It's 50 years since the Mariinsky Ballet, then known as the Kirov Ballet, danced its first, triumphant London season. So much has changed since 1961. The St Petersburg company has weathered the end of the Soviet Union and opened itself up to foreign choreography, with important acquisitions in this anniversary season.
It opened this visit with a Swan Lake of few surprises. There's no question that this is one of the world's major ballet companies, led by one of its biggest stars. It's a solid, confident performance, rather than a dazzling one.
Uliana Lopatkina is the Mariinsky's reigning ballerina. She's best known for the classical repertory, sticking to the refinement of roles such as Swan Lake. On opening night, she danced a simpler, clearer Swan Queen, dropping the exaggerated mannerisms that had distorted her performance. Her limbs still unfold with smooth authority, but with a lot less art nouveau twisting. She even responds to her partner, the warmly attentive Daniil Korsuntsev.
As the betrayed heroine Odette, she dances with mournful softness, her phrasing long and steady. As Odette's wicked double, the black swan Odile, she spins with fierce accuracy. In one whirling sequence, there's a burnished precision to the way she flings up one curved wrist.
She's still a stylised, remote presence. This is not a dramatic Swan Lake; the company dance with calm refinement, not urgency. There's a lovely spring to the corps de ballet's detailed footwork, with buoyant little jumps – yet they've been grander in the sweeping lines of swans. The national dances lacked gusto.
Konstantin Sergeyev's 1950 production is clear and uncluttered. Igor Ivanov's picture-book designs establish a fairytale world, from vistas of lake and castle to the ornately carved ceilings inside the palace.
A traditional Soviet version, it adds a happy ending – strongly danced by Lopatkina and Korsuntsev – and a Jester. Alexei Nedviga has fun with this normally charmless role, with a mock-modest demeanour. Happily, the Mariinsky has brought its own orchestra, playing sumptuously under conductor Boris Gruzin.
For excitement, the week's wonder was Ivan Vasiliev's guest appearance with English National Ballet over the weekend. The Bolshoi superstar danced Roland Petit's Jeune Homme et la Mort with wild energy. He reaches out to Jiz Zhang's death figure with craving need, melting at her frosty touch.
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