Here's one of the world's best ballet companies back in London. It's from the renowned Maryinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, although for some odd reason it tours under the out-of-date Soviet name of Kirov Ballet. And the opening presentation of the three-week season, Le Corsaire, is a highly enjoyable work seen in Britain only from them. The audience cheered like mad all through the opening night.
Yet I must say the company has done this a lot better on previous visits. The dancers, I guess, are less to blame than the absolutely killing schedule of touring they are given. No wonder that familiar soloists are either absent or looking below their usual level. The conductor, Boris Gruzin, too, was not much help with his bland, brisk tempi.
Although inspired by one of Byron's most famous poems, Le Corsaire is not a ballet to be taken too seriously. Its story of pirates, harem girls, kidnapping, rescues and a slave market has much activity (most of which gets repeated) but no great meaning - except perhaps that courage and true love may win in the end, even over shipwrecks. So the interest is not really in the characters but in violent adventure, showy dances and a lot of fun.
Starting life at the Paris Opéra nearly 150 years ago, Le Corsaire owes its best choreography to major revisions by Marius Petipa in Saint Petersburg. He also brought in several of the composers who wrote the hotchpotch (but engaging) score. But anyway the version we have now was heavily restructured, a few years back, by the ballet master Pyotr Gusev and the critic Yuri Slonimsky, both of them with their tongues firmly in their cheeks.
We could have done with more of their sly allusiveness from the performers. All honour to Vladimir Shishov, a tall young man plucked from the corps de ballet as a replacement in the title role, for the forcefulness of his solos and his partnering, but he did not reveal the personality or acting skill to make this pirate dominate the action. Svetlana Zakharova, whom we have admired in the past, and a newcomer, Tatiana Tkachenko (whose arms flailed wildly), proved sadly charmless as the two leading women. Both of them managed to provide lots of smiling high kicks but not much character.
That lack of character was a pretty general fault, including the much hyped young Leonid Sarafanov as the slave Ali: his pirouettes aren't at all bad, but what about the drama? Likewise the folk dances were short of accent or purpose. The best dancing, in fact, came from the three Odalisque soloists in the last act (Irina Golub notably outstanding) - and straight classical dancing is all that is required of them. The company's famous corps de ballet has comparatively little to do in this production; it did it OK, but not dazzlingly. Even at less than its best, the company is still worth seeing; but let's hope for better to come.
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