Latvian National Ballet, The Lowry Centre, Salford

Sylphide on a shoestring
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Well, hello there, Latvian National Ballet, but who are you? A company with roots linking it to the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet in St Petersburg. The Mariinsky ballet master Nikolai Sergeyev initiated the idea of a permanent Latvian company in 1922, when he arrived to teach classes in Riga and mounted the first ballet production. (Soon after he was to introduce the core classics to Britain's own new ballet.) Then came the Mariinsky ballerina Alexandra Fyodorova, who developed the repertoire and refining technique and schooling. The result is that aspiring ballet stars could do a lot worse than grow up in Riga. Mikhail Baryshnikov and Maris Liepa started their studies there, and the Latvian National Ballet (also known as the Riga Ballet), which draws its 65 dancers from home talent, has a sophisticated style, welding knife-edged clarity and precision with spatial breadth.

Bringing two full-length ballets and their own orchestra for just a one-week visit, the Latvians clearly had no intention of short-changing their British public. Although they do have modern titles in their repertoire, they chose ones possessing more box-office cred – Coppélia and La Sylphide, examples of 19th-century ballet at its most exquisitely formed, achieving a perfect fusion of dance and narrative. But in return they deserved a more forceful marketing push and bigger audiences.

Coppélia has the added advantage of Léo Délibes's delicious score, played with enormous feeling and colour by the small orchestra. In Britain we have inherited Saint-Léon's Coppélia as revised by Petipa and Cecchetti and brought to us by Nikolai Sergeyev. But the Latvians go a different route with a production by their director Aivars Leimanis, which keeps to the same broad contours, but differs in details and compresses the action. This works less well in the second act, which suffers from sparse props (no big, dusty book of magic spells), few jokes, scant dancing for the heroine Swanilda and an alarmingly blowsy Coppélia doll in oversized blue frills and blond curls. But the omission of the final-act bell ceremony and tedious Dawn and Prayer solos is hardly a crying shame, while the first act has an attractive version of the "ear of corn" pas de deux, staged as a harvest-festival set-piece with ensemble dancing.

Particularly fine was the partnering of Julija Gurvica and Aleksejs Aveckins as the quarrelling lovers Swanilda and Franz. The company is not short of strong male dancing either, as demonstrated by Intars Kleinhofs and Kiril Burlov, representing an energetic pair of tramps – a Leimanis innovation in the dramatis personae.

Likewise in La Sylphide, Sergei Neikshin's James did justice to Bournonville's choreography with position-perfect feet, springiness and careful elegance. Elza Leimane needed more playful lightness, however, as the Sylphide.Again, the company showed that, despite their extreme youth, they are good on dramatic conviction and mime, able to produce a vivid Madge, the mischief-making witch, in the person of Ints Rozins.

Ksenija Ter-Stepanova's production is straightforward and the Sylphide duly disappears up James's chimney, floats down from a tree and dies transported in a cortège by her fellow sylphs. The designs are something else, with fuschia or tangerine tartans and square berets that would have Scotland's eyes out on stalks. Décor in both ballets is on the penny-pinching side and the effects are decidedly low-tech. But then, freed from Soviet control, Latvia hardly figures as a world-player among nations and, proportionally, its ballet has large-sized quality, bursting out of its political and economic context.