Collected together in 1999, the singers, musicians and dancers of the Russian Cossack State Song and Dance Ensemble will blast your ears and invade your eyes. The musicians play with a military flavour, so that even a sweetly melodic song such as "Kalinka" is given the shattering brass-band treatment. Round-faced women singers flourish lace handkerchiefs and deliver their lyrics in those distinctive high-pitched, pressured folk voices; bright colours swirl on the variegated dresses; the male dancers crack their whips and twirl their moustaches.
In times past, you wouldn't have wanted to meet the men on a dark night, although these days, they are probably putty underneath all the volatile virility and glittering vigour. Originally nomadic bands who roamed the steppes, the Cossacks were renowned for their ferocity and independence. Successive tsars accommodated them within the national constitution, creating special Cossack regiments as part of the Russian army. Now, they live fixed, civilised lives, like all Russians, so it is only through their art that they can celebrate their identity.
In truth, as you watch this troupe, it seems that Cossack culture was heavily influenced by the rest of Russia – or vice versa: what these performers offer does not apparently differ much from various other visiting companies' shows. There are the familiar male bravura dance solos, rather like breakdancing, in which bodies whirl round in barrel jumps or crouch down for some leg-weaving or scuttle like crabs or – from one much-applauded individual – perform spins so fast that his blurred silhouette seems to disintegrate. There are, also, situational dances telling of rivalry in love or the damage done by a misfired cannon; passages of clowning; and, among the musicians, a nice item featuring accordions of diminishing sizes, the last so small it could barely be seen in the player's hand.
We have seen glossier, more polished Russian folk troupes – although their visits have become rare events – and better, more varied choreography for the dances. Whereas the Red Army ensemble used to pay homage to the host country by including one or two of its national songs ("Drink to Me Only" was a favoured choice), this group sticks to Russian, which, in a lengthy acting number, would have benefited from some translation.
The dances, costumes and songs are entirely predictable: they are tourist clichés, but at least Russians have tourist clichés, a culture they love and preserve, whereas the English have – what? Morris dancing and fish and chips? For all their rough edges, these Russian Cossacks possess an enthusiasm and energy that is irresistible (if exhausting), and on the way out of the show you can buy a shawl or a flower-patterned plate from one of the charming performers. They probably need the money.
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