Dance: A Maiden with a glorious past

First performed in London 40 years ago, The Snow Maiden was deeply influenced by the Ballet Russe. It's a style John Percival is glad to find still in the Stanislavsky Ballet's current production
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How odd it is that while audiences at the Festival Hall took easily to the Stanislavsky Ballet's The Snow Maiden on its own merits, some London reviewers have been coming up with some extraordinary comparisons to describe it. True, the first night had some problems of stage management hindering judgement, but I really can't see how they would make anyone think that the ballet had much to do with 19th-century classics on the one hand or socialist realism on the other.

The trouble is that a vital bit of dance history seems to have been forgotten. Once upon a time, we all knew about the Ballet Russe. For half of the last century, while English and American ballet companies were trying to establish themselves, they were dominated by the more exotic émigré Russian model. And this led to a particular style that influenced others.

When Serge Diaghilev brought his Ballet Russe to the West in 1909 (remember that it never appeared in its homeland), they only occasionally danced bits of the old repertoire. Mostly, they were doing new work by innovative choreographers, work that sadly is hardly seen here any longer, especially the ballets of Mikhail Fokine and Léonide Massine.

Those two remained the big names after Diaghilev died in 1929, but in the successor Ballet Russe companies it was the performers who became increasingly important, within a style that put the emphasis on theatrical presentation. That style continued in British ballet thanks to Dame Alicia Markova and Sir Anton Dolin, founders of London Festival Ballet, both of whom starred in Ballet Russe companies between spells in their homeland.

It seems to me that The Snow Maiden has more in common with that style than with earlier or later Russian ballet. That is coincidentally fitting since it was originally created for London Festival Ballet and was given there with some success, although my impression is that the Stanislavsky production works better. I watched three performances, each time with more pleasure and more awareness of the choreographic merits.

A folklore subject was unusual for its choreographer, Vladimir Bourmeister. Although his most famous production is the reinterpretation of Swan Lake which opens in London tonight, he tackled mostly strong dramatic themes ranging from the Spanish Civil War to the Napoleonic wars, from Joan of Arc to contemporary Russian life, or, among some comedies, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

So, when he came to make The Snow Maiden, those who watched him in rehearsal described how he never put his dances in first place, but wanted them essentially to serve the story drawn from Ostrovsky's play and the music assembled from pieces by Tchaikovsky (who happened to be Bourmeister's great-uncle). His method was to explain each scene to the dancers and expect them to find their own reaction to the situation. Conventional mime was banned. Instead, he told his casts that "the ultimate ambition of every artist should be to have the technique to switch on and off emotions at a moment's notice. The physical technique of the dance can be conquered by intense hard work, but what I want is the inner feeling of the role. That's difficult".

Bourmeister developed this attitude from working with two masters. First, the choreographer Kasyan Goleizovsky, whose experimental work was notoriously controversial; his small company in Moscow was where Bourmeister started dancing before moving to Victorina Krieger's Moscow Art Ballet, which modelled itself on the dramatic principles of the theatrical directors Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, and eventually became part of the New Music Theatre named after them. Although the company's present long-winded full name is usually abbreviated to Stanislavsky Ballet, it was Nemorovich-Danchenko who took most interest in dance and influenced Bourmeister's aim to make classic ballet more dramatic.

The outcome in The Snow Maiden is a story told entirely in dance, where every detail contributes to the whole. Even the corps de ballet numbers for Snowflakes are not merely decorative but show where the heroine is coming from and, by contrast, reveal the changes in her after first encountering humans. The inhabitants of the village she goes to react to her activities and other incidents around her; I found it striking how the performers show the characters' feelings both collectively and individually.

Also notable is the freedom for the soloists to bring out their own emphasis, within the prescription whereby each of the Snow Maiden's duets, for instance, takes the action forward. Thus, on the first night the expressive and amazingly delicate (but also amazingly strong-footed) Natalia Ledovskaya in the title part held the focus all through. But in a second cast, the lovers Kupava and Mizgir were made more fetching by Kadria Amirova and Victor Dik, while yet a third redistribution revealed two well-matched and interesting young soloists, Anastasia Pershenkova and Natalia Schelokova, as the leading women. Likewise, the important supporting character of Lel became more plausible when Denis Perkovsky took over.

In a British company, I guess that the way each tackled their solos and other dances would most take the attention, but with the Stanislavsky, while observing that all danced well, it is the total effect that most takes the attention. During four decades since The Snow Maiden was created, we have had two British companies that put equal emphasis on drama and dance: Northern Ballet Theatre and, most successfully, Western Theatre Ballet, which became the Scottish Ballet under its founder director and choreographer Peter Darrell. To an extent, David Bintley attempts something similar with Birmingham Royal Ballet, and a few of the dancers at Covent Garden look as if they would like such opportunities from their choreographers, too. Wouldn't it be great if the Stanislavsky Ballet's example foreshadowed a new emphasis in British ballet, too, away from quasi-operatic heavy dramas towards more theatrically expressive dance?

'Swan Lake' by the Stanislavsky Ballet opens tonight at the Royal Festival Hall, London (020-7960 4242). Until 12 Jan

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