It was the Zeppelin that did it. The Russian National Dance Show includes scenes of Russian life through the ages, sometimes achieving berserk levels of kitsch. The Soviet era, which forms the first-act finale, includes Young Pioneers jiving to a synthesiser arrangement of "Back in the USSR". An astronaut partners a ballerina. Then a remote-controlled Zeppelin appears. There was a gasp from a woman behind me: "It's coming straight for us!"
This show, which has toured to 15 countries including Australia and Israel, is performed by the National Ballet Kostroma. Essentially, it's Riverdance with blinis: a national dance tradition, packaged Eurovision-style with taped music and extra glitz.
The Russian folk tradition is exceptionally strong: rich material, widely taught and lavishly supported throughout the Soviet period, when folk and Red Army ensembles used to tour worldwide. The National Ballet Kostroma was founded in 1991 as the first private professional folk company in Russia, directed by Yuri Tsarenko.
There are strong dancers in this show, and some splendid dances, but they're buried under the cheesiness of the format. Boris Golodnitskiy's set is dominated by a screen, showing computer-generated scenery. Elena Piatrovskaya's costumes are best when they stick to traditional folk models; the 19th- and 20th-century clothes look lurid.
The biggest problem is the music. Patched together from classical, folk and imported pop sources, it's arranged in wincing synthesiser and rattlingly amplified. Bitterly, one scene shows artists taking culture to the Russian masses, with a large cast miming on real brass instruments and cardboard balalaikas. Vasily Pyanov does sing live, but with taped backing.
You can still see how good Russian dancing could be. The company's men bound through acrobatic Cossack dances, but the women are blander, too often stuck in weak chorus routines. With this show, the simpler the format, the better the dancing. The audience responds most warmly to the fast, stomping dances, to the energy of a big cast in the most traditional folk numbers.