The Golden Age, Coliseum, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Seeing the Mariinsky Ballet's new production of The Golden Age is like watching television with the sound off and the radio playing. Shostakovich's delightful score canters along, swinging into foxtrots or building up dramatic tensions, but Noah D Gelber's choreography rarely responds.

The omens weren't good. This Age was made in haste, with a last-minute change of choreographers. Igor Markov left after artistic differences with Valery Gergiev, director and chief conductor of the Mariinsky theatre. Gelber was an inexperienced replacement, given little preparation time.

Gelber has fitted his own scenario to the 1930 score, but keeps the footballing theme. Here, Soviet footballer Alexander meets Western gymnast Sophie at an event in 1930. They fall in love, but are separated by their countries' politics. In a modern-day framing device, the two meet again.

There's little dancing in all this. The old Sophie and Alexander (former Kirov principals Gabriela Komleva and Sergey Berezhnoy) reminisce by looking at photographs, which are projected on to the backdrop. As their younger selves, Daria Pavlenko and Mikhail Lobukhin mime eagerly at each other, even through Shostakovich's most danceable moments, including his setting of "Tea for Two". Alexander, the clumsy footballer, doesn't know the steps; Sophie teaches him, but they still spend most of the number bumping into each other. They can't do much with this material.

Gelber gives the lovers two duets, both untidy and (on the London first night) under-rehearsed. Steps are fitted to Shostakovich's notes, without following the shape of his phrases and rhythms. It's the same with the other set pieces. Worse, the score can't support the new plot. Gelber's third act shows the cast suffering through the Second World War; the music has an edge, but it isn't harsh enough. Zinovy Margolin's set designs add to the incoherence.

At least the composer comes out well; the music is the one reason to sit through the show. Conducted by Tugan Sokhiev, the Mariinsky orchestra zip gleefully through the cabaret numbers, then find a shimmering beauty in the adagios. The playing has infectious energy and bite.