Russia's Spanish steps

Don Quixote | Royal Opera House, London
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The Independent Culture

The Kirov Ballet have said goodbye to London with Petipa's oldest surviving ballet, Don Quixote, created in Moscow in 1862. Their present version derives from a 1902 St Petersburg staging by Alexander Gorsky, a choreographer as ambitious as Petipa, but nowhere as talented. He made "improvements", as he did with other Petipa ballets including Swan Lake. Petipa, still alive at the time but stripped of much of his power as chief balletmaster, was alert to this. "Please ask that young man kindly to remember that I'm not dead yet," he said.

The Kirov Ballet have said goodbye to London with Petipa's oldest surviving ballet, Don Quixote, created in Moscow in 1862. Their present version derives from a 1902 St Petersburg staging by Alexander Gorsky, a choreographer as ambitious as Petipa, but nowhere as talented. He made "improvements", as he did with other Petipa ballets including Swan Lake. Petipa, still alive at the time but stripped of much of his power as chief balletmaster, was alert to this. "Please ask that young man kindly to remember that I'm not dead yet," he said.

Opinion believes that most of the set-piece dances remain close to Petipa (although some have been added by other hands since Gorsky). Where Gorsky intervened most was in the crowd scenes, beefing up the verismo, in keeping with Stanislavsky's then fashionable innovations in Russian theatre. So the amalgam was maybe no bad thing: Petipa's genius for knitting together steps, set in a context alive with bustle and local colour, the 1902 Golovin-Korovin designs, reproduced here, contributing vividly to the Spanish picturesqueness.

Lorenzo is an innkeeper who wants to marry his daughter, Kitri, to Camacho, a rich and ridiculous nobleman; but Kitri loves Basil, a penniless barber. One of ballet's mettlesome heroines, Kitri should combine spiritedness with charm, but in Diana Vishneva's portrayal on Thursday the second ingredient was lacking, squeezed out by brassy self-regard. There was no faulting her technique - balances as immobile as snapshots, strain-free contours, a hovering jump. It was a tantalising mix of fluidity and fireworks, perfect for Petipa's Spanish-flavoured dances. But there was no warmth or inner refinement, nor any sense of kindliness towards Don Quixote.

Ah, Don Quixote - Don Quixote who does what in the story, besides provide the title? We may well ask. He stumbles into the love-intrigue with his lance and with Sancho Panza (but without the broken-down live horse that Petipa paid nine roubles for).

He literally tilts at windmills, leading to his being knocked unconscious by one of the sails and hallucinating the Kingdom of Dryads. This then provides the pretext for one of the pure-dance interludes that Petipa included in his long ballets.

None of the narrative makes much sense, and even less with the cuts for the Royal Opera House performances. But no matter. Natalia Sologub was a sublime Queen of the Dryads, her huge side jetés floating dreamily. The toreador Espada arrives for little other reason than to whirl his cape, which Islom Baimuradov did spectacularly, backed by subordinate cape-whirlers. Minkus's catchy rhythms swung along, delivered noisily by the conductor, Boris Gruzin.

Basil is a hero to swoon over - dashing, resourceful and fun. But Farouk Ruzimatov was no more ideally cast than Vishneva. His fierce aquiline features make dark themes more his element.

Once he was the most exciting male dancer to emerge from Russia since Mikhail Baryshnikov. Now he relies on tense, hyped postures, flinging them in your face to blind you to the absence of stamina and jump.

But for that outrageous, tenacious bravado alone he will be missed - and even more so the Kirov Ballet. With their longest-ever residency over, London seems a very dull place.

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