Dance: The Russian Cossack State Song and Dance Ensemble, Peacock Theatre, London

Hand-springs, balalaikas and over-excited hamsters
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The Independent Culture

It's not hard to see why Stalin tried to stamp out the music and dance of the Cossacks. They had always been an unruly race, protecting their independence with their boisterous customs as well as a keen appetite for war. They were traditionally farmers and horsemen, toughened by the blistering summers and frozen winters of the steppes, but the constant threat of invasion had made fearsome warriors of them too. All this is celebrated and endorsed in a surprising variety of musical forms, from swelling laments to acrobatic sword dances, and in the intricate filigree of balalaika music and displays of wild machismo.

Now that the Ukraine is formally independent, it would be all too easy for this fierce culture to lose its bite. The Russian Cossack State Song and Dance Ensemble, a professional troupe founded in 1990 when such a long and carefully inclusive title was thought necessary, doesn't spend a lot of time at home these days.

Despite obvious concessions to the demands of performing in theatres rather than village squares, the show retains a certain ruggedness that prevents it becoming mere folk cabaret. The material is entertaining, and some of it spectacular, but the fierce old spirit is there. I was surprised but pleased to see that the 10-piece "balalaika band" also included military brass and a modern drum kit, because that shows it's a living culture, not a glass-case museum job.

The chronological clash between the Salvation Army-type uniforms of the onstage musicians and the exotic military garb of the dancers was further evidence of a cheerful indifference to correctness. The two hours of song and dance that make up the evening are a glorious muddle of geography and era, and probably all the more authentic for that. Since Cossack culture evolved over 400 years and tens of thousands of miles of territory, its Arabic, Asian and eastern European influences have been assimilated in various degrees of visibility. One women's dance, in sequinned veils and swivel-hipped sarongs, might have come straight from the harem. Another, all jolly emboidered dirndls and arms folded over bosoms, is gingerbread folksy, the women emitting high-pitched yelps of sexual encouragement like over- excited hamsters.

As you'd expect from a macho culture, most of the virtuosity belongs to the men. Forget the lurching Cossack kick you once practised on the living room carpet. That's too tame for these guys. They're so wild they flick out both legs at once, or traverse the stage using only their shins, or via a series of one-armed handsprings, or no-hand springs, in which they launch themselves horizontally into space again and again.

Seasoned dance-watchers will enjoy, as I did, spotting how many of these eye-popping folk tricks found their way into ballet – most obviously the barrel turns and the mid-air splits. They might also spare a thought for the Cossacks' foes over the centuries. Had I been an invader and caught a whiff of this, I'd have changed my mind pretty quick.

j.gilbert@independent.co.uk

Peacock Theatre, London WC2 (020 7314 8800), to 16 March

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