Dance: Mariinsky Theatre, ENO, London

The misery of silly walks
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The Independent Culture

A salutary aspect of Soviet-era choreography is the glimpse it affords of what Russian dance might have been like without the civilising influence of the French in the 19th century. It is not, by and large, a pretty sight - a neurotically overemphasised wasteland of sentimentality, ham panto and silly walks, where there isn't a single facet of the human soul that can't be expressed by a clenched fist or a protuberant rear end. It isn't a reflection of native genius but a miracle of cultural assimilation that these people wound up with two of the greatest ballet companies on earth.

One of them, the Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov), brought a triple bill of works created between 1961 and 1962 to the Coliseum as part of its Shostakovich on Stage season. The Mariinsky's director, Valery Gergiev, who rarely deigns to conduct ballets, took the baton for the evening's climax, The Leningrad Symphony, and you can only hope he didn't glance too often above the level of the pit, or it might be back to operas and concert pieces for a while to come. Choreographer Igor Belsky used just the first movement of Shostakovich's agonised response to the siege of Leningrad, but that one movement provides drama enough - the arcadian opening, the increasingly sinister, endlessly repeated, simple-minded little tune that seems to equate blitzkrieg to a child's insistent demands for attention, and the ending that offers, if not hope, then the kind of peace that comes with utter weariness.

Belsky responded like a journeyman, which is fair enough in a country where to be anything else was to paint a target on your head. Nevertheless it felt especially craven here, in an evening devoted to an artist who'd managed to keep his voice by inventing private languages, to see so much that was merely stock. When the bombardment started, some of the women arranged themselves in a tastefully desolate frieze at the front of the stage, while behind them appeared a phalanx of khaki-vested stormtroopers who wore eye-shadow and goose-stepped with altogether too much snap to the ankle. They even hunkered down occasionally in a way that brought to mind a Bob Fosse chorus of finger-clicking hipsters. The message is clear: the Nazis lost because they were gay, and had terrible posture.

Apart from its intrinsic limitations, this is not a ballet that has aged well. In a post-Producers theatre it is impossible to watch choreographed zieg-heiling without humming a subliminal "Springtime for Hitler". The only redemption, in a ballet that should have been all about redemption, was Uliana Lopatkina - a great artist managing to make, if not gold out of dross, then at least a better class of dross. Even when draped from the upraised legs of two fallen soldiers, as if they were crutches, she transformed what could have been a moment of unintentional comedy into a vision of tragedy that, for once, matched the music that drove it.

The evening's two other dances were based on works by the poet Mayakovsky. Konstantin Boyarsky's The Young Lady and the Hooligan might have been fun, with it's boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-spurned-by girl, boy-gets-stabbed-by-jealous-pederast plotline, but the choreography was dull, repetitive and euphemistic. It made Svetlana Ivanova's lady into a bi-polar tease and reduced Igor Zelensky, as the hooligan, to shrugs and academic flourishes. At least Leonid Jakobson's The Bedbug was energetic - exhaustingly so. As frenetic as it was unfathomable, it felt like 30 minutes of having your face beaten with a rubber chicken. Despite the patchwork nature of both these scores, the Mariinsky orchestra, under Tugan Sokhiev, strove magnificently to give them as much coherence as they had bite. Truly, this was dance made for the radio.