself into an aggressor, tearing off one of the magician’s wings. Von Rothbart collapses, Odette arises and the happy couple embrace with no time for Tchaikovsky’s apotheosis music. Although the first night audience was moved to a standing ovation, Swan Lake can and should be so much more than this stylised ritual, with its Soviet ending to send punters home satisfied that they’ve seen it.